747: The World’s Airliner

The first jumbo jet has transported the equivalent of 80 percent of the human race.

A gigantic financial gamble at the start, the 747 paid off big for Boeing. Eighty-nine countries have used it to move people and freight (here leaving Anchorage, Alaska) around the globe. (JPC Van Heijst)
Air & Space Magazine

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The 747’s size distorted the sensation of speed in the cockpit, Wolfe says. “Our liftoff speed is 207 mph, but it feels like we are crawling. When we raise the nose, the flight deck is high in the air before the back end comes off the ground.” Still, he says, every one of the more than 100 pilots to whom he has given check rides finds the liftoff thrilling.

“To a person, when I look over on the climbout they are smiling, because they can’t believe how cool it is to fly this airplane, and that is the truth.” Wolfe and Jim Karsh, a pilot with Delta Air Lines, continue to fly 747s because their airlines—United and Delta—are two of just a few, including Lufthansa, Korean Air, and Saudi Arabian, that have decided to keep the airplane.

Delta acquired its 16 jumbos in 2009 when it merged with Northwest. Nat Pieper, Delta’s vice president of fleet strategy, says at the time, executives took a hard look at how much life was left in the -400s, which ranged in age from seven to 20 years, and asked, “How much would it cost when the time came for heavy maintenance?” and “What was the economic benefit of owning the airplanes?”

“We pay attention to the ownership and the fixed cost when we are evaluating the cost of operating the 747 between now and the end of the decade,” Pieper explains. “Yes, a Boeing 777 or an A330, a twin- versus a four-engine, is much more fuel-efficient, and the maintenance cost is less as well. But we sleep well at night because we know what the ownership advantage is” in having perhaps the world’s most recognizable airliner.

Delta, in fact, plays up the 747’s glamour. It has 1,300 airliners in its fleet, and most of them look the same. But the 747, Pieper says, is “a great flagship.” Many of the airline’s ads feature the airplane that constitutes less than one percent of the fleet.

The 747 has long been popular for making a statement. In the 1970s, celebrities were often photographed boarding the airplane. In 1986, Late Night host David Letterman chartered a TWA 747, had his show’s logo painted on the nose, and broadcast his fourth anniversary program en route from New York City to Miami.

From the 747’s first flight, in 1969, size has been the headline grabber, but airlines and passengers could also see that the 747 was shrinking the world with its then-record-breaking speed of Mach .92 and range of 5,300 nautical miles. New routes were possible, and airlines in the Pacific like Singapore and Cathay seized on the opportunities the jumbo offered. On its flights from Hong Kong to Europe, Cathay did away with the inconvenient and time-consuming refueling stops in Bahrain, says Tom Owen, senior vice president for the Americas. Soon the airline had 25 jumbo jets and was offering a daily flight to London—the first Asian carrier to do so.

The airplane was powered by a new and innovative high-bypass-fan engine—the Pratt & Whitney JT9D—that was developed for the 747’s 735,000-pound takeoff weight. Compared to its predecessors, the engine could move more payload on less fuel. When the seat-mile cost dropped, says van der Linden, air travel became affordable. The airliner “opened up air travel to millions more people because it lowered the prices,” he says.

And it gave those passengers a flight experience more chic than anything before it. “The idea of a stairway on an airplane—it spoke to style and graciousness,” says Aboulafia. “And of course the look of the plane itself. It was gorgeous.”

For Pan Am, the first airline to fly the 747, all those additional passengers prompted a frenzy of hiring. The airline wanted to match the airplane’s classy image by hiring flight attendants who were sophisticated and bilingual, so it went to college campuses to recruit them. Pan Am’s Kimmel, with a new degree in French literature, was thrilled to be hired. “The airline had an influx of new, wide-eyed, enthusiastic people,” she says. “We were giddy with excitement. I can’t help but think that rubbed off on the passengers. It was a whole exhilarating, happy time.”

But an airline’s ambitions could run ahead of practicality. The bar pianos on American Airlines’ 747s, for example, suffered cocktail spills that resulted in the need for constant tuning and cleaning. The Captain Cook lounges on the upper decks of Qantas’ jumbos were soon deemed wasteful, and carved up and refitted with business-class seats.

Some of Pan Am’s ideas also needed to be rethought, Kimmel recalls. “They decided in economy we would dish up meals from the cart, like in first class,” she says. “Forget the TV dinners where you take the foil off the top. With soup, you had to have the person on the aisle help you with the tray. If you didn’t spill it, they spilled it.” Even with the jumbo’s steadier ride, turbulence sometimes sent a dish of veal marengo sloshing—onto the floor or, worse, a passenger.

About Christine Negroni

Christine Negroni is a freelance aviation and travel writer whose work appears in The New York Times, on ABC News and in other publications. She writes the popular blog, Flying Lessons. Her book latest book,The Crash Detectives, published by Penguin, is about Malaysia 370 and other aviation mysteries.

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