Small City, Big Plane: Why British Airways Flies the 747-400 to Boston

Though it’s the largest city in New England, and one of the largest in the Northeast, it might surprise you to learn that Boston is only the 24th largest city in the United States. Yet, despite this, Boston Logan International Airport sees a large number of four-engine jets every day: British Airways, Lufthansa, and Turkish Airlines are a few of the carriers that serve Boston with either a 747-400 or an Airbus A340-300 and Airbus A340-600. Meanwhile, bigger cities like Austin, Philadelphia, and San Diego are only visited by twin-engine aircraft and have less direct transatlantic destinations than Massachusetts’ capital. So what makes Boston different?

There are myriad factors that go into such an answer. However, a large part of the explanation is the fact that Logan is the only true international airport in New England — making it the center of transatlantic operations for states like Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. For many residents of those three aforementioned states, it makes much more sense to drive two to three hours to Boston and board a plane overseas than to have to endure significant layovers in places like Chicago, New York, or Washington — as well as the fact that traveling to any of those three metropolitan areas is undoubtedly further west than Boston, and, for the purposes of traveling east, quite counterintuitive. But New Englanders aren’t the only ones who utilize Boston’s intercontinental flights; Boston’s relative proximity to Europe makes it a logical place for those requiring a layover to stop before heading across the pond. Furthermore, Boston’s role in finance, science, technology, and other for-profit sectors means that there is high demand for business travel to and from a variety of European markets. Despite its relative size, Boston’s role in a variety of sectors, as well as its geographical proximity and convenience for travelers, makes Logan airport one of the foremost international airports on the East Coast, particularly for travel to and from Europe.

Of Boston’s European routes that operate year-round, there is undoubtedly one that stands above the rest in terms of demand: flights between Boston and London Heathrow. Every year, 925,000 people travel between Boston and London, making it Logan’s busiest route in terms of passengers carried — domestic or international. It may not be quite on the scale of New York – London in terms of flights or passenger counts, but Boston is definitely a notable destination for British and American carriers looking to operate between the two countries.

Service between Logan and Heathrow is currently operated by three airlines — British Airways, Delta Air Lines, and Virgin Atlantic Airways. And, until March 2013, American Airlines operated a daily round-trip to Heathrow. When American pulled out, largely as a result of its efforts to scale back international operations at its “non-hub” airports, a category that Boston falls under, fellow Oneworld member British Airways added an additional round trip to compensate for the reduction in capacity. It goes without saying that — like with New York JFK — British Airways currently has the undisputed majority of market share in this particular sector.

Delta and Virgin meanwhile, each operate one round-trip between Boston and London: DL62 (from LHR) and DL63 (to LHR), a Boeing 767-300; and VS11 (from LHR) and VS12 (to LHR), which can be any of a Boeing 787-900, Airbus A330-300, or Airbus A340-600. At maximum, the two flights can carry 261 people and 264 people, respectively. That means that, of the 2,534 people that travel between the two cities on an average day, there are normally 253 people on each of the ten flights in each direction.

Given these factors, and the fact that Delta and Virgin generally operate smaller aircraft on the route relative to the planes British Airways flies, it makes sense that at least one of British Airways’ three daily year-round flights operates as a 747. The 747s that serve Logan alternate between the 299-seat variant (177 coach seats) and the 345-seat configuration (235 coach seats), although British Airways tends to send more of the 299-seat variants to Boston. The 777-200, meanwhile, generally has a capacity of 219, while a select few are configured to carry 275 people or 283 people.

Analysis of the types of aircraft used on this particular route yields some interesting conclusions. BA213, the early afternoon arrival, and BA212, the early evening departure, operate as 747s the vast majority of the time. BA215, the early-evening arrival, and BA214, the late evening departure, generally operate as a 747 during the summer and a 777 during the winter. Both BA239, which is the late evening arrival, and BA238, which departs the next morning, have, in my observation, been either 777s or 787s the vast majority of the time, except for a series of Saturdays and Sundays during the summer of 2015. Finally, throughout the summer and with some regularity during the rest of the year, British Airways will operate BA203 (from LHR) and BA202 (to LHR), which can be a 747 or 777 equally, that arrives and departs in the afternoon and evening, respectively. Needless to say, there are a multitude of British Airways options for passengers traveling between Boston and London, particularly during the summer.

Yet there’s an interesting issue in focus here: the utilization of the 747 instead of the 777-300. While the 777-200’s capacity is significantly less than the 747, the 777-300 can carry 297 passengers — just two less than the 747’s 177-coach seat variant. Given that it can carry virtually the same as most of the 747s that visit Boston and its superior fuel economy, why wouldn’t British Airways just drop the 747s and instead fly 777s on that route?

The answer is two-fold. First, British Airways only has 12 777-300s, as opposed to 43 747s and 46 777-200s. As you can imagine, given that it has two engines as opposed to the 747’s four, the former burns less fuel than the latter. And, the longer the route, the more that fuel savings between planes are realized. As such, it makes more sense for British Airways to operate the 777-300 to places like Beijing, Mumbai, Sao Paulo, and Tokyo. In those places, there isn’t quite enough demand to warrant an Airbus A380-800, which carries 469 passengers, but there are enough people traveling that route that they can fill up a 777-300. So, for BA, flying the 747 to Boston makes sense — it won’t waste as much fuel as it would flying to Japan, but it can carry even more passengers than the highest-capacity 777 — capacity that, given the high demand for travel between the cities, is absolutely necessary.

Of course, British Airways knows that the number of people traveling between Boston and London fluctuates with the seasons, with the summer having the largest number of passengers. And they make adjustments to their schedule and fleet accordingly. In addition to BA212 and BA213, which are generally operated by 747s year-round, BA214 and BA215 tend to become 747 routes during the summer, while BA202 and BA203 tends to serve as the fourth round-trip between Logan and Heathrow during the summer and semi-regularly throughout the rest of the year. In short, though it flies 747s and 777s to Boston year-round, it tends to use more of the former during the summer, while more of the latter operate during the off-season.  This could well change with the recent introduction of the A380 on the BOS-LHR route, but I would imagine that those trends would remain relatively consistent.

As with any logistical airline decision, British Airways operating the 747 between Boston and London happens for a variety of factors. Most importantly, the route has sufficient demand to fill up at least one 747 per day in addition to two or more 777-200 flights. Additionally, from an expenditure standpoint, operating a less fuel-efficient aircraft on a shorter route where it has a high load factor and doesn’t burn as much fuel as a true “long-haul” operation is a benefit.

As British Airways slowly retires its 747 fleet, Boston will at some point cease to see the jumbo with its red-and-white Union Jack tail. Last fall, the U.K. flag carrier started operating 787-900s on its BA238/BA239 rotation, the former of which is coincidentally Boston’s lone morning departure to London. Additionally, Norwegian Air Shuttle has begun operating a Boston – London Gatwick route, which no doubt provides additional competition. Nevertheless, I believe that Boston will stay as one of the last British Airways 747 routes, due to the number of passengers the airline serves on that route, the percentage of people flying British Airways between the two cities, and the reduced fuel burn as opposed to the 747 flying a longer route. Regardless, given that it’s my favorite aircraft, I certainly enjoyed flying both ways on the BA 747 during my trip to England in Fall 2014, and as long as the aircraft with the Union Jack on the back is in the air, I’m sure we’ll see them in Beantown for the foreseeable future.