United Airlines tells pilots it may retire all of its Boeing 747s by 2018

 United may accelerate retirement of its Boeing 747s. Photo: United Airlines. 

United may accelerate retirement of its Boeing 747s. Photo: United Airlines. 

Want to fly on a United Airlines Boeing 747? You better hurry. 

United told pilots on Friday that it may retire all of its 747s faster than expected, with the last one leaving the fleet as soon as 2018. In the past, executives suggested the 747s could stay at United into 2020, or even later. 

"We are contemplating an accelerated retirement plan for the 747s," Howard Attarian, United's senior vice president for flight operations, said in a message to pilots. "If we do decide to head in this direction, we plan to accelerate widebody deliveries to replace this capacity,"

The planes aren't as old as you might think - many were delivered to United in the late 1990s - but maintenence costs are expensive, the airline says. That's in part because fewer airlines fly the 747 now, with many preferring cheaper-to-operate twin-engine aircraft.

"This is an aging fleet that many operators are beginning to exit from service and as this happens, support for the aircraft, especially in our spokes, gets more difficult," United said in separate message. A 'Spoke,' is an airport not considered a hub, like Shanghai or Beijing. 

According to its fleet plan released in January, United had 22 747s at the end of 2015. Under that plan, the airline expects to retire two this year.

For now, United flies 747s from San Francisco and Chicago. But this week, United also told pilots it will remove the 747 from Chicago in February 2017, leaving only San Francisco with 747 service.

United last addressed the 747 in detail on its April 2015 earnings call. At the time, former CFO John Rainey said the carrier could hold onto the 747s for a long time, according to the SeekingAlpha.com transcript. 

The 747 is something that we do intend to keep for a few more years we have a couple coming out of our fleet in the near future but some of these we’ve made some improvements to the operating reliability of the aircraft and we could expect to keep them for another few years.

They have another sort of big maintenance events in the 2020 time frame that that will be another decision point for us whether we want to extend them further at that point or go ahead and retire them.

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