Happy 50th birthday to the Boeing 747; it changed aviation forever

Rollout of the 747
© /AFP/Getty Images/ rollout of the first 747 on September 30, 1968

Flying went from being expensive and elite to being mass-market. Enjoy it while you can.

It's the 50th anniversary of the rollout of one of the most significant machines ever built. The Boeing 747 rolled out of the hangar on 30 September 1968. This plane changed aviation forever. Janet Bednarek of the University of Dayton writes in The Conversation that, "From the beginning, everything about the plane once known as the 'queen of the skies' was big."

The 747 was actually originally designed for the Air Force and lost the competition to the C5 Galaxy, but was recycled for the passenger market at the request of Pan Am, who wanted a plane twice as big as the 707 that was then the standard. It was a risky proposition, which is one reason why it was designed with the hump on top; you could then open the front end for freight. It was also thought to be a crazy idea, when others were planning supersonic flight, going fast instead of big. This was a plane for the people. Stephen Bayley writes:

not the first class section of the 747© Fox Photos/Getty Images/ even tourist class looked pretty good back then

A comparison to the European Concorde is illuminating. The supersonic Anglo-French plane was an elite project created for elite passengers to travel in near space with the curvature of the Earth on one hand and a glass of first growth claret on the other. The 747 was mass-market, proletarianising the jet set. It was Coke, not grand cru and it was designed by a man named Joe.

First class was nice© Fox Photos/Getty Images/ upper deck

Professor Bednarek writes how when it started, it still was pretty jazzy and high-end.

It debuted at the end of the so-called golden age of flight, a time when air travel still was seen as glamorous and most airlines catered to an elite clientele. As such, early operators used the upper deck as a passenger lounge for first-class passengers, rather than filling the plane to its full capacity. In the late 1970s, in an effort to entice more passengers, American Airlines went one step further, turning the lounge into a “piano bar” complete with a Wurlitzer organ and entertainer who led singalongs with the passengers.

Much of that disappeared with deregulation, after which the airlines started packing in as many people as possible. Other four-engine wide-bodied planes joined it to turn flying from something that the elite did to something many more people could afford. There were many factors involved, but the 747 was a major influence. As Dr. John Bowen writes in The Geography of Transport systems, air fares dropped by almost 90 percent from the end of the Second World War , much of which came after the 747 came into service and subsequent deregulation.

During that decade, airfares declined by two thirds. The main reasons behind this decline are related to better and higher capacity aircrafts (especially the B747 with its economies of scale), general economic improvements (higher incomes) as well as the deregulation of the industry enabling higher competition, more frequent services and more flexibility for scheduling (from the 1980s). Thus, air travel shifted from being a mode available only for the wealthy to a mode affordable to the masses.

economy cabin© Fox Photos/Getty Images/ economy

Fifty years later, most of the 747s are out of service, replaced by more fuel efficient twin engine jets. More people are flying further than ever before and it just keeps growing. This is a problem. Aviation is the fastest growing sector in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, increasing 76 percent between 1990 and 2012. It is responsible for 2 percent of global emissions and as the Carbon Brief notes,

Aviation’s contribution to climate change does not only lie in its CO2 emissions. Aeroplanes also emit water vapour, chemicals and other substances that can form contrails, changing the natural formation of clouds. These impact the overall energy balance of the planet, known as radiative forcing, which is what causes the global temperature to rise.

rich white dudes© Tim Graham/Getty Images/ Rich white men drinking champagne in first class.

In a recent post I noted that All is lost: increasing demand for jet fuel will be bigger than savings from electric cars. Planes are getting more efficient, but more people are flying farther every day. We can't continue doing this, but it certainly was fun, despite all of the unintended consequence of an event that started fifty years ago, with the rollout of the 747.

Happy 50th birthday to the Boeing 747; it changed aviation forever
Flying went from being expensive and elite to being mass-market. Enjoy it while you can.

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