The Day 1122 Passengers Flew On A Single 747

How many passengers can you fit on a Boeing 747? Anywhere between 400 and 500 is normal, but there is one case where it has been as high as 1,122. This happened in 1991 as part of Operation Solomon, with Israeli airline El Al evacuating Ethiopian Jews to Israel. It set a record for the most passengers on one flight, which still holds today.

Operation Solomon
Passengers evacuated as part of Operation Solomon – this is onboard a Boeing 707 aircraft. Photo: Getty Images

Pushing the 747 capacity

Fitting 1,122 passengers on a 747 is, of course, not normal. The typical three-class capacity of the 747-400 is around 416 and 410 for the newer 747-8. The maximum permitted by regulations for the 747-400 is 660. This is the exit limit – based on the number that can be safely evacuated from the aircraft in a specified time. For the 747-200 (as used in Operation Solomon), the exit limit is just 550.

For the highest capacity in normal use, the leader is the 747-400D. This was a high capacity variant developed for Japan’s domestic market, with a shorter range but capacity of up to 600  (or 568 in a two-class configuration). Only 19 aircraft were ordered, and the last one was retired in 2014.

JAL 747-400D
Even the high capacity 747-400D can only carry 660. Photo: Kentaro Iemoto via Wikimedia

So how was such a high capacity reached? As a non-commercial flight, El Al clearly exceeded the regulated limit. Most importantly, all seats were removed (as you can see in the photograph of the 707 aircraft used for the operation). Also, there was limited cargo, as passengers traveled mostly without belongings. And fuel could be reduced as well for the flight of just over 2,500 kilometers.

Operation Solomon

More importantly than how it was achieved – why did it take place? Operation Solomon came about following years of civil war in Ethiopia. In 1991, the government was close to being overcome by military rebels. The Israeli government (with planning support from the US) decided to step in and evacuate Jewish civilians caught up in the worsening conflict.

Operation Solomon
The arrival of evacuees in Israel. Photo: Getty Images

Operation Solomon was the third such mission to evacuate civilians to Israel and evacuated most people. It was originally planned to operate over around two weeks but was reduced to just 48 hours (hence the huge capacities!). In total it evacuated 14,325 Ethiopian Jews from Addis Ababa to Tel Aviv.

Up to 34 aircraft from the Israeli air force and El Al were used. These included 747-200, 707, and C-130 Hercules military aircraft.

El Al 747-200
An El Al 747-200 was the record-setting aircraft. Photo: Norman Cox via Barry Friend Collection, via Wikimedia

What was the total?

We should say that there is some dispute about the total maximum passengers carried. Some sources say it was 1,078 or 1,088, while others claim it was as high as 1,122. Any of these numbers would make it by far the highest ever carried and would still qualify for the record. There are also reports that two babies were born during the flight.

The official record with Guinness World Records is recorded as 1088 passengers (including the two babies), but it too notes differing reports.

Would you like to share any thoughts on this operation or El Al’s 747 history? Let us know in the comments.

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