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

    • You’re right on the L-1011 with the vne (never exceed)speed of M 0.95

      But although 747-100,200 and 300 have a vne of 0.89 but the 747sp,747-400 and 747-8 have a vne of mach 0.92

      During testing boeing got the -8 to fly at mach 0.99 in a shallow dive.

      Dynasty 006 (747 sp) went uncontrollable due to slow pilot reaction(from pilot fatigue), went supersonic in a dive and pulled 5gs (5 times its own weight)

      The gear doors were ripped apart and the some of the elevators were torn from the plane. But they landed the plane safely with no casualties.

      My point here is not to bash the L-1011 but just to justify the the 747’s capabilities (please don’t go to try out them though)

      I believe the 747 and L-1011 are the best widebodies in their class and in the world on the basis of speed, structural integrity,smoothness of flight and being a great pilot’s aeroplane.

      They are the example of what the ideal place( because Mr. Joe Sutter who is the chief engineer of the original 747 said his plane is a place not a method of conveyance) that takes you across the globe should be (given airlines configure them well).

      The world needs the L 1011 to step back to the midsize widebody arena to bring the prestige back to air travel especially with midsized jets.

      If they could believe in her once more and get her some revolutionary avionics,engines,range and etc. Similar economics to 787 or a 350. Keep the same or have better luxury and service of the golden jet aviation age (1950s to about 70s.Finally some master advertising work and I believe she could wipe the floor with 787 and the a350.

      The 747 on the will also need the upgrade and stop being dependent on the technology that comes from other projects like the 787 ( don’t get me wrong I love the 747-8)

      It’s time to rollout the legendary giants of the 747 family the 747-600 and the 747-700

      As until now they are only concepts from the 2000s but if they will be the pinnacle of large, luxury widebody travel given they spring to life. The -600X to be bigger than the a380 and carry about the same amount of passengers in extreme comfort. The -700X to hopefully do what the 747-100 did to the aviation world back in 1969 and hopefully use the most of the same airports. They should also provide class leading strength like the real 747s we have today, as the a380 is suffering from wing cracks and the passengers who deserve to relax on a spacious, luxurious (again depending on airline config) fast,quiet,smooth and stable 747s are being squished in 10 Abreast 777-300ERs and in the future 777-9x which has the same MTOW as the 300ER but with less powerful engines. How is one able to fly an underpowered twin jet with an engine failure. Hopefully I am wrong.

      The Queen of the Skies is the last candle of the golden age of jet aviation. All her fallen sisters are candles blown out by winds of fuel price manipulation and the industry trying to save $$$ by being cheap.

      747 you must relight and revive the your failed sisters. Go show the world of tortured passengers who you truly were and truly are and in the meantime change the aviation world again so it is as prestigious to fly as it is prestigious to sail on the ocean liner Queen Mary 2.

      Jet aviation today is in a stall in quality and care of passengers.Someone please push the power forward and recover the industry

      Hopefully someone who knows better and is better than I will act upon this, I am just and ordinary man

  12. “Time is money.” Cruising…meaning at speed under load…in excess of 600mph can only be equaled by a freight train (again “once you include the load” or the purpose of the vehicle to even exist.) Yes Boeing will probably cease production (this being 2016 now) but the 747 will be flying for the next thousand years in one form or another because of unequaled “how much how fast” advantage.

    If someone wants to get to LA from NY in under three hours they won’t be flying commercial.

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