Two days ago, Delta Air Lines Inc. celebrated the final domestic flight for its Boeing Co. 747 jumbo fleet with an overnight party from Los Angeles to Detroit. The farewells were a little premature, it turns out.
The carrier enlisted the iconic humpbacked jetliner Friday to help whisk people away from Hurricane Irma, with a special round-trip flight from Detroit to Orlando, Florida. The effort was part of one of the biggest aircraft evacuations on record as the powerful storm bore down on the continental U.S.
Pulling a future “museum piece” into action was “thoughtful and creative,” said aviation consultant Robert Mann. “Someone must have said, ‘I know we just retired it, but we have this behemoth that we can use to fit in a few more people.’ ”
The evacuation flight marked one of the last hurrahs in the U.S. for the venerable jumbo, nicknamed the Queen of the Skies, as Delta and United Airlines prepare to replace the planes with more efficient twin-engine models. While Delta has pulled the 747 off regularly scheduled domestic service, it plans to continue flying the four-engine aircraft on long-distance international flights through December, Delta spokesman Morgan Durrant said Friday.
The Atlanta-based airline ordered up the 747 trip on short notice because flight crews were available along with ground equipment for the aircraft at the Orlando airport, Durrant said by email. The carrier has been adding last-minute flights to parts of Florida and the Caribbean, as have other airlines such as American Airlines Group Inc. and JetBlue Airways Corp.
Delta has scheduled a second jumbo flight to Orlando for Saturday, with the storm expected to hit the mainland in Florida early Sunday. The airline has another Boeing 747 ferrying customers and employees from Atlanta to Detroit, said spokesman Michael Thomas. Both trips were previously scheduled flights for smaller mainline jets.
Flight 2517 lifted off from Detroit at 12:46 p.m. local time for the almost three-hour trip, its progress marked in real time on social media by aviation enthusiasts and flight-tracking sites such as Flightradar24. After a brief turnaround, the plane was airborne and headed back to Detroit with an expected arrival time of 7:18 p.m. The aircraft is the largest in Delta’s fleet, with seating for 376 passengers.
It’s the second time this week a Delta evacuation flight has caused a social media stir. The airline sent a plane to San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Wednesday as Irma bore down on the island.
Delta isn’t the only U.S. airline using soon-to-be-retired aircraft in storm rescue and recovery efforts. After Hurricane Harvey, Southwest Airlines Co. flew dozens of cats and dogs from Texas to California in a Boeing 737-300. That was the second-to-last stop for the plane, which was headed to Victorville, California, a desert boneyard for aircraft.