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HfP’s brief history of the Boeing 747

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It is now 18 months since British Airways announced the retirement of its Boeing 747 fleet.  At the time, we published two articles on how the aircraft transformed commercial flying.  As it will be a quiet weekend on the site due to half-term, we thought we’d give them another outing.

Today, we will look at the history of the Boeing 747 programme.  Tomorrow, we will look specifically at its years of service with British Airways.

history of the Boeing 747

The original jumbo jet celebrated its 50th anniversary of in-service flying in January 2020 shortly before Boeing announced that it was planning to cease production of the aircraft entirely in 2023. Since 2016, Boeing has lost around $40 million per 747 produced.

It wasn’t always this way: for the vast majority of the 747’s history it was wildly successful, setting standards and expectations for passenger flight as well as playing a key part in democratising air travel.

The Jet Age

It was Pan Am founder Juan Trippe who saw the potential appeal of jet rather than propeller aircraft to the travelling public.  He encouraged Boeing to build its 707 aircraft, with a capacity of around 190 passengers.  (These days, the largest single-aisle A321 from Airbus can be fitted out with 240 seats.)

Jet aircraft were faster than propeller aircraft and, with turbofan engines and pressurised cabins, able to fly much higher and therefore out of the way of bad weather.

His instinct turned out to be correct, but it was almost too successful.  By the 1960s, airports were increasingly congested with smaller aircraft.  This lead Trippe to convince Boeing to build a jetliner which was more than twice the size of the 707 – the 747.  It built on Boeing’s previous plans for a heavy-lift freighter.

history of the Boeing 747

At the time, jet aircraft were already believed to be yesterday’s news: the future lay, quite clearly, in the form of supersonic aircraft such as Concorde, and Boeing was already working on one of its own.  This meant that any new jet aircraft would obviously soon be relegated to cargo flying, an important consideration for the design of the 747.

The requirement to maximise cargo space inspired the key design feature of the 747 – a two storey forward fuselage that would allow the cockpit to sit above the main deck and offer cargo front-loading:

history of the Boeing 747

The scale of the 747 meant that it would not fit in Boeing’s existing hangars. To facilitate construction, a new assembly line was built in Everett – it remains the largest indoor enclosed space in the world.

history of the Boeing 747

The development of the jumbo jet didn’t come cheap.  The manufacturing site alone cost $200 million. By 1969, daily expenditure reached $6 million dollars or around $40 million dollars today when adjusted for inflation!

The scale of the project was mind blowing.  Fifty thousand people worked on the project at its peak, and each aircraft included 4.5 million separate parts.  Boeing is believed to have invested over $1 billion in total.

Entry into service wasn’t smooth. Whilst the aircraft had its first flight in 1969 and entered commercial service in 1970, it was soon discovered that the Pratt & Whitney engines were underpowered given the size of the plane. This lead to around 30 aircraft being grounded during early 1970, and Boeing pushed to the edge of bankruptcy.

Luckily, Boeing’s gamble eventually paid off and the 747 took off both figuratively and literally in the 1970s and 1980s.  Airlines were forced to acquire their own fleet in order to compete with Pan Am.  The 747’s small second deck transformed flying and was often used as an on-board lounge, bar or restaurant for passengers.

Additional 747 variants

The jumbo jet was refreshed several times during its lifetime. Major updates included the 747-400 in the late-eighties, with an increased range, longer upper deck and better efficiency. This was the variant still in service with British Airways until it announced plans to retire it. In recent years, British Airways has been the largest global operator of 747s.

history of the Boeing 747

In 2005, Boeing launched the 747-8 to compete with the Airbus A380. It would again improve efficiency, range and capacity, becoming the longest airliner in the world.  This variant was far less successful, however.

Lufthansa is the biggest operator of the type with 19 in its fleet, followed by Korean Air.  In total, there are only 36 in commercial service with airlines: the vast majority produced are destined for cargo operations.

The Boeing 747-8 will remain the longest aircraft in regular commercial use until the Boeing 777X is launched in the coming years.

The sun sets on the 747

The demise of the 747 family was caused by the improved safety of twin engined aircraft.  Most early jetliners had three or four engines, which meant that the aircraft would be able to land safely in the event that one engine was damaged or inoperable.

Older readers will remember that Virgin Atlantic used to advertise the ‘superiority’ of its four engine aircraft with its ‘4 engines 4 long haul’ slogan:

When twin engined aircraft were introduced, over-water flying was time-limited under ‘Extended Operations’ regulations or ETOPS.   This meant that aircraft had to fly within a specified number of minutes of a suitable diversion airport at all times.

In the 1970s, Airbus introduced the A300, the first widebody twin-engined aircraft. The A300 was permitted to fly across the North Atlantic, Bay of Bengal and and Indian Ocean on a route up to 90 minutes from the closest airports. This still meant taking indirect routings where multi-engined aircraft such as the 747 and A340 could fly direct.

history of the Boeing 747

In the late 80s, ETOPS was extended to 120 and 180 minutes from the closest diversionary airports providing the aircraft fulfilled certain technical and operational requirements.  This increasingly made twin-engine aircraft more attractive, as they were more fuel efficient and required less maintenance.

In 1994 Boeing introduced its first 777 aircraft, which is widely credited with popularising long-haul twin jet operations.  These days, aircraft with three or four engines are a costly and unnecessary extravagance.

It is possibly an understatement to say that the Boeing 747 has shaped flying as we know it today. Over its lifetime, the jumbo jet enabled direct long-haul flights across vast oceans and continents and helped to democratise travel by reducing prices.

In Part 2 of this article tomorrow, we look at the part played by the Boeing 747 in the history of British Airways.

Comments (35)

This article is closed to new comments. Feel free to ask your question in the HfP forums.

  • Aaron C says:

    I really enjoyed that!

  • Michael Jennings says:

    A couple of tiny pieces of pedantry with the phrasing:

    “Most early jetliners had three or four engines, which meant that the aircraft would be able to land safely in the event that one engine was damaged or inoperable.”

    I think it would be better if you said “in the event that MORE THAN one engine was damaged or inoperable. All operating twin-jets are perfectly capable of continuing to fly and land with one engine, but three or four engines gave double redundancy.


    “When twin engined aircraft were introduced, over-water flying was time-limited under ‘Extended Operations’ regulations or ETOPS. ”

    It still is, of course, but 180 minute ETOPS is now normal and new aircraft have been certified with this from day one.

    • Dominic C says:

      The sentence as written is both grammatically and factually correct. Your suggested amendment is wrong because it presupposes that at least two engines need to be in the specified condition for the aircraft to land safely. If you want to capture all possible scenarios, the correct way to express the point is “in the event that one or more engines” was/were damaged or inoperable. I should get out more(!)

  • says:

    I flew the Jumbo for 23 years with Virgin and it truly was a brilliant aeroplane…….and what ramp presence! The lease costs towards the end were, I was led to believe, circa $200,000 p/m whereas the 787 was $1.2M. You’d need twice the fuel to get to MCO but in the summer you’d have 450 people on board. To get that many using the Dreamliner you need 2, thus cancelling out the fuel saving.

    To see 5 of our Jumbos around the satellite in Orlando on a Saturday was a great sight. Of course, the aircraft weren’t always full and they suffered a little more from maintenance issues so the bean counters won out in the end, assisted by the pandemic.

  • Maxim says:

    The upper deck stretch was introduced with the -300 not the -400.

    • BlueThroughCrimp says:

      KLM had retro-fitted stretch -200s (SUD) and JAL two -100s also modified before the -300 launched.

  • Kevin says:

    Sadly I didn’t make it onto a BA 747 or any 747 for that matter! Was due to fly Virgin 747 from LA-LHR in 2009 but I changed my flight to come home early and enjoyed an A340. Living in Ireland, my long haul trips are often ex Dublin and on Airbus equipment.

  • Brian says:

    “As it will be a quiet weekend on the site due to half-term”

    absolute pedant here, but is this not the first time half term has not been synchronised across the country. half the people i know are this week, half are next week.

    big questions:
    1. how has this affected prices?
    2. which areas are this week, which next?
    3. when will we see this again, if ever?

    (sorry more important than history of 747..)

    thanks B

    • Rob says:

      In terms of ski pricing the timing of London, Dutch and German half terms has the real impact. Nothing else moves the needle.

  • Meyers says:

    Great writing again Rhys!

    A good site creates strong, pertinent writing that’s relevant, interesting and often news-breaking and HFP does that in spades!
    A great site goes just that little bit further and provides content that’s not only relevant and interesting but creative and different, showing passion for the subject matter, developing extra light and shade and HFP brings buckets to those spades.

    Thank you HFP team!

This article is closed to new comments. Feel free to ask your question in the HfP forums.

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