Which Airlines Flew The Boeing 747SP?

The Boeing 747SP is a shortened version of the 747 (the only one developed) that offered a longer range. It was developed early in the 747 program to meet specific airline requests and first flew with Pan Am in 1976. Boeing delivered 45 747SPs, and it has been operated by many airlines – especially in the US, Middle East, and Asia, and by governments.

Pan Am Boeing 747SP Getty
Pan Am flew a total of 11 Boeing 747SPs. Photo: Getty Images

The Boeing 747

The Boeing 747, of course, needs no introduction. Entering service in January 1970 with Pan American World Airways (Pan Am), it remains one of the most loved aircraft. It was conceived as a larger replacement for the 707, with Pan American working with Boeing on the concept of an aircraft around two and a half times the size of the Boeing 707.

Boeing 707 and 747
The 747 was developed as a larger replacement for the Boeing 707. Photo: Getty Images

The 747 changed the economics of flying at the time. The increased capacity gave airlines more scope for different pricing and ticket types. It also allowed new innovations with onboard facilities and the introduction of new classes of travel.

The initial 747-100 was soon followed by the 747-200, with the same fuselage and capacity but improved engines. The later 747-300 and 747-400 increased capacity. But there was also a niche desire for a lower capacity, higher range variant.

Introducing the 747SP

Alongside the changes being seen with the high capacity the 747 introduced, there was another desire growing – for longer nonstop flights. Pan Am and Iran Air were looking at the possibility of direct flights between Tehran and New York. Pan Am was also considering other Middle Eastern routes, and possibly New York to Tokyo.

These longer routes could not be served by the 747-100, nor the 707. Trijet rivals, including the DC-10, also could not handle them. With modification, though, the 747 could – which gave Boeing an opportunity for a new market. The result was a shortened version of the 747-100.

The shortened 747SP could meet the range needed for these ultra-long routes. But it also had an appeal for airlines wanting a lower capacity aircraft for some routes (with 747-100 commonality), and also to operate at smaller airports.

Pan Am 747SP
The ‘stumpy’ 747SP reduced capacity but increased range. Photo: Eduard Marmet via Wikimedia

The 747SP is almost 15 meters shorter than the 747-100, with just four doors along the fuselage. It also has a larger tail and horizontal stabilizer. As a result, the typical three-class capacity was reduced from 366 to 276. But importantly, the range was increased from 4,620 NM (8,560 kilometers) to 5,830 NM (10,800 kilometers).

The later 747-300 and 747-400 exceeded this, though, with the 747-400 taking range up to 7,670 NM (14,200 kilometers). This partly explains the limited popularity of the 747SP.

747SP launch customers – Pan Am and Iran Air

The 747SP entered service with Pan Am in 1976. Pan Am took 10 new 747SPs from Boeing (these passed to United Airlines later). It also acquired one more from Braniff Airways.

Iran Air also introduced the 747SP in 1976, and it operated four aircraft. It was the last airline to retire them from commercial service, with the last only retiring in 2016.

Iran Air 747SP
Iran Air has the longest history with the 747SP. Photo: Chris Lofting via Wikimedia

Other 747SP operators

While Pan Am and Iran Air’s specific requirements gave rise to the 747SP, many other airlines were interested. Either for its long-haul capabilities or its smaller size and capacity.

Other airline operators (either new orders or second-hand use) include:

  • South African Airways has operated six aircraft. These have also been leased by South African to several airlines – including Air Mauritius, Alliance Air, Air Namibia, Luxair, Air Malawi.
  • China Airlines  – four aircraft (it retired the last in 1999). They have also operated with Mandarin Airlines.
  • Air China – four aircraft (the last was retired in 2000).
  • Korean Air Lines – two aircraft.
  • Braniff International Airways – three aircraft.
  • TWA  – three aircraft.
  • American Airlines (acquired the aircraft from TWA).
  • United Airlines (it took on Pan Am’s aircraft in 1986).
  • Qantas – two aircraft, used on flights from Syndey to Los Angeles.
  • Corsair – one aircraft.
  • Qatar Airways  – just one aircraft that soon passed to Qatar Amiri Flight.
  • Royal Air Maroc – one aircraft from South African Airways.
  • Syrian Arab Airlines – two aircraft.
  • Iraqi Airways – one aircraft.
  • Saudi Arabian Airlines – one aircraft.
  • Aerolineas Argentinas – one aircraft acquired from Braniff.
Air China 747SP
An Air China 747SP in service to Zurich. Photo: Kambui via Wikimedia

The 747SP has also been operated by many governments. Some of these were acquired after they came out of airline service. These include:

  • Saudi government – three aircraft.
  • Bahrain Royal Flight – two aircraft.
  • Royal Flight of Oman.
  • Qatar Amiri Flight.
  • Yemen government.
  • Dubai Royal Flight.
  • Iraqi government.
  • Brunei government.
  • Abu Dhabi Amiri Flight (Boeing ended 747SP production in 1982, but re-opened it in 1987 for a final order from the UAE government).
Boeing 747SP
The 747SP remains in VIP use with the Oman Royal Flight, amongst others. Photo: Getty Images

Current 747SP operators

The 747SP left commercial service in 2016 when Iran Air retired its last aircraft. However, as of June 2021, seven aircraft remain in use (according to data from ch-aviation.com). These are with:

  • Pratt & Whitney (as test aircraft) – two aircraft.
  • Saudi Arabian Royal Flight – two aircraft.
  • Oman Royal Flight – one aircraft.
  • Sanda Aviation, Las Vegas – one aircraft.
  • NASA – one aircraft (this is its SOFIA observatory aircraft).
NASA-Boeing-747-Water-On-Moon
NASA operates a 747SP as its Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA). Photo: NASA

The 747SP is a distinctive aircraft that served a valuable role for Boeing and several airlines in its time. There are still a few chances to see it flying, but the aircraft is now long out of passenger service. Let us know your thoughts about it and if you have ever flown on one in the comments. 

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