MIAMI — The first Boeing 747-400 was retired by Delta Air Lines last September, with a quiet celebration on an entirely different scale to its role in world aviation, outfitted with an onboard product practically unimaginable to the cabin designers of the original 747-100 half a century ago.
It’s fascinating to delve into the Airways Boeing historical archives and look closely at this Boeing brochure from 1970, for example, and note the 2-4-3 “tourist section”, which of course we’d now call economy class. The nine-abreast layout didn’t last long in the 747, with the 17” seats that replaced it when every airline went 3-4-3.
It’s a telling historical echo of the more recent decisions of airlines to move from 3-3-3 or 2-5-2 Boeing 777 economy cabins to ten-abreast layouts, or to avoid the 2-4-2 economy class cabin on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner in favor of the 3-3-3 layout that’s even narrower than the 747 seats.
It’s interesting to note that the standard for premium economy cabins today, including on Lufthansa’s newly refitted Boeing 747-400 aircraft, is a 2-4-2 cabin — just one seat fewer in each row than in the economy cabin being advertised here.
The size of those early 747 seats are particularly telling when you look at the fuselage comparison with the 707 — a fuselage width that persists today with the best-selling Boeing 737, its 727 tri-jet predecessor, and the 1980s’ 757. With the ongoing discussion about seat width in the context of the 787, 777 and other aircraft, it’s simply fascinating to note Boeing’s thinking 45 years ago.
First class, too, was just seats, arranged six-abreast across the main width of the 747 cabin. In some ways, that’s changed — that section of the market is now served by everything from premium economy to Etihad’s three-room Residence suite — but in some ways it hasn’t. United, for example, offers a six-abreast BusinessFirst cabin as the top product on the aircraft it has outfitted with B/E Diamond flat beds.
Just five of those initial Boeing standard seats would fit in the 707 fuselage. With the 757 — and soon the next-generation 737 MAX family — flying routes longer than the 707 in many cases, and the DC-9 based Boeing 717 out of production, will there be a point at which we get back to five-abreast seating on the 737 fuselage? Japan Airlines’ domestic premium product, Class J, is still along those lines.
The upstairs onboard lounge aboard the 747 disappeared and then started to return, initially with Virgin Atlantic’s bar concept on its 747 aircraft (and later to other longhaul jets) but more extensively on the Airbus A380, where bar areas from Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways all provide an enjoyable relaxation space for business and first class passengers. (Business class, of course, was only a twinkle in the eye of airline marketers back in 1970, appearing roughly a decade later as a perk for full-fare economy passengers.)
While Delta refurbished its Boeing 747-400 fleet with on-demand entertainment back in 2012, there are of course still US airlines flying widebody aircraft with overhead movies — and not even with the large bulkhead projector screen to make it an enjoyable experience. It seems incredible that, forty-five years later, this is still the inflight entertainment offered to so many passengers.
The atmosphere of the time, when the jet age was really getting going, is almost as palpable in the brochure as the air was in the smoking section at the rear of each cabin. Looking back at the “golden age” of air travel, though, it’s striking how much — and how little — cabins have evolved.