The Boeing 747 found its greatest success in the Asia-Pacific, helping the region globalise in the late 20th century.

When Japan Airlines (JAL) first started operating three 747-100s in 1970, Asia was a very different place. While winding down, the Vietnam War was still hot, with the fall of Saigon five years in the future. The USA had yet to make its rapprochement with China, and the region’s “tiger” economies – Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan – were just embarking on decades of rapid economic growth.

Cathay 747-300 in Hong Kong in 1994

Source: Wikimedia Commons

A Cathay 747-300 at Kai Tak in 1994

Reflecting the Asia-Pacific’s relative importance at the time, Cirium fleets data shows that in 1970 JAL’s trio of 747s were the only in-service jumbo jets in the region that year, dwarfed by the fleet in North America, with 76 examples, and Europe, with 16.

As Asia-Pacific developed over the 1970s – boosted by significant foreign direct investment – air travel was in high demand.

The growth of the region’s 747 fleet reflected this: in 1980, 10 years after the jumbo jet’s service entry, the Asia-Pacific’s 747 fleet finally surpassed that of Europe’s, hitting 132 in-service examples, compared with Europe’s 112.

In 1980, according to Cirium, JAL was the region’s biggest 747 operator with 32 examples, followed by Qantas Airways with 18, and Singapore Airlines with 15.

That year, North American airlines still had the world’s biggest 747 fleet, with 165. But in 1982, with Asia’s economies continuing to grow, the Asia-Pacific in-service 747 fleet surpassed that of North America’s, with 169 examples against 160. Of the world’s 542 in-service 747s in 1982, the Asia-Pacific accounted for 31%.

The region’s share of the 747 fleet marched steadily upwards from that point. Just over two decades later, in 2004, 50% of the world’s 747s were in service with Asia-Pacific operators. This was the peak era of the 747-400, before the arrival of the 777-300ER and Airbus A380.

JAL 747-200

Source: Wikimedia Commons

A JAL 747-200 in 1982

JAL, long one of the key operators of the type, had 60 in-service 747s that year, followed by Qantas with 33 and SIA with 28.

Of JAL’s 747 fleet, fully 48 examples were operating as passenger aircraft, with 12 operating as dedicated freighters.

Yet, the days of the 747 were numbered with the advent of newer types and the financial crisis of the late 2000s. The 747’s Japan redoubt crumbled quickly. JAL ceased operating the type following a major restructuring in 2010. All Nippon Airlines, another big operator, retired its 747s March 2014.

SIA, which lovingly adorned its 747-300s with the label ‘BIG TOP’ and its 747-400s with ‘MEGA-TOP’, bid farewell to its passenger 747s in 2012. Cathay Pacific, whose 747s had formerly roared over urban Kowloon into Hong Kong’s former Kai Tak airport, retired its last passenger 747s in 2016.

747 Fleet in service historically

Source: Cirium fleets data

Nonetheless, it was only in 2020, after the crushing blow of the coronavirus pandemic, that Asia-Pacific 747 numbers dropped again below those in the USA. In 2020 Asia-Pacific airlines shed 36 747s, reducing the region’s fleet to 101 examples, as the US 747 fleet grew to 130 examples on the back of freighter deliveries.

As the world reflects on history’s final 747 delivery, a 747-8F to Atlas Air, Asia’s 747 fleet is a shadow of its former self, with Cirium listing 101 as in-service and 29 in storage.

Korean Air is now Asia-Pacific’s biggest operator of passenger 747s, with nine 747-8Is, of which two are in storage. Air China is the only other Asia-Pacific carrier to operate the type, with six aircraft, three in-service and three in storage.

Korean Air 747-81

Source: Greg Waldron/FlightGlobal

A Korean Air 747-8I at Seoul Incheon in 2015

Asiana Airlines, for its part, has a single 747-400 that is still in service. Cirium schedules data suggests this aircraft is used infrequently on services from Seoul Incheon to Shanghai. First delivered in 1997, this aircraft is likely nearing the end of its service life. 

Overall, 96 of the Asia-Pacific’s 747s are today serving in the cargo role. Key operators include Cathay Pacific, Korean Air, Asiana, and SIA.

Four 747s boast high-profile roles as head of state transports. Brunei and South Korea each have a 747-8I tasked with VIP transport. Air China, meanwhile, uses a single 747-400 and -8I for VIP work.

The 747’s long career helped make possible the modern Asia we know today. It is arguably the most important aircraft type in the region’s history, bridging vast geographic distances inside the Asia-Pacific, and connecting the Asia-Pacific to the rest of the world.

While no Asia-Pacific carrier will ever again accept a new 747 at Everett, the type will forever be associated with a golden age in the region’s growth.