HONG KONG: Cathay Pacific is retiring its Boeing 747 passenger fleet after 37 years. Once a ubiquitous presence at major airports around the world, the aircraft approaching has now become a rare sight.
For aviation geeks gathered at the Hong Kong International Airport, soon they will only be able to spot the Hong Kong flag carrier’s passenger jumbo jet in a history book. The final 747 flight to Tokyo is scheduled for Oct 1.
The original double decker jet was vital to Cathay’s development into a major global carrier. The airline received its first jumbo jet in 1979 when it was still a small regional carrier flying to a handful of Asian destinations and Australia.
It only truly became global in 1980, when it started flying to London’s Gatwick with the second 747 aircraft on its fleet.
After Oct 1, Cathay will continue to fly the jets in its cargo fleet, but it decided earlier not to adopt the new generation 747-8 for passengers.
"It's simply just too big for us at the moment,” Mark Hoey, Cathay’s General Manager for Operations, told Channel NewsAsia. “People want more flights and flexibility, and they want to go direct everywhere. So we are using the 777 or the A350. They're smaller, but we are going everywhere direct.”
FAREWELL, QUEEN OF THE SKIES
Analysts have long argued that Cathay needs to make the switch from being a hub carrier to flying more point-to-point. They said the retirement of 747s at Cathay is long overdue.
The airline recorded an 82 per cent drop in profit for the first half of 2016, as Chinese and Middle Eastern carriers lured away its customers with lower fares in a tough economy.
But for Hong Kong plane spotters, it is hard to say goodbye to the Queen of the Skies. The Association of Hong Kong Aviation Photographers said it is putting together a photo book to commemorate the occasion. Its member Daryl Chapman took an iconic photo of a Cathay 747 attempting to land at Hong Kong’s old Kai Tak Airport.
“Everybody knew what a 747 was, even people that didn't know anything about planes. When you say 747, they go, 'oh yeah I know what that is, the one with the upstairs'," he said.
Plane spotters photographing one of the last few Cathay Pacific 747 planes landing in Hong Kong. (Photo: Wei Du)
Tugged between a mountain and a densely populated residential neighborhood, Kai Tak was considered one of the most technically challenging airports to land in the world until it closed in 1998. In Chapman’s photo, the descending jumbo jet looked like it was crashing into a residential building before it safely landed.
Hoey might very well be the man piloting the jet in Chapman’s photo. He joined Cathay in the late 1980s, later rising to become the Chief Pilot of its 747 fleet. He said that to a pilot, helming of the double decker was seen as a badge of honour.
"Among pilots, it is always a little of 'the bigger it is, the better it is' supposedly," he said. "That's not necessarily true, but the larger the aircraft, the inertia and everything, it makes it more difficult when you were maneuvering in Hong Kong on the old runway,"
Until recently it was also a badge of honour among local investors to own the Cathay stock, but the carrier’s shares have declined 22 per cent in a year. It now has the lowest analyst rating among airlines around the world, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
“Financial markets would probably like to see a capacity cut because that would improve the position in the short term,” said Will Horton, a senior analyst at the Centre for Aviation (CAPA). Cathay currently operates five daily flights to London and four to New York.
But Horton, like many diehard Cathay fans, is against the idea. He said much of the financial drag on the airline now stems from its policy to hedge oil prices, which costs the company money when oil is cheap. He said the wanderlust of the growing middle class in Asia means Cathay will still have a place in connecting Asia to the world.