The original jumbo jet, the Boeing 747, is the most iconic passenger plane in history, give or take the Concorde. But last week Delta retired the final 747s in service in the United States as passenger craft, bringing an end to a half-century of aviation history. But what exactly happens to planes after they get retired?
To find out, Inverse reached out to Boeing, the plane’s manufacturer. While the Boeing spokesperson stressed the company couldn’t speak for what Delta or other specific airlines intended to do, they told Inverse in an email there are three main things that can happen to a plane once it’s retired from passenger service.
Parked — waiting for new customer
Converted — Boeing no longer offers conversions, but there are third party conversion houses
Parked — waiting to be parted out (key parts removed and sold) and then used for scrap
One potential conversion option is to turn the passenger 747 into a cargo freighter. UPS still uses the 747 extensively, for instance. Other potential destinations range from a museum — the so-called “Queen of the Skies” is certainly iconic enough to earn a spot or two in aviation museums, at least those that have room for it — to aircraft boneyards, the desert cemeteries of abandoned craft. Delta’s final 747 is headed to one of those once it completes a handful of charter flights.
Last week’s flights marked the final regularly scheduled flight for any 747 in the United States. Delta was the last American carrier to use the planes, which first flew in 1970 and were the biggest passenger planes in the world until the Airbus A380 entered commercial service in 2007.
Delta isn’t the only airline retiring the plane this year in favor of newer, cheaper, more fuel-efficient alternatives. United retired its final 747 last month with a flight that retraced its original route in 1970 from San Francisco to Honolulu. A handful of charter flights for NFL teams are all that’s left for Delta’s 747 fleet, and 2018 will be the first year in which no passenger 747s fly in the United States since 1969.
Still, the Boeing spokesperson pointed out the 747 still flies all over the world. They confirmed to Inverse that as of November there were 379 of the classic 747-400 configuration still in the air, as well as 124 of the more modern 747-8 layout. Of those, 236 are in service as passenger planes, with the likes of British Airways, Lufthansa, and Korean Air as the biggest operators of the iconic jumbo jet. The plane might be gone from American skies — at least when flown by U.S. airlines — but the world’s most iconic plane isn’t leaving us just yet.