This story from the Australian Aviation archives comes from May 2012, when Geoffrey Thomas wrote on the retirement of the Boeing 747 at Singapore Airlines.
A 38-year love affair came to a close on April 7 2012 when Singapore Airlines bade a fond farewell to its Boeing 747 passenger fleet with special commemorative flights between Singapore and Hong Kong.
Singapore Airlines’ final 747-400 to be delivered, 9V-SPQ, left Singapore’s Changi Airport as flight SQ747 at 8.30am after a series of celebratory events at Gate B7, Terminal 3.
The flight arrived in Hong Kong at 1.20pm before the aircraft operated return flight SQ748, which touched down in Singapore at 7.39pm. The sold-out flights carried 375 passengers and 25 crew, including SIA’s first 747 pilot, retired Captain Kenneth Toft, now 75.
Reflecting on the record of the 747s, Singapore Airlines’ executive vice president commercial Mak Swee Wah said: “The 747 was truly the jewel in our fleet for nearly four decades and we would not be the airline that we are today if we had not made the bold decision in 1972 to purchase this iconic jetliner.”
“The jumbo, as it became known, enabled us to fly from Singapore to destinations that we could not previously reach. It allowed us to do things that were previously unimaginable on a commercial aircraft, giving us the opportunity to provide our customers new standards in space and comfort.”
VIDEO: Highlights of Singapore Airlines’ Boeing 747 farewell flight from the airline’s YouTube channel.
Singapore Airlines began its evaluation of the 747 in 1972 when it also looked at the DC-10-30.
The airline had just split from Malaysia-Singapore Airlines because of the differing needs of the two countries. While Malaysia needed to develop its domestic network, Singapore wanted to reach out to the world. In the split SIA took the entire fleet of seven 707s and five 737s to continue international operations.
Interestingly, Singapore executives mulled calling the airline Mercury Singapore Airlines to keep the very well-known MSA moniker.
At the time, MSA had snubbed its nose at IATA, introduced free drinks and headsets and had become a darling of travellers. It also had catchy jingles that captured the imagination of a world that was beginning to embrace international travel.
However, the new SIA struck gold when it puts its faith in local advertising agency Batey Ads, which created a new image for the airline built around the sarong and kebaya-clad air stewardesses – and famously called them “Singapore Girls”.
But in 1972 the world was abuzz with the era of the jumbos. The 747 entered service in January 1970 with Pan Am, the DC-10 in August 1971 with American and the TriStar with Eastern in April 1972.
SIA executives visited Seattle and Long Beach and opted initially for the 747, ordering two Pratt & Whitney-powered 747-200Bs, with seven options, on July 26 1972. It also would later buy a small fleet of DC-10-30s.
Singapore’s first 747-200B, registered 9V-SIA, was delivered on July 31 1973, the second arriving on August 29.
The order was a blessing for Boeing at the time as aviation was in a nosedive and the Everett facility like a ghost town. Boeing delivered only 30 747s in 1973 and 22 the following year – after the heady days of 1970 when 92 were delivered.
Airlines were opting for the smaller DC-10 and TriStar but SIA needed a greater range than the tri-jets could offer at the time. SIA converted all options for the 747-200B and took delivery of single machines in 1974 and 1975, two in 1976 and two in 1979.
In 1976 SIA converted the 747-200B’s upper deck with world-first “slumberette” cabins, which came with six custom divans that turned into beds for long-haul flights, “making bleary eyes at immigration a thing of the past”, the airline claimed.
On May 10 1978 it ordered 10 more 747-200Bs and two months later its first freighter. Deliveries were more rapid with all 10 delivered between late 1979 and early 1981.
At the end of 1981 SIA was one of the first to jump onboard the 747-300 with an order for eight and two options. It also ordered six A300s and took options on two A310s. The combined order was worth $1.8 billion, one of the largest at the time.
SIA chairman JYM Pillay was quoted in Flight International as saying that the airline had to have modern, fuel-efficient aircraft.
The airline’s configuration for its 747-300s, called the “Big Top”, was 40 business class seats in the upper deck, 40 first class on the main deck and 340 in economy.
Its first 747-300 was delivered on April 29 1983 with the initial eight being delivered within two years. The airline also ordered three 747-300Ms, which could carry cargo in the rear of the main deck.
Critically, the more powerful P&W engines on SIA’s 747-300s enabled the airline to introduce London-Singapore non-stop services on October 29 1984.
But the real range buster was the 747-400, which was launched in October 1985 with an order for 10 from Northwest Airlines.
SIA followed on March 26 1986 with an order for 14 with eight options after United Airlines and All Nippon Airways had signed on.
However, SIA took the third and fourth -400s off the production line on March 18 and 29 1989 and launched true non-stop flights from Singapore to London. The airline dubbed the 747-400 the “MegaTop”.
VIDEO: A 1989 Singapore Airlines promotional video regarding its “Megatop” from the airline’s YouTube channel.
But Singapore Airlines had to work hard to get the aircraft it wanted. According to a Flight International report in October 1988 the airline said it had not been happy with many of the design aspects of the 747-400 and had to work extensively with Boeing to achieve a design that suited its needs. Two critical elements were windshear protection and an 8,000-mile range.
On October 13 1993 SIA took delivery of the 1,000th 747.
By 1998, the airline was eager for a larger type, SIA deputy chairman Lim Chin Beng told the media at the time. While Mr Lim had been bullish on a five-year timeframe Boeing president Phil Condit was more bearish, suggesting eight years and saying: “From an historical perspective, programs like this typically don’t get launched in a down cycle.”
Flight International reported that Mr Lim backed “Boeing’s vision” of a potential $100 billion market for 400 to 500 aircraft with over 600 seats. He told Flight that SIA was taking considerable interest in the Boeing-Airbus studies: “I think I can safely say that SIA is a potential customer. In fact, can any airline afford not to buy one?”
As history would show, Mr Condit backed away entirely from the super jumbo, confident that Airbus would never launch the A380.
But it did and Singapore Airlines became a launch customer for the double-decker in 2000 and was the first to place it into service, in October 2007, signalling the beginning of the end of SIA passenger 747 flights. Indeed, SIA took delivery of its 17th A380 (of 19 on order) on April 3, only days before 9V-SPQ’s final flight.
But as much as the A380, it is the 777 that has replaced the 747-400 in SIA service, particularly in 777-300ER form. With associated company Singapore Aircraft Leasing it committed to 77, comprising 34 firm and 43 options in November 1995. By September 2011 that commitment had built to 85, including 27 777-300ERs.
In all, Singapore Airlines would order 42 747-400s, the final order for seven placed on June 22 1994 as well as 17 747-400Fs with the last order for six freighters being placed in November 28 2000.
In all, SIA took 93 747s from Boeing, making it one of the world’s largest operators of the type with a peak of 53 in service in 2003.
While now retired from passenger service, the airline’s fleet of 13 747-400Fs will continue to fly on, with no immediate plans to replace them – continuing the legacy of the aircraft that perhaps more than any other was responsible for Singapore Airlines’ growth into a global brand, becoming “a great way to fly”.
VIDEO: Retired Singapore Airlines pilot Peter Leoreflects on the retirement of the Boeing 747 in a 2012 video from the airline’s YouTube channel.
This story first appeared in the May 2012 edition of Australian Aviation. To read more stories like this, become a member here.