Touchdown of NZ7 at 6:26am local time on Friday in Auckland brought the curtain down on the Boeing 747-400’s active service with Air New Zealand.
Having flown both the 747-200 and then the 747-400 models of the four-engine jet with its distinctive hump for more than three decades, Air NZ, like many airlines around the world, is sending the 747 out to pasture in favour of big twins such as the Boeing 777-300ER.
The airline’s last flight with the jumbo left San Francisco at 2337 local time with Air NZ fleet captain Ron Woodward, Captain Les Matthews and Second Officer Andrew Hanley in the flight deck of ZK-NBV.
Woodward describes the last flight with the 747 as a momentous day for the airline.
“The 747 is an iconic aircraft,” Woodward told Australian Aviation from San Francisco ahead of the final flight.
“It doesn’t matter if it is flying around or sitting at the terminal on the ground, the distinct shape of it is very endearing. It draws people to look at it.
“The size – the sheer expansiveness of the machine itself, I think there is just something about it.”
Woodward, who has been with Air NZ for 36 years, said there was almost something regal about the 747 and not just because it was an Air NZ jumbo jet that took the Queen on her first commercial flight when she travelled to New Zealand in 1995.
In addition to ferrying Queen Elizabeth to Auckland for a royal visit, the 747 has also played a major role in helping out the country in times of need, such as the Christchurch earthquake. In fact, ZK-NBV was named Christchurch in recognition of the work done in getting people out of the city and providing supplies to the devastated community.
Woodward summed up the 747 in just one word: reliable.
“We are very proud of our engineering facility but I think the work and the dedication of our engineering staff, they have played such a huge part in all of this and sometimes can be a forgotten part of the puzzle being behind the scenes,” Woodward said.
“We haven’t been confronted by any particular surprises by the aircraft. It has certainly delivered throughout its service life with Air New Zealand with a very high standard.”
However reliable or iconic, the economic realities of the day mean the Boeing 747-400 has to give way, in Air NZ’s case to the more fuel efficient and less costly to maintain 777-300ER. For example, Woodward estimates Boeing’s big twin consumes 15 per cent less fuel per seat kilometre per passenger on the Auckland-San Francisco route than the 747.
Then there is the added savings of having to maintain just two engines and not four, as well as the lower maintenance costs generally. In the days of high fuel prices and anaemic margins, those savings are impossible to ignore.
“There is just no way of denying the fact that with these technological jumps there are advantages to the company,” Woodward said.
“The 777s carry people over the same distance over significantly less fuel cost. They are more efficient and as we are a growing, expanding company we have to look forward to taking advantage of those gains wherever possible.”
While those given the responsibility of brining ZK-NBV home were chosen for more practical reasons – the aircraft has to be ferried to as-yet-unidentified new owners in three weeks – Woodward said there would have been no shortage of volunteers.
“Myself and second officer Hanley will be doing the delivery flight to the new owners so therefore we had to take the last possible opportunity to do the flying so that we could remain current,” Woodward said.
“If it was romantic I would have the entire fleet lining up wanting to do it and it would have been a very tough call. At the end of the day the realities of the situation dictate we had to do what was sensible.”
After delivering ZK-NBV to its new owners in about three weeks, Woodward will spend about three months getting his type rating to fly Air NZ’s 777-300ER fleet.
And the 36-year veteran of Air NZ is looking forward to it, based on feedback from his peers at the controls of the big twin.
“They sing the praises of the 777,” he said.