The Boeing 747 – Everything You Need To Know

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The Boeing 747 changed the aviation industry in many ways. An iconic aircraft, loved by many, it is sadly now being retied by many airlines. With the new 747-8, though, the 747 is not going anywhere soon.

This guide takes a full look at this long-running “Queen of the Skies,” from its origins in the late 1960s up to the continuing production today. We will look at the many variants developed throughout this long history, as well as some that weren’t, and the airlines that have operated them.

Farewell-Beoing-747
Qantas was a leading operator of the 747 in its heyday. Photo: Getty Images

History and development of the Boeing 747

Concept of the 747 – Improving on the 707

The origins of the 747 go back to the 1960s. Pan American World Airways (Pan Am) saw the economic potential and asked Boeing to design an aircraft around 2.5 times the size of the Boeing 707. Boeing and Pan Am had already had great success with the 707 and wanted to take this further with a higher capacity, twin-aisle aircraft.

Pan Am Boeing 707 and 747
Pan American Boeing 707 and 747 together, showing the size increase the 747 offered. Photo: Getty Images

Development began once Pan Am ordered 25 aircraft, for $525 million, in April 1966. Such close interaction between one airline and a manufacturer is unusual, and the involvement of Pan Am in the development of the 747 is unmatched in other developments.

Designing the 747

Boeing did not start from scratch with its design of the 747. It returned to recent work it had been doing to design a freighter aircraft for the US military (it lost this to the C5 Galaxy).

Initially, a full second deck was envisioned, but this was not possible due to safety requirements at the time. This resulted in the small upper deck that we all recognize. The smaller upper deck also allowed for a wider main fuselage for the aircraft, improving its cargo capacity. This, of course, has gone on to be a big success for the 747.

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Such a large aircraft needed a new high-bypass turbofan engine design too. This would deliver higher power but with lower fuel consumption. Both General Electric and Pratt & Whitney were working on this type of engine, but General Electric was committed to developing it for the Galaxy C-5 aircraft. Pratt & Whitney joined the 747 development, designing the JT9D engine specifically for it.

JT9D engines
New JT9D engines were developed to cope with the increased aircraft weight. Photo: Olivier Cleynen via Wikimedia

Boeing engineer Joe Sutter led the 747 development program. He had previously worked on the 707, 727, and 737, and he was transferred to lead 747 development. Referred to as the “Father of the 747” by Smithsonian Air and Space magazine, many of his initiatives, such as dual design for freight use, were critical to the success and longevity of the program.

Construction of the 747

Following Pan Am’s order in 1966, delivery of the first 747 was set for the end of 1969. This was a massive undertaking in a comparatively short time.

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The first challenge was to secure a new location for development as none of Boeing’s existing sites could handle such large construction. A new site at Everett, Washington, was purchased and built (alongside the first aircraft prototype). It is still the largest building, measured by usable volume, in the world today. The 747 has been continuously built at Everett since 1966, alongside the later 767, 777, and some 787 aircraft.

Boeing assembly plant, Everett
The plant at Everett, north of Seattle, continues in use today. Photo: Getty Images

The first 747 was completed in September 1968, with its first flight taking place on February 9th, 1969. Testing after this took longer and cost more than expected. There were problems with the JT9D engines, as well as an incident that damaged one of the test aircraft.

It entered service on schedule with Pan Am operating it for the first time on January 22nd, 1970, from New York to London.

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Pan Am 747
The Pan Am 747. Photo: Getty Images

Impact of the 747 – changing aviation for the better

The 747 has shaped the aviation world in many ways. Perhaps most importantly, at the time of its introduction, it changed the economics of flying. The increased capacity gave airlines much more scope for different pricing and ticket types. This was especially so when combined with the deregulation of airfares in the US. In many ways, this heralded the start of affordable long-haul travel.

Introducing new onboard facilities and cabins

The increased space offered by the 747 not only allowed for more passengers and lower fares, but it also facilitated the introduction of new cabin features. Separate first and economy class seating had been prevalent since the late 1950s, but many airlines took this much further with the 747.

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BOAC first class 747 cabin, 1970. Photo: Getty Images

Several airlines used the upper deck space to create lounge areas for first class. This was common in the early days of aviation (when flying was, in general, an expensive and luxurious affair) but had been lost during the development of larger jets and economy travel.

Qantas offered one of the most notable innovations, with its themed Captain Cook lounge on its 747s. Pan Am used the upper deck as a restaurant for first class passengers. American Airlines offered a lounge with a bar and piano. And in Asia, Air India, Singapore Airlines and Japan Airlines all had upper deck first class lounges. Singapore Airlines even featured seats that converted for overnight sleeping.

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747 first class
Upper deck first class service on the 747s. Photo: Qantas

During the 1970s, many airlines carved out ‘premium’ parts of their economy cabins (but left their first class cabins alone). By the early 1980s, major airlines such as Pan Am, TWA, British Airways, and Qantas were offering three cabins. Three cabin services grew with the 747 and later (along with other aircraft) saw expansion to four cabins with the addition of premium economy.

Combined freight use

Another significant change introduced by the 747 was its dual-use function, making it suitable for passengers or cargo. The 747 was designed from the outset to accommodate both. The upper deck both increased passenger capacity but also left a full main deck, able to be maximized for cargo. The addition of a lifting nose made this even easier.

747 Cargo
The 747’s cargo credentials have made it a popular choice. Photo: Getty Images

Boeing saw this as an essential feature, partly as a significant alternate focus at the time was on supersonic aircraft. Boeing was also working on a supersonic jet, the Boeing 2707, to compete with the British and French-designed Concorde. If passenger aircraft demand moved in this direction, the 747 could still find a place as a heavy freighter.

The 747 variants

The Boeing 747 first entered service with Pan Am in 1970. Initial orders for the aircraft were slow. It was launched amidst an oil crisis, and there were difficulties with the engines and performance. In the first two years, only two aircraft were sold (to Irish airline Aer Lingus).

This improved throughout the 1970s, and orders increased, partly as Boeing took feedback from customers to improve the aircraft through later variants. The following have been the main variants introduced throughout this journey:

The 747-100

The 747-100 was the first version launched in 1970. This used the specially designed JT9D engines and was only produced as a passenger version. It had a smaller upper deck than later versions, and initially only had three windows along each side. This was increased on the following variants and retrofitted on some 747-100 aircraft as airlines started to use the upper deck for seating and not just lounges.

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A BOAC 747-100 showing the original three-window upper deck. Photo: British Airways

There was also a 747-100SR variant, designed to operate with a higher passenger capacity and less fuel on shorter routes. It was only ever operated by Japanese Airlines (Japan Airlines and ANA) on domestic routes.

176 747-100 and 29 747-100SR aircraft were delivered (based on Boeing data).

The 747SP

The 747SP came about to meet airline demand for a longer range aircraft that could operate between New York and the Middle East. The solution was to shorten the 747-100 fuselage and to implement changes to the flaps and stabilizers to compensate.

It entered service in 1976 with both Pan Am and IranAir. 44 aircraft were produced by 1982, and then one final one in 1987 (Boeing re-opened the program) for the UAE government.

747SP
A Pan Am 747SP. Photo: US National Archives and Records Administration via Wikimedia

The 747-200

The first upgrade to the 747 came quickly, launched in 1971. The main difference introduced with the 747-200 was improved higher thrust engines. This had been a limitation of the 747-100 for higher payload and longer range routes and was a modification that boosted sales. It was initially offered with upgraded Pratt & Whitney JT9D-7 engines, but options were later available with General Electric and Rolls-Royce engines.

It was also the first to be available as a passenger (747-200B), cargo (747-200F), combi (747-200C) or convertible (747-200M) model. The cargo version added a lifting nose cargo door as well as a large side cargo door. The convertible was designed to be quickly convertible between passenger and cargo use, with removable seating, and a nose door. The combi version was for dual-use and had a moveable divider on the main deck.

747-200
The 747-200 cargo version entered service with Lufthansa in 1972. Most 747-200 aircraft featured the 10-window upper deck. Photo: Aero Icarus via Wikimedia

Sales really began to pick up with the 747-200. The modifications had been made to address concerns from airlines, and the oil ­crisis and high prices that had effected the early days of the 747 improved. Overall, 389 747-200 were delivered.

The 747-300

The 747-300 introduced the longer, stretched upper deck. The staircase up was also straightened to increase seating capacity on the main deck. It first flew in October 1982, and was offered as a passenger or combi version, but not as a freighter. There was also a 747-3000SR introduced, again with a shorter range and high capacity, designed for the Japanese market.

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The stretched upper deck of the 747-300 is just over seven meters longer. Photo: Aero Icarus via Flickr

81 747-300 aircraft were delivered, including only four 747-300SR models. It may have sold the least volume, but this was not due to a lack of popularity. It was further improved after just two years, leading to the 747-400. Like most 747s, the 747-300 had a long life. Qantas only retired its last aircraft in 2008, and Pakistan International Airlines in 2015.

The 747-400

Launched in 1989 with first customer Northwest Airlines, the 747-400 added many improvements and went on to see 694 aircraft delivered, right up to 2005. The main changes included:

  • Wingtip modification and winglets, offering a fuel efficiency improvement of around 4%
  • New cockpit design, for a flight crew of two (reduced from three)
  • Additional fuel tanks to increase range
  • Choice of improved engines from Pratt & Whitney, General Electric and Rolls-Royce
United 747-400
United 747-400. Photo: tjdarmstadt via Wikimedia

There have been several versions of the 747-400:

  • 747-400 – Passenger version (442 aircraft delivered)
  • 747-400F – Freighter version (126 aircraft delivered)
  • 747-400M – Combi version (61 aircraft delivered)
  • 747-400D – Domestic version. Like previous variants, this was a high capacity, shorter-range model designed for the Japanese market (19 aircraft delivered)
  • 747-400ER – Extended range passenger version (only six aircraft, ordered by Qantas)
  • 747-400ERF – Extended range freighter (40 aircraft delivered)

The 747-8

The 747-8 is the latest variant of the 747 and was launched in 2005. It first flew in 2010. It features many design upgrades, including engines and cockpit technology from the 787 program (hence the jump to ‘8’ in as its series number).

Lufthansa 747-8
Lufthansa is the largest passenger operator of the 747-8. Photo: Kiefer via Flickr

It is the largest 747 variant, stretched by 5.6 meters over the 747-400, offering an increased payload of around 16%. This makes it the longest commercial aircraft produced, longer than the A380 (although the Airbus beats it for total cabin space with its two decks).

It is offered in both a passenger version, the 747-8I, and a freighter version, 747-8F. So far, the 747-8 has received 154 total orders, including 106 for the freighter version and 47 for the passenger version.

Some special 747s

NASA Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA)

One of the more interesting conversions of the 747 has been for use by NASA to carry the US Space Shuttle orbiters. Two 747-100 aircraft were converted for this use in 1977 and retired in 2012 along with the Shuttle. The fuselage was strengthened to allow the Shuttle to be loaded on top, and several modifications were made to deal with the altered center of gravity of the aircraft.

They were primarily used to transport the Shuttle from its landing site back to the Kennedy Space Center.

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Challenger carried by NASA’s SCA 747. Photo: NASA via Wikimedia

NASA also operates another 747 as an airborne observatory. Known as SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy), this is a modified 747SP aircraft. It was converted after retirement from United Airlines and introduced in 2007. Parts of the fuselage were removed to increase range and operating height.

Air Force One – Boeing VC-25

The Boeing VC-25 is a modified version of the 747-200B, operated by the US Air Force as VIP transport – known as Air Force One when carrying the US President.

These two aircraft were introduced in 1990. They are based on the 747-200 but feature many of the improvements of the 747-400. Extra fuel tanks, and lower passenger capacity, give it a range of 12,600 kilometers.

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The iconic Boeing 747-200 commonly referred to as Air Force One. Photo: Getty Images

Replacement aircraft, based on the 747-8, have been ordered and are due to be delivered by 2024. The order came about after Airbus refused to bid for the A380 to be used, claiming that it would be too expensive to move production to the US.

747-400 Dreamlifter

Boeing’s 747-400 Dreamlifter is a modified version of the 747-400. Increasing the fuselage height and width gives a cargo volume of around three times that of the 747-400.

It was designed by Boeing to allow transport of parts of its 787 aircraft from suppliers, and four aircraft have been built. They are not operated by Boeing itself but outsourced – first to Evergreen and from 2020 to Atlas Air.

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Just four Dreamlifters were ever made. Photo: Getty Images.

Variants that were not developed

For such a long-running program, it is not surprising that there were several 747 variants considered by Boeing, but not developed. Some of the main ones include:

A three-engine 747

The 747 would not be the same without its four engines. But, back at the start of the program Boeing was seriously considering a three-engine version. This shortened trijet would have had one engine on each wing and a third in the tail, similar to the Boeing 727.

It would have been shortened from the four-engine 747, but still with a higher capacity and payload than the competition at the time (notably the Lockheed L1011, and the McDonnell Douglas DC-10).

Boeing 727
The Boeing 727 was a three-engine predecessor to the 747. Photo: Aero Icarus via Wikimedia

The project did not proceed however, due to the changes required to the aircraft. It would need a re-design of the wing, and Boeing was keen to maintain commonality (for production and pilot operation) with the four-engine version. The shortened version became the 747SP instead.

The 747-500

Up to the 747-400, the series numbering went sequentially. This was lost when the next in line was not developed. Boeing proposed the 747-500 in 1986, as a stretched version of the 747-400 (both decks would be larger) with a re-designed wing.

The stretched 747-500 would carry more passengers and fuel. It would have been able to fly non-stop from London to Sydney, with its range of 8,700 nautical miles. This would have been an achievement that, even today, airlines are struggling to reach.

The 747-500X, -600X and -700X

Boeing went further with the 747-500X, -600X, and 700X in 1996. These were proposed as different size options, with capacities of 462, 548, and 650, respectively, but decreased ranges. A new wing was proposed for these, based on the design of the 777.

747-500X
Size comparison of the 747-400 and the 747-500X. Image: Altair78 via Wikimedia

Sadly, none of these variants received enough interest from airlines to justify further development.

The 747X and 747X-Stretch

In the late 1990s, there was a lot of interest from airlines in producing higher capacity aircraft, based on the hub to hub operating model. Several manufacturers were looking at options larger than Boeing 747.

Airbus was working on proposals for the A3XX (the program that eventually became the A380), McDonnell had proposed the two-deck MD-12 in 1992, and Lockheed Martin had looked at plans for a Large Subsonic Transport with a capacity of up to 900 and an entire deck for cargo.

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The proposed two-deck MD-12. Photo: Anynobody via Wikimedia

Boeing’s response to this was the 747X and the 747X-Stretch. The improvements proposed on these were not as dramatic as those mooted for the -600X and -700X. The 747X would be a modest improvement on the 747-400, with a capacity of 430. The 747X-Stretch would increase this to 500 by stretching the fuselage to just over 80 meters.

Ultimately all these proposals were dropped. Boeing instead decided to develop aircraft based on the point to point operating model, leaving Airbus the only manufacturer to attempt to market such a large aircraft.

A380, Airbus Getty
Airbus was the only manufacturer to develop a new high capacity aircraft Photo: Getty Images

747 orders and deliveries

As of July 2020, there have been a total of 1,571 orders for the 747, across all its variants. And 1,556 aircraft have been delivered (based on Boeing data).

Airlines that have operated the 747 (top eight operators)

With over 1,500 aircraft delivered, many airlines have operated the 747. For a full list of all operators, and their orders, take a look at the data on the Boeing website.

Every major airline in the US has operated the 747, but all have now been retired. Delta Air Lines retired the last US 747 in December 2017. No US airline has ordered the 747-8, just as they have not ordered the A380, as operating preferences have changed.

Delta Boeing 747
Delta was the last operator of the 747 in the US. Photo: Getty Images

The following is a summary of the top 8 operators (by total deliveries):

Japan Airlines

The top operator of the 747 is Japan Airlines, with an outstanding 108 aircraft flown. It operated 20 of the original 747-100, including 12 of the specially designed SR variant for the Japanese market. It operated 44 747-400 aircraft, with the last retired in 2011, but has not ordered the 747-8. Simple Flying took a detailed look at where all its 747s ended up.

Japan Airlines 747
Japan Airlines was a heavy user of the 747 on long-haul, regional and domestic routes (a 747-400 is seen here at Hong Kong Kai Tak). Photo: Kambui via Wikimedia

British Airways

Like Japan Airlines, British Airways has operated all variants of the 747, taking its first 747-100 in 1974. It has operated an impressive 57 747-400 aircraft, the highest of any airline.

British Airways announced in July 2020 that it would retire all its remaining 747-400 aircraft early (these were previously expected to survive until 2024). Simple Flying took a look back at the airlines 747s here.

BOAC, Red Arrows, British Airways
British Airways repainted some 747s in historical liveries, shortly before retirement. Photo: British Airways

Singapore Airlines

Singapore Airlines has been the top operator of the 747 in Asia. It started operating the 747-200 in 1973 and has operated the 747-300 and 747-400.

If you include freighter orders, it has also beaten British Airways in operating the most 747-400 aircraft (with 42 passenger and 17 freighter aircraft). Some of these cargo versions remain in service (and were transferred to Singapore Airlines when its separate cargo airline ceased operations in 2018).

Singapore Airlines 747
Singapore Airlines has been the largest operator of the 747 in Asia. Photo: Aero Icarus via Flickr

Lufthansa

Lufthansa has been the second-largest operator in Europe, with 81 aircraft delivered since 1970. It’s 747-400 aircraft are due to be retired by 2025, but it has also ordered the 747-8I. It is the largest operator of the new 747-8, and the only one in Europe, with 19 aircraft delivered.

Korean Air

Korean Air has operated 79 aircraft, starting with the 747-200. It still operates both the passenger and cargo 747-400 and has taken delivery of 10 747-8I aircraft.

United Airlines

United Airlines was the largest operator of the 747 in the US. It was the second-largest purchaser of the original 747-100, ordering 22 compared to Pan Am’s initial order for 33. It operated 44 747-400s, retiring the last of them in 2017.

United 747-400
United 747-400. Photo: tjdarmstadt via Wikimedia

Cathay Pacific

Cathay Pacific has operated 59 747s, including for freight use. It operated the 747-400 until 2016 but still retains it (along with the 747-8F) for freight.

Qantas

Qantas began operating the 747-200B in 1971. After retiring its Boeing 707 aircraft, it became the only all-747 operator in the world. This lasted until it purchased the 767. Qantas ordered a total of 57 747s from Boeing but operated another eight secondhand or through leases.

It retired the last of its 747-400s in July 2020 and operated special final flights. Simple Flying took a look back at the significant history of the 747 with Qantas.

Qantas-Boeing-747-History
Qantas installed a Captain Cook themed lounge on its early 747s. These really were the 747s glory years! Photo: Qantas News Room

The future of the 747

End of production?

The 747, of course, remains in production with the 747-8. There have been reports that Boeing may end the program after the remaining ordered aircraft are delivered, but this is not confirmed.

Of those aircraft still to be delivered, two are destined for the US Air Force as replacements for Air Force One, and the others for cargo operators. All 47 passenger version orders have now been delivered.

It is not surprising that production may end soon. The trend towards more efficient, twin-engine, aircraft is now well established. Airbus, of course, has already announced the end of the A380 program. The slowdown in 2020 has highlighted the problems with these aircraft. As we reported in July 2020, around 91% of 747s and 97% of A380s were grounded.

Boeing 777X test flight getty images
The 777X is a more efficient alternative, still with high capacity. Photo: Getty Images

As replacements for the 747, Boeing offers the 747-8 and the 777X. With passenger orders for the 777X drying up, the 777X is the way forward for many airlines. While it lacks the capacity and the range of the 747, it is a more modern, efficient aircraft, designed to meet the growing interest in point to point travel.

Where does the 747 still fly in 2020?

With the slowdown in aviation seen in 2020, many airlines are retiring aircraft. With the 747-400  already nearing the end of service, there are many cases of it meeting an early end.

The new 747-8I is operated in Europe by Lufthansa, and in Asia by Korean Air and Air China. These are relatively new airliners and are likely to remain in service for some time.

For a chance to fly on the 747-400 before retirement, Lufthansa, Air China, Asiana, Air India, China Airlines, and Thai Airways still operate the type. Within Russia, Rossiya Airlines still has a fleet of nine aircraft. However, many 747-400s have been grounded in 2020. They may not all return, and even before the slowdown, most of the Asian airlines were only using them for intra-Asia flights.

Simple Flying recently took a more detailed look at flying on the 747 after COVD-19.

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Thai Airways plans to retire its 747s by 2024 and still operates it on several short and medium-haul routes. Photo: Julian Herzog via Wikimedia

Cargo operators

One of the main factors in the success of the 747, from its concept right up to the 747-8 today, is its focus on freight use as well as passenger use.

Boeing leads the way in the freighter market, with the 747 and 777. There is also the possibility of a freighter version of the 777X, with Qatar Airways already expressing interest in becoming its launch customer. Airbus has had limited success and dropped plans early for an A380 freighter.

The 747s cargo use has, in many ways, outlasted passenger use. Four of the five top operators in 2020 are cargo airlines. Atlas Air, Cargolux, UPS Airlines, and Kalitta Air all still operate significant fleets of 747-400F aircraft, and the first three of these also operate the 747-8F. While the 747 will become a much less common sight on passenger routes going forward, it will likely remain in freight use for many years to come. 

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