The jet age may have been ushered in by the Boeing 707 but it was revolutionized by the Boeing 747-400, which was able to link city pairs previously unimaginable. Connecting Tokyo-New York, London-Hong Kong, and Los Angeles-Sydney went from being barely possible with the 747-200 to financially profitable with the 747-400. While notionally replaced by the 747-8 Intercontinental, the newest 747 variant has failed to catch on as a passenger replacement for the 747-400. The 777, introduced into passenger service just seven years after the -400 took flight, began the era of big twinjets, which offer better operating economics than comparably sized quad jets. The Queen of the Skies has entered her final chapter.
Though the first 747-400 was delivered in April of 1988 to Northwest Airlines – and is still flying today with Delta – the largest passenger fleet belonged to British Airways. BA has a long history with the 747, having taken delivery of over 100 of them, starting with the 747-100 and -200; however it flew 57 747-400s, before beginning a gradual draw down.
Today BA operates 42 747-400s in two different configurations: 18 in its 335-seat “Mid-J” business-light layout, and 24 in a “Hi-J” business-heavy layout with 70 Club World business class seats, and a total seat count of either 291 or 299. With three Airbus A380s, 34 Boeing 787s and 18 Airbus A350-1000s on order, the only thing that was not clear is what the final years of the 747-400 service at BA is going to look like; however a picture is slowly starting to emerge.
In September of 2014, British Airways announced that 18 of its 747s would receive a cabin refresh, consisting of new seat cushions in its World Traveler economy and World Traveler Plus premium economy cabins, and installation of Panasonic Avionics’ Android-based eX3 inflight entertainment (IFE) system from nose to tail. BA’s 747s, as well as roughly half of its 777-200s, have audio/video on demand IFE systems from Rockwell Collins that debuted in 2006 as a software upgrade on existing hardware, rather than a complete refit. BA’s 787s, A380s and 777-300ERs all have Thales TopSeries IFE, as do roughly half of its 777-200 fleet. Installation of a new IFE system is a major undertaking, and knowing which aircraft are to receive the upgrades will cast some light on how BA plans to see out the fleet, given that the upgrades are to begin next month, and BA has withdrawn eight 747s from service in the last 18 months.
On 13 July, BA announced that 18 Hi-J aircraft are to be reconfigured into an “Ultra Hi-J” layout, boosting the number of Club World business class seats to 86, and reducing total seat count to 254. These 18 aircraft will receive the new Panasonic eX3 system, said BA. The Ultra Hi-J 747s will be frequent visitors to New York JFK, where BA currently flies as many as seven frequencies a day in the current Hi-J layout to meet the heavy demand for premium seats.
BA has been non-committal to inflight connectivity. Other than two all-business Airbus A318s equipped with OnAir’s narrowband solution – and tasked to fly between London City and New York JFK – only one other BA aircraft offers inflight connectivity. In December of 2013, aircraft G-CIVG, a 747, was outfitted with Panasonic’s eXConnect Ku-band connectivity for a trial. This is the same setup that BA’s oneworld partner American Airlines has installed on its Boeing 777-300ER fleet, and is currently fitting to the rest of its 777 fleet. Very little has been said about this trial.
The author flew this aircraft recently and tried out the system. Download speeds were a respectable 4 Mbps, however two other things stood out. Firstly, none of the cabin crewmembers were aware that the system was even available on the aircraft, and those who did believed it had been switched off. Secondly, there were references to streaming entertainment in an online usage survey as well as on signage in the cabin. The author searched online for this content but it was not to be found.
The flying testbed is one of 747s slated to receive the Panasonic eX3 system and to be reconfigured to the Ultra Hi-J setup. Given that these planes are about to receive a freshening, and have all new Panasonic IFE installed, it would seem to be the perfect opportunity to add connectivity to a subfleet of aircraft aimed at the people most likely to use it. At this point, BA has not stated its intentions for connectivity on its aircraft, and it appears that connectivity is not on the slate. However, with a cabin refresh and new IFE, British Airways is ensuring quite a curtain call for the Queen of the Skies.