TUPELO, Miss. – It was a curtain call for United’s “Queen of the Skies.”
United flew its last Boeing 747 passenger flight in November, but 10 United frequent fliers and two airline employees were treated to one last look at the pioneering jumbo jet at a special event here this past Saturday.
Those who made the trip gave United’s 747s one last sendoff.
The final farewell included a champagne toast from inside the first-class cabin of the last United 747 to fly paying passengers and an al-fresco dinner at tables encircled by two more of the airline’s now-retired jumbo jets.
It was all part of a special package that United put together for its frequent-flier members, who could bid for one of five packages that included flights to Memphis and transportation to the Universal Asset Management (UAM) Aircraft Disassembly Center about two hours away in northeast Mississippi.
The top bid? One of United’s MileagePlus members shelled out 420,000 miles for a two-person package, which included coach-class flights to and from Memphis, two nights’ lodging and a tour of the UAM warehouse and disassembly facility in Tupelo.
IN PHOTOS: Behind the scenes at a UAM’s warehouse for salvaged aircraft parts (story continues below)
“It was totally worth it,” says Ted Birren of Chicago, who traveled to Mississippi as part of the 420,000-mile bid made by his partner, Dan Hopper.
“I’ve been infatuated with the 747 ever since I was a little kid,” Hopper added, chatting from the first-class cabin of the now-retired Boeing 747 (tail number N118UA) that flew United’s last passenger flight from San Francisco to Honolulu in November.
They admit some friends were surprised they used so many miles for a package that included a relatively short flight to Memphis and a bus ride to Mississippi.
“‘You’re going where? You’re going to Tupelo?’” Birren said with a laugh about the reaction from some friends.
To put the bid in perspective, 420,000 miles could be used for 16 domestic economy-class flights at United’s “saver” award level. Or it would be enough for three saver business-class tickets to Rome, with miles left over.
But Hopper had no qualms about how he spent the miles.
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“I think it’s great, because this is something incredibly unique,” he said. “Flying to Rome, it can be done. This, not so much. I think it’s worth it.”
Echoing that sentiment was Vicky Chiu, who earned the distinction of having traveled the farthest to get to the event in Mississippi.
“We’re always into unique experiences,” said Chiu, who flew more than 11 hours from Honolulu to spend Saturday in Mississippi.
“Putting us on an airplane,” she said about using miles for “just” a flight, “is like, ‘been there, done that.’ ”
Chiu was part of the package bid on by her likeminded friend Eric Chiang of Fort Lauderdale.
“We’re both travel junkies,” Chiu said, noting they travel often together to destinations across the globe. A trip to Bhutan is coming later this year.
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Chiang said he bid 142,000 miles for his package. And while his trip from Florida was much shorter than Chiu’s he faced his own challenge in getting to the event: summer storms.
The weather caused him to miss his connecting flight to Memphis, so “I flew to Nashville and drove in the middle of the night to get here,” he said. “That’s how much I wanted to be here.”
Overall, United’s five two-person “Dinner with the Queen of the Skies” packages offered under its “MileagePlus Experiences” brand netted a total of 1.3 million miles.
Aside from the tour of United’s last 747 at UAM’s “Aircraft Disassembly Center,” bid winners also got to tour UAM’s Global Distribution Center. That’s the 450,000-square-foot warehouse facility where UAM keeps parts from its “disassembled” planes – everything from surplus oxygen masks to widebody landing gears and engine cowlings – with the intent of selling them on the second-hand market.
“We’re not a boneyard,” Keri Wright, UAM’s enthusiastic CEO, told guests as they began to tour the company’s Mississippi facilities. “It’s all about recycling.”
Even the furniture and artwork at UAM’s buildings come largely from recycled plane parts. That included tables, chairs, wall art and even a Continental Airlines-themed painting on the fuel panel of a DC-10.
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“We try to memorialize them through some very unique pieces,” Wright said about the planes that come to the Aircraft Disassembly Center. UAM tries to repurpose and recycle nearly everything from the planes that pass through its facilities.
The goal is “to minimize the amount sent to landfills,” Wright added, noting that even used aircraft carpets can be repurposed and used to help packing plane parts being sent to airlines.
And, there are even pieces that can be sold at the “novelty level.” In other words, plane and cabin components sought out by aviation enthusiasts. That can include anything from galley carts and seats to unique memorabilia from inside the cabin or other pieces of a plane.
UAM, Wright said, is always thinking of “other ways we can extract value” from what’s left of retired aircraft.
The guests attending as part of the United frequent-flier package all seemed eager to learn about the process, peppering Wright and Jim Garcia – United’s Senior Manager of Fleet Surplus Sale – with questions as they toured the facilities.
Hopper, the guest from Chicago, said he enjoyed the “behind the scenes” aspect of the package. “It’s certainly educational. And fascinating.”
“This is way more than I expected. It’s a very cool experience,” he concluded.
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