Jumbo jet sunset: coronavirus hastens the end of the Boeing 747

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Richard Branson and Kate Moss on the wing of a jumbo jet in 2009. All Virgin Atlantic’s 747s are now grounded. Photograph: Steve Parsons/PA

When Sir Richard Branson marked the 25th anniversary of Virgin Atlantic in 2009, he and the model Kate Moss posed on the wing of a Boeing 747. This symbol of the jet age was the only option for the billionaire showman. But a decade later, the plane has become a symbolic casualty of the chaos engulfing the airline industry during the coronavirus pandemic. Last week, Virgin Atlantic said it would retire all seven of its 747s.

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More than 1,500 of the jumbo jets have been delivered over the 52 years it has been in service, but analysts say the savage decline in passenger traffic as governments seek to contain the spread of Covid-19 could hasten the decline of the plane, heralding an ignominious end for the so-called Queen of the Skies.

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Lufthansa, the German flag carrier, last month brought forward the retirement of five 747s. KLM, its Dutch counterpart, has also confirmed that its jumbos will not return to the skies under its livery, as has France’s Corsair, accelerating the shift to newer models. That adds to plans from British Airways to scrap its 28 747s by 2024; the largest remaining operator of the planes in the world made the announcement in early 2019.

Around the world, Boeing and its bitter European rival Airbus are locked in negotiations with airlines desperate to preserve cash by delaying the delivery of new aircraft. The manufacturers will agree to defer some deliveries, but they will also seek to preserve their own cashflows, according to Burkett Huey, an analyst at Morningstar. “To some extent the manufacturers will play ball but ultimately the airlines do have obligations,” he said. “Barring unprecedented events, they’re going to have to figure out some way of taking delivery of them.”

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