How Boeing’s 747 Revolutionized Air Travel

two 747-400s taxiing on runways

Pan Am was the driving force behind the launch of the Boeing 747.


On Feb. 9, 1969, the captain of a Scandinavian Airlines DC-8 on approach to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport addressed the passengers, asking them to look out the window. “That is the 747 on its first flight,” he said. Among those eyeing the skies was Juergen Weber, a young aerospace engineer who later became CEO of Lufthansa: “It was something I will never forget,” Weber said.

What he witnessed was not only a milestone in aircraft manufacturing, but also one of the most important events for the development of long-haul air travel. The Boeing 747 gave a much bigger client base access to flying because of its size—it was 2.5 times bigger than the McDonnell Douglas DC-8 or Boeing’s own 707, and that changed the economics of widebody operations. Over time, lower unit costs for intercontinental trips translated into more affordable air fares, enabling a larger portion of the middle class to fly, a key factor that laid the foundation for what is called globalization.

  • The 747 changed the economics of widebody operations
  • Airbus’ answer, the A380, ultimately Failed
  • The 747-400 became the most successful version

For decades, the 747 was the standard widebody aircraft for the big global carriers. Weber’s Lufthansa once operated 30 Boeing 747-400s, one of the largest European fleets. At its peak, British Airways had 57 -400s based at its London-Heathrow Airport hub, a huge force, particularly for transatlantic travel. Qantas operated an all-747 fleet for six years (1979-85) after it retired its last Boeing 707. The rise of industry icons such as Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines would have been unthinkable without the 747. In Japan, Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways used large 747 fleets for short domestic flights for many years.

It has been an ironic twist to the story that, apart from the early years and Pan Am, the 747 never really played the same important role for the major U.S. carriers. United Airlines and Northwest Airlines (now part of Delta Air Lines) long ago retired the last of their aircraft. Pan American World Airways and Trans World Airlines are long gone.

In the beginning, it was different, though. Pan Am in particular drove Boeing to develop the 747. “If you build it, I will buy it,” then-Pan Am boss Juan Trippe famously told then-Boeing CEO Bill Allen in 1965. “If you buy it, I will build it,” Allen replied in Trippe’s office. The 747 was the symbol of Pan Am’s global ambitions. One could argue that the carrier’s purchase of so many was one reason for its long financial decline, but that was not obvious at the beginning of the 1970s, let alone in the technology-enthusiastic 1960s.

Many airlines did not share Pan Am’s views about the 747. The aircraft’s sheer size was an obvious concern. Some carriers, including Lufthansa, accused Boeing of not advancing technology far enough. The German airline wanted a two-person cockpit for the 747-100 but only got it 20 years later on the -400. Its engineers wrote in internal memos that the 747 was “not the beginning of a new era but the end of an old one.” There was no way the carrier and many others could ignore the aircraft, however. Trippe’s ambitions forced many of his competitors to follow.

The 747’s success also was connected to the March 1971 decision by the U.S. Congress to stop funding development of the Boeing 2707 project, which killed the possibility that supersonic aircraft would be the vehicles for most long-haul travel. Instead, the 747 became the mainstay of the industry. With 694 deliveries, the 747-400 became the most successful version.

The year 1990 can be identified as the peak for the aircraft. Airlines ordered 122 that year, the highest number ever, and Boeing delivered 70. There were only a few years with higher production, though Boeing notably managed to deliver 92 747s in 1970 and another 69 a year later.

The success of the 747-400 also led Airbus to develop and launch the A380 in 2000, which caused the European manufacturer unheard-of losses. The lack of sales forced the early termination of the A380 only 22 years after its launch.

As it turned out, Airbus was chasing the wrong target. In the mid-1990s, the smaller two-engine 777—and later the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350—reached comparable or even better unit costs than the 747 or A380. Airlines could operate them with no economic disadvantage while avoiding the risk of operating with too many empty seats.

The 747 fell victim to the same trend. The latest version, the 747-8 Intercontinental, was launched in 2005, but with the exception of Lufthansa, Air China and Korean Air, passenger airlines also lost interest in the aircraft.

There were two more good years for orders, 2005 with 46 firm commitments and 2006 with 53. But by 2007, when the A380 was just about to enter service, demand dropped sharply. In all but three years since, annual orders have remained in the single digits. Many major airlines, such as British Airways, retired their remaining 747 fleets early in the COVID-19 pandemic, when demand for long-haul travel plummeted. But production has since continued, based on demand for the freighter version. 

Jens Flottau

Based in Frankfurt, Germany, Jens is executive editor and leads Aviation Week Network’s global team of journalists covering commercial aviation.


1 Comment
Shall miss her, hope I never forget flying on her, and her immense size and range.
After 14 hours nonstop to Sydney from LA fighting headwinds, asked the pilot how much further his 747 could go? At least another hour was his response. Wowza.