British Airways have announced what many of us in the travel community assumed would happen – they have permanently grounded their Boeing 747 fleet. The ‘Queen of the Skies’ will no longer fly the Union Jack. It’s a sad day for Avgeeks everywhere. This plane has a particular love and fascination with us. I’ve probably flown on the BA 747 a dozen times.
I’m also probably alone in saying that for the last few years, I’ve not liked it at all. I never used to get airsick, but in recent years whenever I fly one of BA’s creaking old 747’s, I get airsick, which is not a good way to start any trip to Britain. I’ve since gone out of my way to avoid this aircraft. I much prefer BA’s A380 fleet, which provides the most comfortable flying experience I’ve ever had.
That being said, there’s a lot of history and nostalgia wrapped up in the British Airways 747 fleet. They’ve flown the type for 50 years. Often when you think of British Airways, you imagine a massive jumbo-jet. BA’s 747’s were aging; there is no doubt about that. The aircraft were showing their age, even with renovations recently; it felt like you were flying in aircraft past their prime. British Airways was already planning to phase them out by 2024 anyway. Covid-19 has just accelerated those plans simply because the demand for international air travel will not recover for years.
Despite my dislike of the 747 as a passenger, I still appreciate it for its beauty and importance. It will always have a special place in my heart – one because it’s beautiful but two – it’s the plane that took me to Britain for the first time. The following is something I wrote a while ago about my first flight to Britain that didn’t work in my new book, Adventures in Anglotopia, but turned out to be perfect to publish in light of the recent news from British Airways.
I’m sitting on my deck; my kids are playing in the pool. A jet flies overhead. Then another. And another. I live under a flight path into O’hare International Airport. Not only that, but the planes also begin their descent right above me. They make a lot of noise. I don’t mind. Whenever I hear the noise, I always look up. So many planes. So many people going somewhere. Occasionally a really big plane will fly over. Sometimes it will be from London, or going to London. This is exciting to me, to think of a plane full of several hundred people all going to London or having just returned. I wish I was with them.
I wish this every time I hear a plane.
The international airline and iconic British brand British Airways celebrated its 100th birthday last year. I’m going to celebrate my 20th anniversary flying the airline soon. It’s weird to have a relationship with an airline, but I do. They haven’t just flown me there, they’ve been a silent partner in helping Anglotopia get to where it is today. I’ve been to Britain 20 times, and until 2018, every time I’ve flown to Britain, I’ve flown on British Airways (the one time I didn’t, I still booked it through them, so still counts, right?). It’s as integral a part of my Anglophile experience as enjoying a cup of tea or watching a British TV show.
My first flight was in the halcyon days of summer 2001. Long before the September 11th attacks, long enough to remember what it was like to fly before that. It was a completely different experience than it is now. My first trip to London came about because my mother and I really wanted to go to London and the trip would be my graduation present from high school (I was an excellent student). What made it affordable was a very convincing brochure that arrived in the mail from British Airways extolling what kind of deal we could get if we book our whole trip with them.
It didn’t take much to convince us.
We were so nerdy about that we loved hearing the British accent of the person on the phone when we booked the trip. We planned it for June 2001, right after school finished for the year. I don’t remember how much it cost, but I remember it being exceptionally affordable (I would learn why later… when we checked into our hotel). This was back in the day when the airline still sent you actual plane tickets in the mail. I remember with great excitement opening the envelope with the BA Speedbird logo on it and finding our tickets, printed with my name, telling me I would be going to London. After an adolescence of watching Rick Steves on PBS, I was finally ready to go on my own European adventure.
British Airways has been flying direct to London from Chicago for more than 60 years. They were one of the first transatlantic airlines to make the journey into America’s Heartland. Those first flights, which took place on Boeing Stratocruisers, took almost 16 hours to get to London and required two refuelling stops. Now, it’s much quicker – depending on the jet stream you can get there in as little as 6 hours with no stops required.
I didn’t know any of this on my first flight, though. I didn’t know anything about British Airways’s heritage. I didn’t really know much about anything, to be fair. I was only seventeen years old. I just knew they were British and they were going to take me to Britain for the first time.
We’d gotten to the airport ridiculously early. So early, the check-in desk wasn’t open, and they couldn’t take our bags yet. We waited like good patient Anglophiles, at the front of the eventual line. This was my first time flying internationally and only my second time on an airplane. So, everything about the experience was exciting and new and amazing. Most seasoned travelers would find it mundane. Even after 20 trips, I still find it exciting and amazing.
Our flight was BA296 on June 5th, 2011, the second of British Airways’s two daily flights to/from Chicago. It was to depart at 8:15 pm, and we would arrive in London at 10:00 am London time. As we made our way through security (quicker then, than it is now of course), we weaved our way to the gate that BA normally used, M11. And there she was.
A big, beautiful, white Boeing 747-400 gleaming in the late afternoon sun. I remember the paint was so white that it was almost blinding. She was clean. The BA’ Speedbird’ logo was shining in red, white and blue on the side. I couldn’t wrap my head around how big the plane was. How did something so massive take-off and essentially float through the air? Clearly, magic was used. The Union Jack on the tail warmed my Anglophile heart.
I watched with great excitement as the ground crews did their work – work they do every day, but work for me that was a novelty. Unloading cargo. Loading cargo. Loading bags. Taking the food onboard (would it be terrible?) and inspecting the engines and fueling up for the flight to London.
Every moment was exciting. Every announcement was exhilarating. In this instance, the journey was just as awe-inspiring as the destination. When our ticket was finally taken, and I was allowed to enter the jet bridge, I practically held my breath in anticipation. If this was living, then I always wanted to be this alive.
I shuffled with the other economy passengers to the door. I was greeted by a British person, resplendent in their blue uniform, who kindly took my ticket, looked at it and directed me to my seat. And then I set foot on a jumbo jet for the first time. It was noisy. The engines were loud; the air circulation was loud.
But amongst all the noise of the plane getting ready to go, and the people shuffling to their seats, and cabin crew talking, there was the quiet sound of classical music. The Flower Duet by Delibes. The official British Airways theme. I had a feeling of ecstasy, of arriving home for the first time. The 747 was bight, spacious and massive. My seventeen-year-old mind struggled to grasp just how large this aircraft was.
We passed through business class, which had lie flat beds (an innovation that British Airways actually invented). Then through World Traveller Plus (premium economy). And finally, we arrived at Coach (or World Traveller as BA tries to euphemistically apply to it). Our seats were in the very back. It was a strange experience, getting on that plane and walking for what seemed like a mile all the way to the end.
I had a slight problem with it all, though. I was on the tail end of a head cold. When I was struck down with it a few days before the trip, I was in terror that it wouldn’t go away before the trip, and it didn’t. I was congested; I had a runny nose and a terrible headache. But nothing was going to cancel this trip, certainly not a cold. I bought medicine along with me, but nothing was working that well. The medicine would also ensure that I would not sleep that night.
My mother and I saw our row; I was in the window seat. She was next to me in the middle. Eventually, a kindly man filled out our row. The plane rocked and shook as things were put in the cargo hold and various things I had no concept of were done to this jumbo jet, far from its home in London.
Everything was a novelty. Everything was amazing. We had a little packet that had headphones, socks, eye mask, etc. We had inflight entertainment on the seats in front of us, which in 2001 was still a relatively new thing. The flight attendants were British, and they had the most marvellous accents, many of which were different. They handed out British newspapers.
It all went by in a blur. Before I knew it, we were taxiing for take-off. Our British pilot was telling us all about our expected arrival in London. How exciting it all was. And when we made that final turn onto the runway, and the four Rolls-Royce engines spooled up, and we were rocketed down the runway and into the air, I had a moment of clarity that if I hadn’t even arrived in Britain yet and it was half as amazing as this was, I would be in love forever.
I still had that cold to contend with. I tried and tried to sleep that first flight over, but I learned that I cannot sleep on airplanes (unless I’m laying down and even then, not very well). My nose was running made worse by the dry air. My legs would get sore. I have a small bladder, and every time I had to get up for the bathroom, I felt bad for the whole row of people who had to get out of my way (knowing this now, I always book an aisle seat).
But British Airways did everything right, something they do almost every day of the year. The flight was smooth. The entertainment worked. The food was edible. It went by in a flash. And when we landed in London, I simply could not believe that we were there. When we parked at a remote stand, I stepped off the stairway and onto the concrete of Heathrow. I was on English soil, finally after dreaming of going to England my whole childhood. I’d arrived. And a British Airways 747 had brought me there.
Time changes, we all move on. Airlines move on. This is the end of the road for the 747 for British Airways. There may never be another plane that inspires such affection as the 747 did. But one thing will never change – even in this age of Covid – British Airways planes are still circling the globe, every day, bringing people to London.
I can’t wait to go back.