ANALYSIS: Retirements changing composition of world’s 747 fleet

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Boeing 747 aircraft are being retired rapidly, with 747 freighters poised to outnumber 747s used for commercial passenger traffic.

Flightglobal's Ascend Online Fleets database shows that there are 837 operational 747s in the world today, not including firm orders for 53 747-8s. Globally, the average age of the 747 fleet is 18 years.

Although the aircraft is used in a number of roles, the type is still dominantly used for carrying passengers and cargo. Analysis of Ascend data shows that 390 747s (mainly 747-400s) are used for carrying passengers. This is marginally higher than 747 freighters, which number 365 aircraft globally.

Retirement trends, however, suggest that 747 freighters will soon outnumber 747 passenger aircraft. Flightglobal's Ascend database shows that out of the 24 747s retired year to date, 16 were passenger aircraft (one 747-300 and 15 747-400s), while seven were 747-200 cargo aircraft. One 747-400 combi-aircraft was also retired this year.

This continued a trend set in 2012. Of 69 747s retired that year, 46 were passenger aircraft, 22 were freighters and one was a 747-300 combi-aircraft.

Despite the large scale retirements of 747s, Ascend indicates that all six series (-100, -200, -SP, -300, -400, -8) are in use. The -400 is the most used variant and it leads by a large margin - with 622 aircraft operational globally - followed by the -200, with 95 aircraft operational globally.

The largest operator of 747s on passenger service is British Airways, with 55 Rolls-Royce RB211-powered 747-400s delivered between 1989-99. Other major operators include Delta Air Lines (16 -400s), Lufthansa (nine -8s and 22-400s) and Qantas Airways (23 -400s).

As for freighters, Kalitta Air is the largest 747 freighter operator with 27 examples - although many of these are parked. It has a single -100, 19 -200s and seven 747-400BCFs.

Iran Air has the distinction of operating the world's oldest collection of 747s on passenger service. Ascend data shows it has four 747SPs, three 747-200s and one 747-100.

One of the -200s, with registration EP-IAH, is the world's oldest in-service 747 passenger aircraft. Delivered in 1976, when the USA was still a close ally of Iran, the Pratt & Whitney JT9D-powered aircraft is 37 years old.

Three of Iran Air's 747SPs are in storage. The fourth, delivered in 1977, is still in commercial service. This is one of two 747SPs used for passenger service globally - the other is a 1981 vintage 747SP operated by Saudia.

FlightMaps Analytics shows that Iran Air's 747s serve three Asian destinations from Tehran: Beijing, Mumbai and Kuala Lumpur.

As for the future, the 747 will soldier on in its most recent form, the -8. Ascend data shows that there are 53 firm orders, 67 options and 40 letters of intent for the variant. In addition, 49 747-8s have been delivered. Of these, 10 are -8Is for Lufthansa, and 39 are -8Fs in service with various cargo operators.