The Jet Age (1958 - Today)

"The Boeing 747 is so big that it has been said that it does not fly; the earth merely drops out from under it."

-Capt. Ned Wilson, Pan Am

The Era of Wide-Body Airliners

TWA Brochure
Reprinted courtesy American Airlines, Inc

A new generation of huge, fuel-efficient airliners that could accommodate hundreds of passengers helped further drive down the cost of flying.

Pan American and Boeing again opened a new era in commercial aviation when the first Boeing 747 entered service in January 1970. Powered by four efficient high-bypass turbofan engines, the huge aircraft could seat up to 400 passengers (later versions even more) and had lower operating costs than other airliners at the time.

Other wide-body designs soon followed, such as the three-engine McDonnell Douglas DC-10 and Lockheed L-1011 TriStar and the twin-engine Airbus A300.

Pan Am 747
Copyright The Boeing Company

The Boeing 747 revolutionized air travel by making flying more affordable. Its high-bypass turbofan engines and immense seating capacity gave the 747 the lowest seat-mile costs in the industry. The 747 quickly became the airliner of choice for long-range service.

McDonnell Douglas DC-10
Copyright The Boeing Company

The McDonnell Douglas DC-10 answered the need for an airplane that was smaller than the huge 747 but could seat 250 to 360 passengers. American and United began flying them in 1971.

Airbus A300
National Air and Space Museum Archives

Airbus, a consortium of European aerospace manufacturers, designed the 300-seat, wide-body A300 for short- to medium-range routes. The first one flew in 1972. Airbus developed a wide range of technically advanced aircraft, and by the 1990s it had become a serious rival to Boeing.

L-1011 Tristar
Getty Images

The graceful, technologically advanced Lockheed L-1011 TriStar entered service with Eastern Airlines in 1972. To demonstrate its excellent design and engineering, a TriStar made the first fully automatic transcontinental flight. But because of financial problems, the L-1011 marked the end of Lockheed's role in the commercial aircraft market.

Supersonic Dead End

The future of commercial aviation appeared to be the supersonic transport (SST), an airliner that could fly faster than sound. U.S. advocates hoped to build a larger and faster SST to compete with the British and French Concorde and the Soviet Tupolev Tu-144.

But concerns about huge development and operational costs, high fuel consumption, drastically high fares, and sonic booms and other environmental issues proved insurmountable. U.S. airlines placed no orders for Boeing's 2707 SST, Congress withdrew support, and the project died.

Concorde at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center
Smithsonian Institution, National Air and Space Museum

Introduced in 1976, the Concorde was the first and only operational supersonic transport. It could carry 100 passengers across the Atlantic in less than four hours, but its airfares were extremely expensive. All 14 Concordes that went into service were purchased by the British and French governments for their national airlines. Concordes stopped flying in 2003.

Braniff Concorde
National Air and Space Museum Archives

Braniff Airways briefly flew the Concorde in 1979-80 by temporarily purchasing an aircraft from British Airways or Air France for the duration of each flight. But flying subsonically between Washington, D.C., and Dallas-Fort Worth by Concorde proved more expensive and no faster than by conventional jetliners. This photo is an artist's impression, as the Concorde never flew in Braniff colors.