The plane that made air travel affordable

TAG: 747 Anniversary
Original 747 economy interior with seats set in a generous in a 2-4-3 configuration across the widith. Credit Boeing Historical Archives
Photo of Geoffrey Thomas

When the Boeing 747 entered service, the cost of a return trip to London from Perth was the equivalent of about 15 weeks’ salary. Today, it is just over one week’s average weekly earnings.

The 747 was not supposed to carry passengers for so many years — at the time the world was looking to supersonic travel with the Boeing SST and the Concorde as the future in aviation.

But Boeing has to date sold 1537 of its 747s and the aircraft is still in production, with a new model still wowing passengers.

Giving life to the plane that changed the world was a challenge that brought Boeing, the world’s biggest aerospace company, the then-biggest engine maker Pratt and Whitney and the legendary Pan Am to their knees.

In the late 1960s, Boeing’s resources were stretched to the limit as its engineers grappled with the complexities of its US government-sponsored supersonic transport, dubbed the Boeing 2707, which was eventually scrapped by Congress on May 20, 1971, despite commitments for 115 from 25 airlines.

The 2707 was to carry three times the number of passengers as Concorde at twice the speed.

At the time, the 747 was considered only an interim solution that might carry passengers for five to 10 years until the supersonic transports took over.

Fortunately, Boeing had appointed Joe Sutter, a brilliant young designer, to the project and he was to father the classic jet.

Mr Sutter, who still has an office at Boeing, was modest about his role.

“I was the only qualified person available, ” he said in a 2009 interview. “All the smart guys — Maynard Pennell, Bill Cook, Bob Withington and many others — were tied up on the SST while Jack Steiner was heading the 737 program.”

The 747 was from the outset designed to be converted to a freighter as the superseded model was relegated to cargo routes.

“That’s what Boeing’s marketing people thought, ” Mr Sutter said. “They estimated we’d probably sell 50 or so for passenger use.”

The 747 was a mass-travel dream of Pan American World Airways founder Juan Trippe and Boeing chief Bill Allen. Mr Trippe had started mass travel in 1948 when he introduced economy class onto 50-seat DC-4s. But the 747 was much bigger and could carry more than 350 people — almost double the 707 — and allow the carrier to slash fares.

When the 747 entered service, the cost of a return trip to London from Perth was the equivalent of about 15 weeks’ salary.

Today, it is just over one week’s average weekly earnings.

It is impossible to find anyone who recalls whether there was a definitive business plan for the 747. But traffic was booming for the airline industry, which had enjoyed growth of 15 per cent a year through the early 1960s as passengers flocked to jets from piston-engined planes.

Mr Trippe was a man on a mission. He wanted to make travel affordable and he believed the 747, with the high bypass turbofan engines developed for military transports, could do just that. The 747 was expected to cut operating costs by 30 per cent over the 707 model.

Pan Am loved the concept but most airlines were terrified of the jumbo’s size. Regardless of the reticence of other airlines, on April 13, 1966 Pan Am ordered 25 747s at $22 million a piece.

Today, they cost $356 million.

Qantas ordered four and British Airways six while many airlines only ordered two or three just to stay in the race.

But the trickle of 747 orders was not the major problem. It was the weight. The jumbo was initially supposed to weigh 250,000kg at take-off but by the time it took its first flight design changes impacting range, altitude, speed and fuel burn saw it top 322,000kgs.

According to some insiders, the company threatened to cancel the 747 program unless the engine maker agreed to additional thrust to solve the problems.

At the time, Boeing had serious competition looming from Lockheed and Rolls Royce, which had started production of the Tristar, and McDonnell Douglas and GE with their DC-10.

A solution, to run the engines at higher temperatures to give more thrust, was found and within six months of entering service the jumbo was performing at acceptable levels.

But it came at a price and Boeing was mired in debt from the 747 program, owing banks $1.2 billion, $7.2 billion in today’s money.

Despite the many problems in its manufacture, the birth of the 747 was an amazing feat.

With the extra space on the 747s, airlines splashed out with upper- deck lounges and many also had lounges at the back of economy. Sadly, a Boeing plan for a lower- deck lounge, called the Tiger Lounge because of the fabric design, never made it.

The spacious age, however, was short-lived, with airlines responding to a demand for cheaper travel by adding more seats. In economy, that meant additional seats across the plane’s width.

And in the late 70s, Qantas introduced a world first in business class, which started a revolution in passenger comfort. Today, the 747 is still the “Queen of the Skies” to many and for billions of passengers it is the plane that allowed them to see the world.


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