At 50, the 747 is nearing retirement, but the ‘Queen of the Skies’ was never expected to be around this long and is still destined for greatness by fulfilling the second career her designers had originally planned. Here are seven reasons to love the 747.
In the 50 years that passed from the 747’s first flight, aviation has seen a dramatic shift. Over ten times more people (3.97 billion) travelled by air in 2017 than when the 747 entered service in 1970 (310 million). There are a lot of planes of all shapes and sizes serving those passengers today, but the 747 was responsible for making flights more affordable and encouraging more people to fly.
Before the 747, airfares were too high for most people to dream of traveling by air. While the deregulation and privatization of airlines led to the most significant reductions in air fares, the 747 helped things along as the first aircraft able to fly large numbers of passengers.The first model was designed to fit up more than 360 passengers, and later versions could accommodate nearly 500.
Its fuel efficiency may be less than newer aircraft built today, but the 747 was designed to dramatically reduce fuel consumption (the 747-100 used 33% less fuel than its predecessor Boeing 707-320C). This made the 747 cheaper for airlines to operate on long-haul routes.
For all of its size, the 747 is the fastest passenger plane in the skies, capable of flying near the speed of sound (Mach .92). It also had significantly more range than its predecessor, able to fly 5,300 nautical miles (over 9,800 kilometers). This allowed airlines to introduce more direct flights on longer routes.
The 747 changed things on the ground as well. Just to build the plane, Boeing had to build first build what was at the time the largest building by volume in the world—the 747 manufacturing plant. Airports had to adjust, introducing twin jet bridges that could get passengers high enough to board the aircraft and ground equipment had to be re-designed. Catering trucks were first put on lifts to serve the Queen’s meals.
Of course, the 747 changed everything about air travel on the inside. It was the first wide-body plane with a unique architecture for the main cabin and upper deck. Airlines began to experiment with the space and the seat classes and services available, including piano bars and lounges on the upper deck. The 747 required more flight crew onboard and new service procedures, including new ways to prepare, stack and serve hundreds of meals. All of those improvements and experiments trickled down to the design of smaller jets that fly today—and modern large ones too.
Because the 747 was a large financial risk for Boeing, its designer Joe Sutter, made a back-up plan right at the front. The nose of the aircraft lifts up to reveal considerable cargo capacity which can be loaded easily. Cargo plays an important role in airline profitability—even making passenger planes more profitable. Sutter had plans early on for the 747 to serve as a freighter when its useful life as a passenger plane ended. Frankly, Sutter never expected it would last this long. That freight capacity still makes the 747 attractive to airlines and will keep the plane in the skies longer, even if the only passengers remaining onboard are the crew. The most remarkable cargo the 747 ever flew was the space shuttle, which was mounted on the back of the aircraft.
While all U.S. airlines have retired their 747s, Air China, British Airways, KLM, Korean Air and Lufthansa will keep theirs in passenger service a little longer so there will still be an opportunity for 747-lovers to fly this history-making plane. New Air Force 1 aircraft being built to serve the President of the United States, are still planned as 747 models.
Juan Trippe, the bold and visionary CEO of Pan American airlines, can be credited with giving life to the 747 program in the first place by insisting on a plane twice the size of the 707. He wanted a plane that would change the world; in his words, “a great weapon for peace, competing with intercontinental ballistic missiles for mankind's destiny.” Joe Sutter and Boeing certainly delivered.