Why Wasn’t The Boeing 747-300 So Popular?

The Boeing 747 has been one of the most significant aircraft to date, revolutionizing long-haul travel. For many years, it was the most sold widebody – but was overtaken by the 777 in 2014. Not all variants have had the same success, though. The 747-300 was by far the lowest selling variant, with just 81 aircraft sold.

Air France Boeing 747-300 Combi taking-off at dusk
The 747-300’s upper deck was over seven meters longer than previous designs, and became standard on the 747-400. Photo: Getty Images

Launching the 747

To understand where the 747-300 came from, we’ll take a quick look back at the development of the Jumbo. The 747 was conceived as a larger successor to the popular Boeing 707. This first flew in 1957 and is widely regarded as the jet age’s first highly successful aircraft. The de Havilland Comet had entered service several years earlier but has suffered several issues that limited its adoption.

Pan American World Airways (Pan Am) was the launch customer for the 707 and worked closely with Boeing on its development. The motivation for the 747 came largely from Pan Am too. It brought the vision for an aircraft over twice the size of the 707. This would offer lower costs per seat and get around the growing problem of aircraft congestion at major airports.

Boeing 707 and 747 Pan Am
Pan Am wanted the Boeing 747 to be over twice the size of the Boeing 707. Photo: Getty Images

Development of the 747 began in April 1966, with Pan Am ordering 25 aircraft for $525 million. The first 747-100 flew in February 1969. It entered service with Pan Am in January 1970.

The 747-100 was also limited in sales. Boeing only sold 205 aircraft, as it was soon improved by the 747-200 (first flying with Qantas in 1971). This offering higher-powered engines (initially upgraded Pratt & Whitney JT9D-7 engines, but later General Electric and Rolls-Royce engines were added), improved range, and cargo versions.

First 747 construction
The first 747 flew in 1969, seen here under construction in 1968. Photo: Getty Images

Developing the 747-300

Boeing sold 389 747-200s, and the type was now well on its way to success. The 747-300 built on this success, keeping the improvements of the 747-200 but increasing capacity further with a stretched upper deck. It first flew in 1982 and entered service with Swissair in 1983.

Swissair 747-300
The 747-300 introduced the stretched upper deck. Photo: Aero Icarus via Wikimedia

It remained on sale until only 1985 and attracted only 81 orders. 60 of these were for passenger versions, 21 for combi freighter aircraft, and no orders were placed for cargo versions.

Limited sales due to other variants

Why did Boeing end up selling so few 747-300s? This is not really anything to do with a shift in popularity for the 747, or any problems with the variant. It is more to do with the availability of other variants. The additional offering of the 747-300 over the 747-200 was in many ways minimal – especially given the higher price. Many airlines that wanted 747s had already ordered the 747-200. There was also a strong second-hand market in place by now.

It was not just the older 747s that limited sales. With the continued popularity of the type and with new competition from Airbus and the A300, Boeing quickly launched a new, further improved variant. The 747-400 was launched for sale in 1985 and offered many improvements. This became the choice for new orders and upgrades, and the 747-300s fate was quickly sealed.

Qantas 747-300
Qantas was a significant operator of the 747-300. Photo: Aero Icarus via Wikimedia

The success of the 747-400

The 747-400 went to be a great success and by far the most sold 747 variant. It was launched in 1989 with Northwest Airlines and remained in production until 2009 (2005 for the passenger version). In total, 694 aircraft were delivered.

Lufthansa Boeing 747, Combi
The 747-400 has been operated by many airlines. Photo: Getty Images

As further evidence of the 747-300s potential, the 747-400 kept the stretched upper deck. It added several other key upgrades, including additional fuel tanks, new engine choices, and wingtip modifications. It also kept pace with market changes by switching to a two-person flight deck.

The Boeing 747 has been one of the most popular aircraft to date, both with airlines and passengers. The 747-400 and 747-8 remain well in service, although fleets have suffered during the pandemic. As for the 747-300, none remain in scheduled passenger use in 2021. Feel free to discuss more about this particular variant and its past operators in the comments. 

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