The largest career in the United States announced that it will phasing out the historic Boeing 747, eliminating it completely by the end of 2017. United flew more 747s than any other U.S. carrier.
The 747 has been the hallmark of the Boeing brand and commercial airline industry as a whole for many decades. It started as a project on the part of the United States Air Force in the early 1960s, but it slowly evolved into a formidable commercial aircraft capable of distances previously unimaginable. The four engine vessel was first purchased in large quantity by Pan Am in 1966—they bought 25 747-100 aircraft.
On January 22, 1970, the 747 made its commercial debut on Pan Am's glamorous New York-London route, followed by United's Los Angeles-Hawaii route.
The -100 was the original variant, but it would be the first of many variations that Boeing rolled out beginning in the late 1970's, through the 80's and 90's. In 1989, Boeing came out with its most popular model, the 747-400. The -400 was offered in passenger, freighter, domestic, extended range passenger, extended range freighter, and combi versions. As of March 2007, Boeing announced that it had no plans of producing more passenger iterations of the -400.
The capacity of the 747-400 and 747-400ER is 416, and these aircraft have a max range of 7,285 nautical miles.
As of 2016, British Airways has the most 747-400s in operation (39) and United still has 21.
It's unclear what will come of the most recent variation, the 747-800. It will likely remain used solely for freighter operations.
United has intimated it will plan on replacing the 747 with a few different aircraft. It's already using the 777 and 787 on many of the old 747 routes, plus the airline has purchased an order of Airbus A350s for other long range routes.
Its 787s are undoubtedly the carrier's crown jewel, especially given the recent upgrade to a Polaris First class. Designed to compete with other luxurious international first class cabins, namely Emirates Airlines, Polaris is designed to restore the mystique of long distance flying once felt in the early days of Pan Am.
There's no arguing that air travel is better than its ever been. You're probably thinking this is ludicrous after your recent trip back east during the holidays, but trust me, it IS way better. Prices are declining thanks to cheap oil, there are more routes than ever before, and aircraft have never been this safe. While we will miss the 747 for its role in shrinking the world for us, we are also optimistic about the future of air travel.