Posted by: Jerry Garrett | January 24, 2010

Boeing 747: World’s Fastest Passenger Aircraft Turns 40

Boeing 747 celebrates 40th anniversary of its first commercial flight


The Boeing 747 celebrated its 40th birthday this week. Champagne for everyone.

But what’s your toast? Greater things ahead for the 747? It is sort of shocking that a 40-year-old airplane still sets the industry standard. What does that say about commercial aviation itself? At best, it’s an industry that seems to be content to rest on its laurels – like the 747; at worst, its going backward, not forward.

Will the 747, or commercial aviation – as we know it, even exist in another 40 years? One wonders.

When the first Boeing 747 took to the skies on January 22, 1970, it marked a quantum leap forward in aircraft design, size, speed, and comfort. It was three times larger, and at its 640 m.p.h. cruising speed, considerably faster. For the commercial airline industry since then, it has been all downhill from there.

Disagree? Find anything that tops a 747. The workhorse of the industry is still the Boeing 737, which has been around even longer (in commercial use since 1968).

The closest anything has come is the late, great Concorde (1973-2003). Though it could cruise at 1,330 m.p.h. – twice as fast as conventional, sub-sonic aircraft – it was too small to carry a commercially viable number of passengers, and it was a gas hog. That meant it couldn’t serve many routes. Now it serves none.

The 747, now in its eighth generation, can fly just about any route in the world. South African Airlines flies 747s from New York’s JFK to Johannesburg, a 21-hour flight, which it claims is the world’s longest non-stop commercial airline route.

The 747’s weakness, if it has one, is in shorter flights. It’s too big for smaller airports, and its passenger capacity may be viewed as too great to fill for short hops.

But it is rare that a 747 is operated on flights within the U.S. nowadays. Though 1,400 have been made, capacity-strapped airlines have mothballed many; hundreds sit idle in storage fields (like in California’s Mojave Desert).

Mothballed 747s in Mojave Desert storage facility

A sad sight indeed.

In its coast-to-coast heyday, the 747 reduced the flying time between LAX and JFK to about four hours. Now, lumbering, cramped, fuel-swilling 737s are often used for that route – and the flying time has ballooned to six hours and more.

More recently developed passenger aircraft, like the Airbus A380 (a good 80-100 m.p.h. slower than a 747), concentrate merely on cramming the most people in the tightest possible space, like cattle in boxcars in the sky.

Remember when train travel was so popular? For years, people tried to make faster and faster trains (in Japan and Europe they’re still trying) and tried to continually lower the transcontinental U.S. speed record. But the progression of train development in the U.S. slowed in the early 20th Century (their transcontinental times are now slower than they were 100 years ago); not surprisingly, passenger trains were largely supplanted by automobiles.

Will commercial aircraft someday be supplanted by something else? If ever an industry more regressive, had a lower customer satisfaction rating, and was more ripe for a disruptive technology to come along and replace it, I can’t think of a better example than commercial aviation. Will it be challenged by flying cars, personal jet packs, or Beam-Me-Up-Scotty type transporters? Somewhere there’s a budding Henry Ford waiting to revolutionize travel.

About the only visionary in the industry these days is Sir Richard Branson. His Virgin Galactic could begin test flights of his SpaceShipTwo passenger aircraft to Outer Space this year. Mr. Branson rightly believes that in aviation, the sky should be the limit.

Long live the 747, but it’s hard to look upon its 40th birthday as a sign of “progress.”

Jerry Garrett

January 24, 2010


  1. What are your thoughts on the relatively new Brazilian aircraft manufacturer Embraer? Virgin Blue in Australia operates a few of their jets and they’re quite nice. But you’re right, as far as innovation goes we haven’t really moved in the last four decades. What’s going on?

    • Thank you for writing. I like the four-across seating arrangement and the “double-bubble” stand-up cabin of the E170/175 and E190/195 family. This has always seemed to me a logical configuration, and I think fliers agree. Nobody gets trapped in a middle seat. The cabin feels comparatively spacious and not like flying in a culvert. The smaller craft, with three-across seating, are quite unpleasant. In the 170-190 class planes, you can actually use the toilet. Best of all, overall operational costs have proven to be less. The plane feels like a new design, and tailored to a specific niche of flying needs.

    • Dunno about relatively new. The good ol Bandit (Bandeirante) first flew in 1968 which makes Embraer older than Airbus. But I too have flown a couple of time in the Virgin E90 and find them very comfortable.

  2. I would agree with the basic premise that aircraft performance hasn’t improved much in the past 5 decades, but only if the only performance criteria is speed. If you consider efficiency, range, load carrying, safety, noise, pollution, and probably a host of other factors, then performance has improved substantially. THe first 747s burned way more fuel and had much less range than the new ones. Early 747s could not fly anywhere near the 22 hours that the most recent ones can. The main reasons for the slowed pace of aviation advances are probably; cost of fuel, cost of certification, and a more conservative industry.

    Remember that when the first jet airliners went into service there jet powered flight was less than a decade old. These days it takes longer than that to get a new aircraft certified. We are now much less willing to accept a few crashes as bugs get worked out. We are also unwilling to pay much for our tickets. I have been flying for over 30 years and it seems to me that the best price on a ticket today is only a little more than it was 30 years ago, but inflation has run about 1000%.

  3. i think that as a 13 year old the serviar size of the 747 is to big and athought im 13 iv flied 30 times scince i was 5 i love air i plane but the brand new aircraft will beat all planes hands down thanks for reading also what the oldest in use plane

  4. what is current capacity & millage per hour of B-747

    • There are many different seating configurations. Each airline has its own seating plan. MPH also varies by load and operational factors.

  5. At the top it says a bout the fasted plane with pasengers thats wrong the fastest passenger plane was Concorde

    • We do take a moment in the story to acknowledge the Concorde, may it RIP

  6. The A380 is not 80-100mph slower than a 747, are you perhaps making things up to support the premise of your post? Which was otherwise good. Perhaps post a link to support your claims.

  7. I believe the information to be incorrect.
    The fastest commercial subsonic aircraft was/is the Convair 990 – M 0.9 sustained.

    • I do believe that the Boeing 727-200 advance. Was the quickest of all the Boeing aircraft. But the Convair 880 – 990 were much quicker. The author has not done his home work

    • Siegfried – Yes you are correct, my friend Bill Denman is a retired aeronautical engineer who designed the ant-skid system for the ‘Connie’. He has related that on a test flight from San Diego to Seattle, (when they buzzed the Boeing Field) they flew Mach .9 the whole way – around two hours as I recall. I can get the exact date later but I know that the flight was in the early sixties.

    • Siegfried – Yes you are correct, my friend Bill Denman is a retired aeronautical engineer who designed the ant-skid system for the ‘Connie’. He has related that on a test flight from San Diego to Seattle, (when they buzzed the Boeing Field) they flew supersonic whole way – around two hours as I recall. I can get the exact date later but I know that the flight was in the early sixties.

  8. […] 747 es capaz de cubrir una distancia de 14 mil 815 kilómetros; por ejemplo, puede realizar un viaje de Nueva York a Johannesburgo, Sudáfrica, en 21 horas, el vuelo más largo sin escalas en el […]

  9. You really need to check your facts ballbag, ever heard of the vc10? What an idiot!!!!!!!!!!!’

    • Thanks for your kind note. The Vickers VC 10 had a max speed of 580 mph, according to the manufacturer; that is well below the 640 mph-plus speed capability of a 747. Also, of the 54 ever built, only a couple dozen ever were used regularly by passenger airlines. The plane was such a fuel guzzler that the 1973 Arab oil embargo essentially put it out of production, after a very short life span. It was re-purposed for military uses. The VC 10 is as dead as a dodo; it was produced for eight years, and has been out of production since 1970. Meanwhile the 747 has been in production for more than 47 years (since 1966) and more than 1,540 have been built to date.

      • Don’t disagree with your comments about the VC10 but it does still hold the world record for the fastest trans-Atlantic crossing of a non-supersonic commercial airliner – and that is despite the legions of beautiful 747s crossing the Atlantic year-in and year-out for decades.

    • There’s always one guy who not only has to disagree but has to do it rudely. Your mum would be so proud.

  10. I dunno where you got the 21hrs from Jo’burg to New York. SAA flies daily JNB-JFK at 15hrs 35mins and the reverse in 15hrs 15mins. Someone lese mentioned 22hrs. Nobody has ever gone close to operating a 20+hr nonstop route. The fastest current is Qantas DFW-BNE at 16hrs 5mins which may be bettered slightly when the A380 replaces the 744 and allows DFW-SYD.
    I’m pretty confident the 990 was the fastest commercial aircraft of its time and would stabnd up very well today. The beauty of the skies, the L1011 was no slouch either and could sustain Mach 0.90. But it is a credit to the 747 that so many others have come and gone, e.g. DC10/MD11, B757, MD80/90, A300/310 and it continues in production. Alas, I fear the 747 and the A380 may be the last of the great four engined jets as people now choose a smaller jet on a direct flight over a larger jet to a hub with a connection onwards. And its amazing that what may be the finest aircraft ever built by the USA was never really embraced by the US airline. Too big for domestic use, most airlines ordere them by quickly retired them. Pan Am and TWA kept a fleet of old jumbos until their demise but never updated. Northwest was probably the biggest user, having an extensive trans-Pacific network but the others were content to stick to models like the 767 for Atlantic routes. As an Aussie I remember at one stage Qantas prodly advertising that it was the only all-747 airline in the world. She is still a magnificent, fast and safe airliner and long may she reign.

  11. The L-1011 has a top speed of Mach 0.95. That’s a lot faster than a 747. The 727 will cruise at Mach 0.9, so the 747 isn’t even Boeing’s fastest passenger jet.

    • I agree

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