* BA had been due to retire its jumbo fleet in 2024
* Predecessor airline BOAC first flew jet in 1971
* Four-engined jumbos superseded by efficient twinjets (Adds details on Qantas 747s)
By Sarah Young, Maria Ponnezhath and Tim Hepher
July 17 (Reuters) - British Airways, the world's largest operator of Boeing 747s, will retire its entire jumbo jet fleet with immediate effect after the COVID-19 pandemic sent air travel into freefall.
For over 50 years, Boeing's "Queen of the Skies" has been the world's most easily recognised jetliner with its humped fuselage and four engines. But its days were already numbered before the pandemic struck earlier this year.
British Airways (BA) had been planning to retire the aircraft in 2024, but with passenger numbers decimated this year, and experts forecasting it will be years before they recover, the airline said it was unlikely its 747s would operate commercially again.
"It is with great sadness that we can confirm we are proposing to retire our entire 747 fleet with immediate effect," BA said in a statement on Thursday.
The 747 democratised global air travel in the 1970s, but fell behind modern twin-engine aircraft and now trails newer planes in fuel efficiency, making it expensive to run.
The move by BA comes after Australia's Qantas Airways said in June it would retire its remaining 747 fleet immediately, six months ahead of schedule.
BA's predecessor airline BOAC first introduced the 747 on the London-New York route in 1971 after a one-year delay caused by a dispute with pilots over the terms for flying the new jet.
Hugh Dibley, a former BOAC captain and racing driver who joined the airline in 1958, said the 747's introduction marked a new era, but was beset with teething problems with its engines.
Landing and taxiing also took some getting used to, from a cockpit positioned almost 30 feet above the ground - or more when angling the nose higher just before touching the runway.
"It was a delight to fly as it was so stable. The initial issue was its height from the ground. It was like landing a block of flats from the 2nd floor," Dibley told Reuters.
BA's jumbos are the 747-400 model, the most-sold version of the jet which was introduced in 1989. After BA, only a handful of airlines including Rossiya Airlines and Air China continue to operate them, according to Cirium data.
A newer version, the 747-8, was designed to refresh the brand and counter Airbus's A380, but has mainly prospered as a freighter and Boeing is soon expected to follow Airbus in announcing a halt to production of such four-engined behemoths.
The end of the runway for BA's jumbo fleet comes as the company, owned by IAG, faces a battle for survival because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Just as its introduction at BA was marred by labour uncertainty, its retirement almost five decades later comes as BA plans to cut up to 12,000 jobs, or 28% of its workforce, to prepare for a slump in air travel.
U.S.-based Boeing and its suppliers signalled the end of the plane when they set the final number of parts it would need for the 747 jumbo jet programme at least a year ago. (Reporting by Sarah Young in London, Maria Ponnezhath in Bengaluru, Tim Hepher in Paris, Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Mark Potter)