London CNN Business  — 

British Airways is retiring its fleet of 31 Boeing 747s four years ahead of schedule as it braces for a sustained slump in global air travel due to the pandemic.

“It is with great sadness that we can confirm we are proposing to retire our entire 747 fleet with immediate effect,” British Airways, the world’s biggest operator of the 747-400, said in a statement Friday.

The once groundbreaking jumbo jet was one of the world’s most popular planes, but Boeing hasn’t built a passenger version since it delivered the last one to Korean Airlines in 2017. Airbus (EADSF) dropped its own jumbo jet, the A380, last year, as airlines moved away from supersized aircraft in favor of smaller, more efficient planes that burn less fuel per passenger.

With the coronavirus decimating demand for flying, the pressure on airlines to save money has never been greater and many are slashing the size of their fleets and scrapping older aircraft. Lufthansa (DLAKF), which is cutting 100 aircraft from its fleet, grounded all 14 of its A380s in March and has no immediate plans to return them to service.

“It is unlikely our magnificent ‘queen of the skies’ will ever operate commercial services for British Airways again due to the downturn in travel caused by the Covid-19 global pandemic,” said British Airways, which is part of the IAG aviation group.

At its peak, British Airways had a fleet of 57 747-400s, having taken its first delivery of the jet in 1989. It had originally planned to retire the last plane in 2024.

“While the aircraft will always have a special place in our heart, as we head into the future we will be operating more flights on modern, fuel-efficient aircraft such as our new A350s and 787s, to help us achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050,” the carrier said.

You can still fly on one

There are only 171 of the passenger versions of the 747 still in fleets around the world, and only 27 of those are now in use, according to Cirium, an aviation analytics company. With global air travel not expected to recover for several years, many of those grounded planes may never return to service.

Delta Air Lines (DAL) was the last US airline to fly a passenger version of the plane, back in 2017. But Friday’s announcement from British Airways doesn’t quite mean the end of an era in transatlantic travel. Lufthansa has 10 747-400s and 19 of the more modern 747-8 version in its fleet. A spokesperson said the carrier continues to operate the aircraft, especially the 747-8s, on routes in North America and Asia and other long haul destinations.

Boeing delivered the first 747 passenger jets in December 1969. US cargo airline Atlas Air (AAWW) is now the biggest single operator of 747s, with a fleet of 39, according to CAPA Centre for Aviation in 2018.

The planemaker has continued to build a freighter version of the 747, but at a very slow pace. And that production run could come to an end soon. Boeing has just 12 remaining firm orders from UPS (UPS), and three orders for a Russian cargo carrier which are no longer certain enough to be listed in its backlog.

The pandemic has prompted Boeing (BA) to slash costs and cut 16,000 jobs in the face of the worst downturn the aerospace industry has ever seen.

— Chris Isidore, Robert North and Charles Riley contributed reporting.