How the 747 made travel affordable for all

July 22, 2020

So as we all isolate we thought we would go to our vault and re-publish the stories you loved……

The 747, like the legendary DC-3 of the 1930s, slashed airfares to make travel affordable for all.

The incredible DC-3 was the first plane that was able to make money just hauling passengers and freed airlines from restrictive mail contracts, while the 747 freed the world’s population to travel wherever they liked.

Bill Gates said that the 747 or jumbo was “the world first world wide web” as it smashed barriers between people and countries.

SEE: The best air-to-air 747 videos 

In fact, when the sponsor of the 747 Pan American World Airways’ President Juan Trippe took delivery of the jumbo, he said we are in a race between the 747 and the ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile) and he said I believe the 747 will win.

When the jumbo was introduced 50 years ago the airfare from Australia to London and return was the equivalent of 24 weeks average weekly earnings for an Australian.

By 1990 it was about five weeks average weekly earnings and by 2000 two weeks. Today it is below one week’s earnings.

The jumbo was a mass travel dream of Trippe and Boeing’s chief Bill Allen.

Boeing 747
Boeing’s Bill Allen and Pan Am’s Juan Trippe. Credit: Boeing Historical Archives colorized by Benoit Vienne

Trippe had started mass travel in 1948 when he introduced economy class onto 70 seat DC-4s.

But the 747 was far, far bigger. It would carry over 350 – almost double the Boeing 707 – and would slash fares.

The secret was the new high bypass engines that could produce over twice the thrust of the existing engines could do it at the time.

At the time the most powerful engine on the 189-seat Boeing 707 or Douglas DC-8 produced 19,000lbs of thrust, whereas the 366-seat 747-100’s engines would produce 43,500lbs of thrust.

Boeing 747
A Pan Am Hostess in the engine of a DC-8.

But that was only part of the story with fuel economy the big-ticket.

The 747-100 used 33 per cent less fuel than the Boeing 707-320C it would replace.

However, that was just the start.

Boeing 747
A Qantas hostess in the engine of the first 747. Credit Qantas

When Boeing first delivered the jumbo economy class was in a very generous layout of 2-4-3 with up to 10cm more legroom that today.


Many 747s had piano bars for economy passengers and an upstairs lounge for first class.

American Airlines advert for its economy (coach) 747


Upstairs Lounge on a Qantas 747 in 1972.

Sir Freddie Laker with his “no-frills” Skytrain DC-10 jumbo flights was to change all that.

He slashed fares by two-thirds across the North Atlantic in 1977 and he had applied to fly to Australia and Hong Kong.

Boeing 747
Sir Freddie Laker crammed more passengers into his DC-10 jumbos to slash fares. Colorised by Benoit Vienne

Airlines responded by cramming more passengers into their 747s and DC-10s to cut fares.

That move spawned both business class and then later premium economy classes as airlines sought to cater for all pockets and desires for space.

But for the jumbo, the same engine technology that would enable it to dominate the world’s air routes was also going to be its undoing.

As engines became more fuel-efficient and reliable it enabled aircraft manufacturers to develop aircraft like the 365-seat Boeing 777 and the 300-seat Airbus A330 which slashed fuel used per passenger dramatically.

And they were much easier to fill than a 747.

Compared to the first jumbo, the Boeing 777-300ER cut the fuel burnt per passengers by about 35 per cent, while the Boeing 787-9 is almost 50 per cent more fuel-efficient per passenger.

And the new Boeings and Airbus A350 can fly much further than a 747.


  1. Hard to believe we've seen the last of the 747. My first flight was in June 1970 from LAX to JFK on American. My last on the type was in July 2013 on a British 747-400 LHR to JFK. Over 43 years, I flew over 150 flight segments on twelve different airlines. The only version I missed was the 747-8 and if I can figure out how to make a trip on an LH aircraft I'll do it, just to add it to my log. What an aircraft. From my first to last flights I still marvel at how big it is. Can this thing really get off the ground? It truly changed flying as far as comfort and for an avgeek, the thrill of it all. Yes, the 787 is far more advanced and is my aircraft of choice these days, but for someone whose first flight was on a DC4, and then all the early jets, the 747 was truly the game changer of a lifetime.