DALLAS – Magnificent, regal, iconic, timeless, flagship, majestic technical tour de force, incredible… vivid words that rightly describe the legacy of The Queen of the Skies.
It’s been nearly 55 years since she first emerged from her Boeing Everett birthplace, and especially now as the 1,574th and final one is delivered, much ink has been spilled and trees have been felled (now digitally) to commemorate The Jumbo Jet—the aircraft that literally brought travel to the masses—and that was just for starters.
At the 1966 launch date, Boeing bet the company—and nearly lost it—on the success of this game-changing airplane that epitomized the phrase long before it became a cliché. Its launch customer’s Pan Am founder, Juan Trippe, bet his “chosen instrument” on the 747.
In the long run, his bet didn’t pay off, but Boeing’s bet did. As the flagship, the Jumbo changed the fortunes of the airlines that flew it, and their nations as well. Some of the bets didn’t pay off, while many did. And half-a-century later, the 747 which was in some ways the second prize afterthought during the supersonic crazed era of the late 1960s, continues to be relevant – even in its sunset years.
In this story, Airways looks back at the Queen’s legendary reign through the commercial lens of Boeing and the type’s operators, with an assist from numbers—plus a few other unusual factoids reminding us that size does matter. Numbers don’t even begin to tell the whole story, but they don’t lie. So, without further adieu, before we say adieu, let’s let the numbers speak for the 747.
Since its first delivery in January 1970, Boeing submits that the 747 fleet has logged more than 118 million flight hours and nearly 23 million flight cycles, carrying some 7.5 billion passengers—equivalent to the earth’s population in 2018.
Variants, Orders, and Deliveries
Passenger versions, including Combis, have notched the lion’s share of orders over the years at around 1,227 airframes. The total number of freighters tallied is 347 with 73 Dash 200s, 166 Dash 400s, and 108 -8Fs. Combi orders totaled 251, at 74 Dash 200s, 21 Dash 300s, and 61 Dash 400s. The Ultimate 747-8 attracted a total of 156 orders, between 48 Intercontinental passenger-carrying versions and 108 freighter versions.
The 747 achieved its highest order total in 1990, pulling in 122. This was shortly after the 747-400 entered service and a year before the 777 was authorized to order. Prior to that, the launch year of 1966 witnessed the most orders at 83. In the 2000s, the launch year of the 747-8 in 2005 resulted in the largest additions to the order book with 53. Atlas Air, which took the last 747-8, placed the final 747 order in 2021, simultaneously with the announcement of the program’s termination.
The Jumbo achieved its delivery peak in 1970, the year it entered service, with an incredible 92 frames. The 1990 heyday year for orders was the runner-up for deliveries, with 90 new aircraft handed over to customers. In the 2000s, 2001 was the peak delivery year with 31 examples.
The most popular variant was the Boeing 747-400, with 694 new-build aircraft delivered to 48 first-hand customers. It also had the longest new delivery and manufacturing run at 30 years, from 1989 to 2009.
The least popular was the short-fuselage, ultra-long-range 747-SP, which only attracted 45 orders from 14 customers, 12 airlines, and 2 governments over an abbreviated production run from 1975–89. The least popular sub-variant was the 4 747-400SRs ordered for Japan Airlines’ high-density domestic operations.
Overall, around 100 customers took new delivery of brand news 747s. Of this tally, around 88 were built for airlines and leasing companies. The most popular variant in terms of the number of new aircraft customer orders was the second Dash 200 variant, which garnered 64 individual customers, including government aircraft.
Short Legs and Long Reach
Commercially, the 747 has secured many milestones. A Qantas Boeing 747-400 flew nonstop from London to Sydney during a 1989 promotional flight, notching around 9,100 nmi while remaining aloft for 20 hours. This beat an earlier South African Airways 747SP delivery flight from Boeing’s Paine Field factory to Cape Town, South Africa, at 8,877 nmi.
The Boeing 747SP, originally built for Pan Am’s New York-Tokyo nonstop, operated the longest commercial flight at the time in 1976 from New York to Tehran eastbound. Westbound required a stopover. Qantas holds the honor of the longest regularly scheduled 747 nonstop from Dallas/Ft. Worth to Sydney, Australia, measuring 8,900 nmi.
Qantas operated one of its six ultra-long-range 747-400ERs of which the Australian carrier was the only operator, from 2011-14. Notably, Qantas became the first all-747 operator in 1979-84 with 17 aircraft.
On the opposite side of the spectrum are the shortest 747 scheduled routes. Qantas’ 1 hr, 20 min, 430 nmi sector between Sydney and Melbourne and JAL and ANA’s Tokyo Haneda-Osaka Kansai block in at 1 hr and approximately 300 nmi are often thought to be the shortest 747 routes. But these were reportedly lapped in distance the Caribbean by KLM’s Bonaire-Curaçao which tagged on to Amsterdam, from 2000-0 which is 46 nmi direct between the two airports.
With their long stage lengths, particularly among freighters, 747s own the records for some of the highest-time aircraft in the sky. Asiana Cargo’s nearly 32-year-old 747-400 freighter, HL7413, had amassed an astounding 142,453 hours and 24,754 cycles as of November 2022. A Lufthansa Boeing 747-400, tail number D-ABVM, that was first delivered in 1998, has accumulated 111,453 hours and 13,305 cycles as of the same time, according to ch-Aviation.
The fewest hours aloft before being withdrawn from use sadly belongs to a 10-year-old 747-8 BBJ that was scrapped with fewer than 50 hours in its logbook. The Jumbo BBJ was originally destined for Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, who died in 2015, and the Royal Family. The highly customized aircraft, N458BJ, was unable to find a buyer and was broken up for parts in December 2022 at Pinal Airpark in Arizona.
The 747 has chalked up an impressive safety record over its 54 years in service. Yet, there have been 64 hull losses with a total of 2,865 fatalities, according to the Aviation Safety Network database. The deadliest single-aircraft accident ever was the August 1985 crash of a Japan Airlines 747SR, which resulted in 520 fatalities.
The KLM and Pan Am 747 runway collision at Los Rodeos Airport, Tenerife, in 1977 remains the single deadliest airline disaster, with 583 lives lost.
The interior space on the 747-8 is “something like 31,000 cubic feet,” according to Boeing’s Senior Historian Michael Lombardi. The weight of the air alone would tip the scales at an astonishing 2,500 lbs.
The 747’s passenger capacity has varied widely depending on configuration, combi, seating density, and so many other factors. The original Boeing 747-100/200 could carry 366 passengers in a typical three-class configuration with a maximum of 440 to 550 passengers.
Pan Am’s first 747-100s carried 335 passengers in a two-class configuration with roomy 9-abreast economy seating. By contrast, Lufthansa’s 747-8 Intercontinental carried 365 passengers in its three-class configuration. Boeing quoted a typical three-class configuration at 467 seats, with a maximum capacity of 605 seats.
In reality, the densest 747s were operated by French charter carrier Corsair, which stuffed 587 seats (29 Premium and 558 in Economy) into the fuselage. JAL’s domestic 747-400D had a nearly massive payload of 568 seats, with 24 in First Class and 544 in Economy. Compare that to JAL’s typical three-class 747-400 with 348 seats.
The most passengers ever carried on a single 747 flight, and indeed any flight in history, was on the famous Operation Solomon in 1991, when El Al evacuated Ethiopian Jews. There are disputes over the actual number of passengers carried, with numbers ranging from 1,078 to as high as 1,122. The official Guinness Book of World Records stands at 1,088, including two babies that were born in flight.
Over the last decade, freighters have superseded 747 passenger orders and ASMs. The metrics associated with cargo are no less impressive. Cargolux was the launch customer for the 747-8, receiving its first in 2011. This was the first 747 variant with a cargo airline as a launch customer, with more orders for freighters than passengers at 106 vs. 47. The ultimate 747-8 freighter is quoted by Atlas with 292,400 lbs of revenue cargo payload.
Practically, this equates to 46 pallets: 34 pallets on the main deck and 12 pallets and 2 shipping containers in the lower lobe, or about 30,000 packages. Boeing says the 747-8F can hold approximately 19 million ping-pong balls.
Largest and Smallest Operators, Orderbooks, and Customers
Japan Airlines took the largest number of new 747s off the line of any carrier, with 108 in the fleet. The 747 was a beloved icon in Japan, but JAL retired its last airframe (a 400D) in 2011.
British Airways was the second-largest all-time customer with 94 total orders and the largest operator of the 747-400, peaking at 57 in its fleet. BA retired the last of their Jumbos in October 2021 after 32 years.
On the opposite end of the spectrum are the airlines with the smallest order books: Air Afrique, Air Gabon, Air Madagascar, Air Namibia, Avianca, Cameroon, Japan Asia, Mandarin, and Royal Air Maroc, each tied with a sole order of one aircraft apiece.
Lufthansa, which continues to operate 8 747-400s and 19 747-8s to this day, is the last great stronghold mainline passenger operator for the Jumbo. The German carrier lays claim to operating the 747 for the longest duration of any carrier, beginning in April 1970 with the 747-200 all the way up to its role as launch customer and first operator for the passenger 747-8 Intercontinental in 2012 to the present.
Lufthansa, who ordered 81 airframes over 7 variants, took delivery of the first purpose-built 747 Freighter, the 747F with its swinging cockpit nose in 1972. Notably, Lufthansa received took possession of the 1,500th 747 off the line – in 2014.
Some second-hand 747 operators like Scotland’s Highland Express and Hawaii’s Pineapple Express barely operated more than a few flights.
Korean Air has operated the most number of 747 variants and sub-variants, accumulating 11 spread across the entire spectrum, except the first generation 747-100.
The 747 in America
Pan Am, with 45 orders and 65 total in the fleet, was the launch customer and the first to put the 747 into service in January 1970, inaugurating service between New York JFK and London Heathrow. The 747’s second customer, TWA, with 18 orders and 35 total in the fleet, pioneered the first domestic 747 flight, New York JFK-San Francisco, three months later.
Despite this, the 747 was never as commercially embraced in its birthplace as it was around the world. U.S. carriers like American Airlines, Continental Airlines, Delta, Eastern Airlines, and National Airlines ordered or leased smaller batches of Jumbos as placeholders for competitive reasons until their smaller wide-body McDonnell Douglas DC-10s and Lockheed L-1011s began arriving in 1971 and 1972, respectively.
These airlines quickly found the 747 was too large for their domestic networks, especially in the early 70s when a recession was on.
Eastern never took delivery of its 4 ordered 747s, selling the delivery slots to TWA when Eastern decided to purchase the Lockheed L-1011. Eastern ended up leasing two 747s from Pan Am between 1970 and 1972 and operated the aircraft between Chicago and San Juan as well as from New York to Miami and San Juan, until the TriStar arrived, making it the shortest U.S. 747 operator.
Braniff International Airlines, ever the fashionable iconoclast, famously dispatched its single orange 747-100 nicknamed “Fat Albert” from Honolulu to Dallas/Fort Worth and London. This 747 was the sole Jumbo and widebody in the fleet from 1971–1978, and at the time it was the world’s most utilized high-hour 747. Braniff eventually operated 12 747s, including three SPs, during a period of deregulation-fueled expansion that contributed to its demise in 1982.
United Airlines was the US’ friendliest skies towards the 747 with the longest continuous time of any U.S. carrier under the same brand – for 37 years. It ordered the most 747s of any U.S. carrier, with 68 examples. From 1970 to November 2017, United operated a total of 88 747s continuously. These included the 11 747SPs taken up when the Asia-Pacific routes were acquired from Pan Am in 1986.
Delta Air Lines only ordered five 747-100s new and operated these 747-100s from 1970–1977 as a stopgap measure until the Lockheed L-1011 Tristars began arriving in 1972. In 2009, Delta became a new 747 operator after it took over Northwest Airlines and its fleet of 16 Dash 400s, which were often scheduled to Korea and Japan.
Delta was the last frontline U.S. scheduled 747 passenger operator when it wound down operations in December 2017 with a special commemorative tour across some of its U.S. hubs and the 747’s Everett birthplace.
Antecedent carrier Northwest was the launch customer for the 747-400, commencing services in February 1989 between Minneapolis / St. Paul and Phoenix for crew familiarity. Between Northwest and Delta, the pair operated the 747 for exactly the same span of time 1970-2017 as did United. The very first 747-400, N661US ship 6301, is preserved at The Delta Heritage Museum in Atlanta.
The 747s would make a repeat appearance at other U.S. airlines as well because of mergers and necessity. American, which originally took 17 747s, would operate 747s again, leasing two long-range 747-SPs from TWA from 1986–92 for its DFW–Tokyo Narita routes until the McDonnell Douglas MD-11 arrived. Continental’s original Boeing 747 fleet was phased out by 1978 in favor of DC-10s.
The 747 flew under Continental colors again from 1987–1994 after Continental acquired People Express Airlines and its fleet of 7 second-hand 747s. Trans America, Tower Air, and World Airways were other U.S. 747 operators. In Canada, Air Canada, CP Air (eventually Canadian Airlines International), and Wardair Canada found longer-term success with the 747.
America West was an ill-timed latecomer to the 747, leasing four 747-200Bs to Phoenix-Honolulu-Nagoya, Japan, from 1989–94. These were removed as the airline exited bankruptcy. The 747-300 and 747-8 Intercontinental variants were never operated by any North American carrier.
747 Operations 2000s-Today
Arguably, the 747 reached its peak in terms of departures, seats, and ASMs at the turn of the millennium, just before 9/11, and large long-haul twins such as the 777-300ER began to replace the jumbo at the top of the food chain. In the year 2000, 2,775 airports were connected by the 747, with mega-hubs like London Heathrow, Tokyo Narita, and Hong Kong leading the way.
The Queen’s era of dominating the long-haul skies is a thing of the past, but she still has relevance, though it is dwindling. As of February 2023, Cirium data shows regular scheduled 747 passenger service is split between four scheduled operators: Lufthansa and Air China with 747-8s and 747-400s; Korean with a 747-8; and only eight flights per month are scheduled for Asiana’s sole 747-400, which is due for retirement in March.
As of now, there is an active fleet of around 420 Boeing 747s, including a smattering of 20 747-200 freighters, 747-300s, 252 747-400s, and 153 747-8s.
Cargo hauling has replaced passenger hauling as the 747’s primary domain, particularly since COVID accelerated the retirement of the world’s 747 passenger fleet, with 124 grounded in the last four years. The mainline cargo roster includes AirBridge Cargo, Atlas Air, Cargolux, Cathay Pacific Cargo, Kalitta Air, Korean Air, Nippon Cargo, Polar Air, Silkway West, and UPS Airlines.
Atlas tops the list with 42 freighters spread across 35 747-400F and 7 747-8Is. There are also 5 747-400s in passenger charter configuration on property. UPS Airlines has the largest fleet of 747-8s with 28 freighters.
Remaining frontline passenger operations are confined to Air China, Asiana, Korean, and Lufthansa, the later of which leads with the largest passenger configurations with 27 airplanes: 19 Dash 8s and 7 Dash 400s. Frankfurt is now home to the largest amount of 747 passenger traffic.
Sadly, not all variants continue to ply the skies. The last original first-generation 747-100B in passenger service was retired by Iran Air in 2014. NASA retired the last Boeing 747-SP in regular service. SOFIA, the former Pan American and United SP, is an airborne astronomy platform. Iran Air withdrew the last SP from the civil passenger service in 2016.
The final Atlas-bound 747-8F won’t be the last new 747 to enter service. That honor will go to the pair of new Presidential Airlift Group VC-25B aircraft known as Air Force One, but not before 2027.
Featured image: Atlas Air – Boeing 747-400F – N508KZ (perspective). Photo: Julian Schöpfer/Airways