The “Queen of the Skies,” which will soon retire from the airline’s passenger fleet, has played a pivotal role in transforming Cathay Pacific and developing Hong Kong as an international aviation hub.
As Cathay Pacific Airways prepares to bid farewell to its iconic Boeing 747, which will be retired from the passenger fleet after it performs its final operation, a return journey from Hong Kong to Haneda Airport in Tokyo on 30 September and 1 October, the airline’s staff have been recalling their fond memories of the aircraft that played a crucial role in transforming the carrier from a primarily regional operator into the truly global airline it is today.
The 747, one of the most successful commercial aircraft of all time, first joined the Cathay Pacific fleet in 1979 and made an almost immediate impact – on the company’s fortunes, on its staff and even on the airline’s home city of Hong Kong.
Capable of carrying upwards of 400 passengers, more than double the number of the Boeing 707, the aircraft it replaced, and for far greater distances, the arrival of the more fuel-efficient 747 enabled Cathay Pacific to rapidly expand its network to European and North American destinations throughout the 1980s and 1990s, thereby increasing Hong Kong’s connectivity to the wider world.
“The 747 fundamentally changed the way people were able to travel,” says Cathay Pacific General Manager Operations Mark Hoey, a former Chief Pilot of the 747. “Being able to carry more people for far greater distances than before meant the 747 effectively shrunk the planet. The aircraft had a vital effect on the development of Hong Kong as an international aviation hub – and indeed, Hong Kong’s economic and tourism prospects. As a result, it helped make Hong Kong become a world city.”
During its time as Cathay Pacific’s sole long-haul aircraft type, up until the mid-1990s which saw the arrival of the Airbus A340, the 747 helped the airline quadruple its annual passenger figures – from 2.5 million carried in 1979 to 10.4 million in 1995. Visitor numbers to Hong Kong over the same period grew almost identically – from 2.2 million in 1979 to 10.2 million in 1995.
The airline’s expansion during the 1980s was undoubtedly an exciting period for Cathay Pacific – and no more so than for its cabin crew, who found themselves flying regularly to the glamorous new long-haul destinations of the era: London, Paris, Rome and Vancouver.
“It was my dream to travel the world, and it was thanks to the 747 that I was able to do so,” says Cathay Pacific Inflight Service Manager Monica Tong, who started her career as a flight attendant 30 years ago this month and who estimates to have worked on over 1,000 747 flights. “The size of the aircraft helped build camaraderie between the crew – we flew in a bigger group and on longer routes, which meant we spent more time together and got to learn more about each other.”
The spacious cabins of the 747 also proved immediately popular with passengers, as did the aircraft’s enhanced inflight entertainment options, which were significantly more advanced than those of the Lockheed L-1011 TriStar, which Cathay Pacific operated on short- and medium-haul routes. “At first, the 747s were equipped with screens in each cabin so we could show movies, but the personal televisions (PTVs) and audio-video on demand systems (AVOD) on later 747s were a major advancement,” adds Monica.
In the 15 years following the 747’s introduction, Cathay Pacific trebled the size of its workforce – from approximately 5,000 to nearly 15,000, making the airline one of Hong Kong’s largest employers, which resulted in significant career advancement prospects for its staff.
“Because the airline was growing so quickly – there were upwards of 40 cabin crew induction classes per year – the opportunity for promotion came regularly,” remembers Cathay Pacific Manager Inflight Services Standards and Safety Le Le Ng, who joined the airline as a flight attendant in the early 1980s. “And it was the 747 that cabin crew wanted to be assigned to. The long-haul destinations were one reason, of course, but the 747, because of its spaciousness and modern features, provided a superior working environment too.”
Although the 747’s operating economics can no longer compete with Cathay Pacific’s more modern, twin-engine aircraft, such as the Boeing 777 and Airbus A350, the “Queen of the Skies” has given the airline 37 years of impeccable service and has certainly earned its retirement.
One man for whom the aircraft’s departure from Cathay Pacific will prove to be especially poignant is Tony Britton, who spent more than 30 years working on the 747 as an engineer.
“The 747 is the last of the ‘old school’ aircraft to have been built – and I will miss it dearly,” says Tony, who is now employed as Aircraft Project Manager – Lease Return and Disposal. “The 747 was fantastic to work on because it was such a cerebral aircraft, very reliable and, for aircraft engineers, straightforward to understand. It became an aircraft that engineers knew inside out.”
“I dare say many Cathay Pacific staff will feel sad – many have a very close attachment to the aircraft, so it does feel like it is the end of an era. I will certainly be one of them. It will be an emotional moment when the last passenger 747 departs the fleet for the very last time.
“It has been a part of Cathay and Hong Kong for so many years …”
A three-man committee meets to decide on new aircraft purchases and agrees that the company should buy a Boeing 747, a decision that would ultimately lead to Cathay Pacific transforming itself from being primarily a regional carrier into the truly global airline it is today.
In February, the Cathay Pacific board announces that the airline will purchase its first 747. It will be powered by Rolls-Royce RB211-524B engines, starting a long partnership between the airline and engine maker.
In July, a hand-over ceremony at the Boeing factory at Everett near Seattle, the first 747-200 joins the fleet. Its registration is VR-HKG, VR being the registration for Hong Kong, and HKG the airport code for the city’s Kai Tak Airport.
On 31 July, VR-HKG arrives at Kai Tak, commanded by Captain Geoff Gratwick, following a non-stop flight from Seattle in around 11 hours, then the longest delivery flight made by a 747. Four days later it enters revenue service operating the Sydney route via Melbourne and back to Hong Kong.
The second 747-200 is delivered. On 16 July, VR-HIA becomes the first Cathay Pacific aircraft to operate a service to London. The service to Gatwick is operated via Bahrain.
It’s still early days for Cathay Pacific’s 747s but the aircraft’s capabilities mean the airline can look to aggressively grow its long-haul network over the years ahead, thereby greatly increasing Hong Kong’s global connectivity.
The 747 service to London goes daily as more aircraft – approximately one every six months – join the fleet. By the end of the year, Cathay Pacific has five 747 aircraft, which enables the airline to carry more than 3 million passengers annually for the first time. This is over 500,000 more passengers than in 1979, the year the 747 first entered service.
More evidence that the 747 is underpinning Cathay Pacific’s growing confidence as a long-haul player, with the launch of new European destinations, including Frankfurt. The airline receives its first 747 powered by improved Rolls-Royce RB211-524D4 engines. These are more fuel-efficient aircraft, allowing for greater range.
The aircraft enables Cathay Pacific to become the first Asian airline to operate a nonstop service to Vancouver, which it runs thrice weekly. The outward service takes just under 12 hours, and just over 13 on the return.
Thanks to the 747, the airline’s network length has grown from 72,000 km in 1979 to 122,000 km in just four years — a 70% increase.
Cathay Pacific’s first 747-300, which features a larger upper deck, enters service. It is the airline’s 10th 747. The airline has grown to become an important 747 customer for Boeing, and is asked to sit on a steering group to discuss future design requirements and developments of the aircraft.
Cathay Pacific’s 747 fleet grows to 12, enabling continued network expansion with new routes to San Francisco and Amsterdam. By the end of the year, the airline carries more than 4 million passengers for the first time.
The increase in 747 aircraft results in an increase in Cathay Pacific staff numbers – operational (flight and cabin crew), outport and ground staff. The airline’s employees number nearly 8,000, up by more than a third in the space of just five years.
Cathay Pacific expands long-haul network further with the addition of Zurich. The airline carries over 6 million passengers in a single year, up by more than 1.1 million in just 12 months, its biggest annual rise. Staff count increases to over 10,000 for the first time.
1989 Cathay Pacific is one of the launch customers for the brand-new, Rolls-Royce-powered 747-400, with the unveiling of VR-HOP. The -400 features a ‘glass’ cockpit, meaning higher levels of system automation and increased range and fuel efficiency.
Because of this, the airline’s network grows further, with the addition of Manchester and more non-stop routes. By the end of the year, Cathay Pacific operates 17 747s, including two -400s, and carries over 7 million passengers. The airline’s network length passes 200,000 km for the first time, and operates to a record 37 destinations.
July sees the launch of Cathay Pacific’s Hong Kong to Los Angeles nonstop service with the 747-400, then one of the longest scheduled nonstop routes in the world.
London Heathrow, which would become the airline’s flagship route, is added to the schedule. Cathay Pacific staff numbers reach close to 13,000, more than doubling in a decade of 747 service.
Cathay Pacific starts flying to the East Coast of North America, with a service to Toronto. Inbound visitor numbers to Hong Kong from North America exceed one million per year, three times as many as 1979 when the first 747 joined the Cathay Pacific fleet.
1995 Cathay Pacific carries more than 10 million passengers in a year for the very first time, while Hong Kong itself welcomes a record 10 million inbound visitors for the year. The airline’s network has increased to cover 42 destinations and measures 275,000 km, nearly four times as long as it was in 1979.
Cathay Pacific starts its service to New York, with a refuelling stop in Vancouver. The airline’s staff levels reach 15,000 for the first time, making it one of Hong Kong’s biggest employers. Despite the addition of Boeing 777 and Airbus A340 aircraft to the Cathay Pacific fleet, the 747 remains the biggest aircraft type on long-haul routes, with 32 aircraft in the fleet.
This is a busy year for Hong Kong aviation with the closure of the iconic inner-city Kai Tak airport in Kowloon. Captain Kim Sharman is in charge of the final departure from Kai Tak – Flight CX251 to London Heathrow on 6 July 1998, which was operated by a 747-400.
Another of Cathay Pacific’s 747s operates the first revenue flight to land at the new Hong Kong International Airport at Chek Lap Kok – Flight CX889 from New York. This is also the first revenue flight to fly nonstop from the US east coast over the North Pole on a direct route through previously prohibited Russian airspace. Named Polar 1, the flight sets a new world distance record of 7,465 nautical miles and takes 15 hours and 35 minutes – cutting more than five hours off the normal journey time, which included a fuel stop in Vancouver.
In May, Cathay Pacific announces accelerated retirement plans for its 747 passenger fleet. The business case for slightly smaller but more economic twin-jets, such as the fleet’s Boeing 777-300ERs, is unarguable.
On 30 September and 1 October, Cathay Pacific will bid farewell to the “Queen of the Skies” as it operates its last passenger revenue flights – to Haneda Airport in Tokyo and the return sector to Hong Kong.
Over the course of its 37 year-service with Cathay Pacific, the Boeing 747 has played an instrumental role in helping to grow the airline and develop Hong Kong as one of the world’s most important aviation hubs.
Between 1979 and 2016:
Cathay Pacific’s network has grown from 72,000 km to 620,000 km.
The number of Cathay Pacific employees has risen from approximately 5,000 to 23,000, making the airline one of Hong Kong’s biggest employers.
The number of passengers that Cathay Pacific carries annually has grown from 2.5 million to over 34 million.
Visitor numbers to Hong Kong have risen from 2.2 million to 60 million.