Pontifications: The 747 revolutionized air travel

By Scott Hamilton

Feb. 11, 2019, © Leeham News: Few airplanes truly can be called revolutionary. Most are evolutionary.

The Boeing 747 was one of those that falls into the former category.

Just as the Boeing 707 revolutionized air travel, so did the 747.

The spaciousness and, after a period of engine difficulties, the economics put the 747 into a class by itself.

Fading away

This past weekend, the 747 became 50 years old. More than 1,500 were produced. There are 536 still in service, just 187 of them passenger models.

There are only 46 passenger models of the 747-8 in service, including VIP versions. There are still five 747-300s, three with a Nigerian charter airline, one VIP and one with Pakistan. There are 136 747-400s in service.

The 747-8I proved to be a plane past its time for airlines, which preferred the twin-engined, long-haul airplanes that were smaller, more efficient and easier to fill.

Even the 747-8F has limited popularity now. Its nose door feature is needed by only a very few airlines. Orders for the smaller, more efficient and easier to fill Boeing 777F and Boeing 767-300ERF are robust. There are only 57 orders for the 747-8F compared with 134 orders for the 777F and 126 for the 767-300ERF for the same period.

Changing standards

When the 747 was designed and entered service, in January 1970, the airline industry was in a different era. Luxury and passenger experience was important. Today, the passenger experience is all about cramming as many people into the plane as possible with as little legroom as possible.

The 747 was designed for comfort. The Upper Deck, initially “dead” space behind the cockpit, became a lounge for first class passengers. This harked back to the era of the Boeing Stratocruiser, with its lower deck lounge.

In 1970, passenger still dressed up: suits and ties for the men, dresses for the women.

The 747 entered service into a recession. Air travel was depressed. To take up space in the airplane, which was three times larger than the 707 and Douglas DC-8, some airlines put lounges not just in the hump but also on the main deck.

American Airlines had a piano bar in the rear. Continental Airlines used the hump. TWA was on the main deck. This Google page has lots of pictures of lounges. Of course, when the recession ended and traffic picked up, the airlines swapped the lounges for seats.

More widebodies

The 747’s revolutionary standards demanded that smaller widebodies be created.

McDonnell Douglas designed the DC-10. Lockheed reentered the commercial transport business with its L-1011, an airplane virtually identical to the DC-10.

About 100 passengers smaller, these were more economical for US domestic service and trans-ocean routes that could not support daily 747 flights.

Robert Crandall, CEO of American during this era, liked the smaller DC-10 for its flexibility. He preferred frequency to size. American disposed of its 747-100s in only seven years as Crandall switched to the DC-10. It later operated two Boeing 747s, the SP, on the Dallas-Tokyo route. The 747SP was then the only airplane that could make the long flight non-stop. These were disposed of when the McDonnell Douglas MD-11 was delivered.

Parenthetically, it was on one of these SPs that I had my only heads-down, prepared emergency landings.

The widebody comfort also was applied to the Airbus A300/310 and Boeing 767-200/300 series. These were the Middle of the Market aircraft of their day.

The Boeing 777, Airbus A330/340, 787 and A350 followed. The Boeing NMA is going to be a twin-aisle airplane, if launched.

All these owe their antecedents to the 747’s revolutionary, ground-breaking design and concept.

And, of course, there’s the Airbus A380.

Airbus officials claim growing passenger demand, which doubles every 15 years, requires the A380. In reality, there was a lot of 747 envy and the belief that without a similarly sized airliner, the Airbus product line was incomplete.

Technically, the A380 is a superb airplane. But by the time it entered service in 2008, the industry moved from Very Large Aircraft to a plethora of twin-engine, twin aisle airplanes that could do the VLA’s job cheaper and open far more markets.

It’s unlikely we’ll see another 747-type airplane any time soon.

23 Comments on “Pontifications: The 747 revolutionized air travel

  1. Regarding: “Luxury and passenger experience was important. Today, the passenger experience is all about cramming as many people into the plane as possible with as little legroom as possible.”

    By my memory while the seats in coach have gotten closer together on the US major airlines since the early 747 era, the seats in First Class on long range flights have become more spacious and luxurious than anything that was around in the early days of the 747. No more piano bars though, unless or until the airlines determine that they can charge more for playing the piano than they can for the seating that the piano would displace.

    With fares now deregulated are the US major airlines trying to maximize seating density to offer the cheapest tickets possible to customers who will buy the cheapest ticket no matter how cramped the seat it is (still less cramped on any US major than on ULCC’s that are taking some of their business away), or are they spending lots of money on fancier than ever luxury seating for people willing to pay extra $$$ for it? It seems to me, quite wisely, they are doing both. To my mind, giving customers what they are WILLING to pay for, and no more, is good business strategy. Some people want luxury, other want cheap tickets. Now that the CAB is no longer regulating fares, why not offer a wide variety of seating options and let the customer choose?

    Is United’s new 767-300ER configuration with total seating reduced from 214 to 167 consistent with United believing that “the passenger experience is all about cramming as many people into the plane as possible with as little legroom as possible”?

    “The 767-300ER will have 167 seats, split between 46 Polaris business-class seats, 22 premium-economy seats and 99 economy seats, a staffing guide sent to flight attendants this month shows. The number of Polaris seats has increased slightly since the configuration was first reported in April 2018.

    Currently, United configures its 767-300ERs with 214 seats, including only 30 in business class.

    The new premium-heavy 767s are likely to be used on routes with high levels of premium demand, like between Newark and London Heathrow.”


    • Just checked and 31 daily flights from all NY airports to all London airports early next month
      5 of those are United, just ahead of Norwegian with 3.
      United has a very small slice of that market and only from Newark its even smaller, probably the 767-300ER is the smallest plane it can use and it knows the economy travellors will migrate to cheaper flights with other carriers

    • Had the privilege to have flown in all passenger variants of the 747 (including Combi), except the 747-100/ and-8. It was always reassuring when you have flown in an 747 irrespective of route and weather.

      Yes, the way airlines are changing aircraft into cattle trains, this shows utter disrespect for passengers/clients/customers, but they need to survive I guess ( is the excuse).

      The 777-300ER is a champion aircraft, but in 10 abreast (3-4-3) is not fun and poor value for your money.

      An 777 with 9 abreast at 34″ pitch takes about 12% more floor space per passenger than one with 10 abreast at 31″ pitch. Sell those seats for 15% more (or 10 abreast for 15% less). Also, there is a weight saving in seats and pax/luggage in 9 abreast, and you most likely will have higher load factors.

  2. Interesting that Scott put the A380 the way he did, I have felt that since the git go. It is truly a technical accomplishment but commercial ops don’t demand that, its got to work. Even the pretty flawed DC-10 kept going despite its bad design decisions.

    I got to fly an SP from Anchorage to Taiwan. Totally packed, it was some kind of Philipino holiday. The good news was I got a delightful seat mate and we chatted all the way. The FAA when I was growing up had a crew of Philipono painters that worked their way around AK painting all the housing. I was with them when I caught my first fish (they loved fishing!) We got to link up with them twice. Second time we were catching fish for them. Lot of fun and as nice a group of guys you could hope to go fishing with.

    The 747 moved from a flying experience to flying in a hotel, it was just too unreal. It truly did revolutionize aviation. The ripples it left are still with us.

  3. I agree, but history!

    I do want to be kind, but … Boeing can’t live on it’s past.

    • @Philip, so B will have to figure out how to live on its enormous and growing positive cash flow, while rewarding the company’s investors. Is that your point? Thanks, I am just trying to decode your note.

  4. Excellent report on the great Queen of the Skies Scott. It will forever be my favorite. My first trip was in October 1977, Iran Air 747SP JFK-Tehran, then evacuated out of Iran in Feb 1979 on a Pan Am 747-200. Since then multiple trips on many different carriers, primarily BA SEA-LHR-SEA on their upper deck business class. The other amazing story is the amount of time from BOD launch decision to first flight in less than 4 years. Joe Sutter deserves a lot of credit for his engineering program mgmt. skills.

    • They don’t make planes the way Joe did and its stunning what they did and as well as they did it.

      I only flew 4 trips (other 3 Portland to Hawaii, Hawaii to Seattle and Narrita to Seattle)

      As long as N.W. could get them flying great trips. They had some big time problems back then maint wise. Narrita has like 4 just siting there to replace broken ones (one of which we transferred to!) . Ahh the good old days.

  5. Effectively the 744 which was strongly challenged by the 77W is replaced, capacity and range wise, by the 779 with 15% less gross weight and half the engines.

    It will be interesting to see how the actual sales have gone a decade or so from now. Will the size work out (or even lead to a further stretch to 80m) or will the market prefer the 350-1000 which is a close and more efficient replacement for the 77w?

    • Bjorn tells us that 4 engine can be as good as two, they just have to be optimized. I go with Bjorn.

      • Music to my ears. Always wondered about an A350-1000+ with 4x50Klb ultrafans or similar. Maybe the market and engines will be right for something like that in 10 years?

    • No airline flying 744 replaced them with 789.
      British Airways who flys both , has 216 seats in its 789s , ie a premium heavy layout, its 744s in latest seating version seat 275. and its 773, its 299
      British Airways A380s ? That would be 469 in its premium heavy seating.

  6. “Parenthetically, it was on one of these SPs that I had my only heads-down, prepared emergency landings.” Scott, Was this the time when the 747’s engines had frozen up and a thaw came in the lower altitudes? And whatever the incident, did you feel that they were just going through procedures or that it actually was a legitimate emergency?

    • @Sam: We blew a tire on takeoff from DFW. We went over Mineral Wells, TX, for about 40 minutes to dump fuel. We did a low-level pass with the gear down to see if there were more tires or gear damage or some other damage. The crew prepared the passengers for emergency landing, making sure all the pax next to the doors knew how to operate them. We had to remove all sharp objects, shoes, etc.–all the stuff you see in disaster movies, if they are realistic. The fire trucks chased us down the runway upon landing, which was to this day the smoothest landing I’ve ever experienced. The AA crew, from cockpit to flight attendant, did a superb job. I wrote a letter to Bob Crandall, CEO at the time, praising the crew. Got a nice letter back in thanks.

      The tire debris flew off and damaged a baggage door, requiring us to scrap this flight. I was rerouted to LAX-HNL-NRT. The LAX DC-10 took a mechanical delay at DFW as well. Turned out to be a long day.

      • Wow. Something else. A low level pass of a 747SP with the landing gear down… That would be a heck of a video. With today’s phones it would have been captured for sure. If the damage would have been to a DC-10 cargo door early on there could have been a different outcome.

          • The DC10 had me also nervous at times, never flew on an MD11. The Tristar was much better for me form a flying experience, had a few flights on TAP’s L500’s.

  7. Another milestone this month , its been 100 years since the first sustainable land based commercial airline service began , initially between Berlin and Weimar by the german company Deutsche Luft-Reederei GmbH on 5 February 1919 with the AEG J II.

    DLR wasnt a direct ancestor of Lufthansa but they did use originate the crane symbol which was passed onto the follow on airline and Lufthansa itself.

    Very detailed info on the companies behind DLR, the planes and the subsequent services.

    Unfortunately British Airways seems to be claiming its 100 years, but of course a direct predecessor Imperial Airways didnt start till the 1920s.

  8. How ironic that the 50th anniversary of the 747 is being celebrated simultaneously with forecasts of the imminent demise of the A380. More ironic will be when 747-8 freighters continue to be built after the last delivery of the great white whale. Yes, the 747-8 was a vanity project for Boeing, but minuscule in comparison to the A380, and it put pricing pressure on Airbus. And had Boeing not screwed up the 787 development so massively, the 747-8 might have actually made some money.

    • Bottom First: Guesses, its not like it affected availability but simply the 777-300 made it undesirable as a Pax.

      As for the F, we have to see. Less backlog than the A380.

  9. You say that American only operated two 747s, SPs, but you also note American’s piano bar configuration. That was long gone by the time the SPs arrived. Clearly it wasn’t the SPs that had the pianos.

    American had a fleet of 747-100s early on which it swapped out after deregulation for DC-10s. Those were the aircraft with the piano bars.

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