Australia said goodbye to an era of aviation Wednesday as it sent its final Boeing 747, fondly dubbed the "Queen of the Skies", to its retirement in California's Mojave Desert, where it will be parked and stripped for parts.
Qantas, the country's flagship airline, first began receiving the long-range wide body jets nearly half a century ago in 1971. Now, as the global airline industry reckons with a historic plunge in air travel due to the coronavirus pandemic, aviation giants are being forced to reimagine and restructure the future of air travel.
The farewell was extravagant and emotional, with a water cannon salute, a nostalgia-filled ceremony by Qantas featuring poems and video tributes, and hundreds of plane spotters and airline staff gathered to wave goodbye as the jet taxied along the runway. People wrote messages on the aircraft's belly and Aboriginal elders performed a ceremony, local news reported.
The departing aircraft was seen by flight radar platforms to have created the shape of a kangaroo, the airline's mascot, in the sky just off the Australian coast.
Qantas' 747 retirement came six months early due to the impact of the pandemic on air travel. The company is also slashing 20% of its staff, and has grounded its fleet of double decker Airbus A380s — wide-body jets used for long haul travel — for the next three years.
The passenger jumbo jet democratized travel, with its larger size, unprecedented at the time, enabling cheaper seats and more affordable travel for millions.
"It's hard to overstate the impact that the 747 had on aviation and a country as far away as Australia," Qantas CEO Alan Joyce said in a statement.
"It replaced the 707, which was a huge leap forward in itself but didn't have the sheer size and scale to lower airfares the way the 747 did."
The airline plans to downsize, prioritizing more fuel efficient aircraft. "Time has overtaken the 747 and we now have a much more fuel efficient aircraft with even better range in our fleet," the CEO said.
The Australian flagship carrier will only maintain a few flights to New Zealand, travel website Executive Traveller wrote at the time, which are currently grounded until mid-August of this year.
The first Boeing 747 was certified in 1969, the first aircraft to be called a "jumbo jet". It typically seats 366 passengers. By June of 2019, 1,554 of the jets had been built, with 20 of the 747-8s still on order, according to Boeing.
But the American planemaker's orders had already begun to slow last year ever since its fleet of 737 MAX jets was grounded after two devastating crashes caused by dangerous defects in the aircraft. Since the coronavirus pandemic began, Boeing's been hit with a tidal wave of canceled orders for its various jets: 60 order cancellations in June, preceded by 18 in May, 108 in April and 150 in March.
The company's stock price is down 45% year-to-date, closing at $178.63 per share on Tuesday. Most major airline and aviation stocks are in a similar position, with many having lost around half of their value or more since the start of the year.
The International Air Transport Association estimates that passenger traffic won't rebound to pre-crisis levels until at least 2023.