Early Days on the 747: Power, Style and Size

Early Days on the 747: Power, Style and Size

The 747, one of history’s most iconic airplanes, is heading toward retirement. Mark Vanhoenacker, a pilot and the author of “Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot,” writes that for “those who grew up under 747-crossed skies, it can be hard to appreciate how revolutionary the jet’s dimensions were when it first (and improbably, to some observers) got airborne in 1969.” Here is a look at how the plane was marketed by the airlines that adopted it, and how The New York Times covered its (sometimes rocky) early days.


1970s-era ads for the 747 from BOAC and Pan Am flank a scene from economy class meal service on a Pan Am 747 in the mid-70s.CreditBritish Airways Heritage Collection (left); Panam.Org (center and right)

Early marketing for the 747 emphasized two notable aspects of the plane: its amenities and its size.

The airlines didn’t hold back on selling those frills, which included full meals, liquor service and a lounge area up a flight of stairs. Take this ad from TWA:

“On this plane, you choose your own time to eat,” one character says. “On the DC-3,” his friend responds, “we were happy with a ham sandwich.” (That latter option might sound sadly familiar to modern fliers.)

The plane represented a new level in luxury, including on its domestic routes. TWA highlighted this opulence in a series of ads featuring the actor Peter Sellers playing foreign stereotypes, including a suave Italian:

(Sellers’ upper-crust Englishman in another ad is equally over-the-top hilarious; the ad also features a cameo by the staircase leading to the second-level lounge.)

Meanwhile, “the jet’s elephantine proportions were both a gift and a challenge to the travel industry,” Mr. Vanhoenacker writes. “The mobile steps that had serviced a previous generation of airliners were too short, so crews stacked one set of steps atop another in order to reach the lofty doors of the new leviathan.”

A 1972 Chevy ad used those proportions to sell its powerful trucks:


So how did this all go over with the public? Not quite as swimmingly as the ads would have you believe. Even prelaunch, there were issues.

“How do you empty 362 ashtrays in 30 minutes?” asks an airport operations manager in a June 19, 1969, article in The Times. The article notes that the plane “is more than twice as big as any airliner before it — and airline officials say it has provided problems to match its dimensions.”

The first Boeing 747 rolled out of the Boeing plant in Everett, Wash., in 1968.CreditAgence France-Presse — Getty Images

Safety was a related concern. An article from Jan. 18, 1970 — just days before the planned inaugural flight out of Kennedy Airport — notes that the fears revolved around two issues: “the sheer size of the 747 — with the specter of 350 or more passengers dying in a single disaster — and the spotty safety record of many jetliners during their year or so of service.” The article went on to attempt to allay those fears: the plane, it quotes John H. Shaffer, the head of the Federal Aviation Administration, as saying, “will be the safest airliner anybody’s ever built.”

A charming article, from March 22, 1970, tracked, moment by moment, one of the plane’s first commercial flights, out of Kennedy Airport, from the perspective of the cockpit. It emphasized size, speed and technological advances: “Like a prehistoric beast, the giant airship waddles down the runway, six hours from London. In the cockpit: a $57,000-a-year captain and his crew, backed by computers.”

A few weeks later, with almost three months of service under the plane’s belt, another article recounted early passenger reactions — the headline captures them nicely: “Some Riders Find 747 Is ‘Great’ But Others Vow, ‘Never Again’.” The big complaints? A three-hour delay out of San Juan, P.R., and a variety of technical issues, including “complete chaos” during liquor service. Oscar Sepp, of Glen Cove, N.Y., “called back as he dashed from an American Airlines 747 from Los Angeles: ‘More things fell apart than I ever experienced in my life. The mechanism controlling the seats and the light fell into my lap. And my meal tray was damaged.’”

At least some things seemed to have improved in air travel.

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