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The Era of Commercial Jets

By Asif Siddiqi, U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission

The introduction of reliable jet planes, such as the Boeing 707 and the Douglas DC-8, in the late 1950s ushered in a new era in commercial aviation—the jet era. These new planes offered more speed and comfort to passengers and were less expensive than piston-engine aircraft to operate, especially for long-distance routes. The advent of jets into commercial aviation profoundly changed the structure of civil air management and ground operations, affected how airlines managed their shorter routes, and had important social effects on people all over the world.

The proliferation of jets in commercial aviation revolutionized how airlines looked at short-distance routes. In the early 1960s, the public had become used to jet service for flights over long and even medium distances, such as between New York and Chicago. Consequently, airline operators faced the challenge of transferring the appeal of the new jets—their speed, comfort, and reliability—to much shorter routes. The move was difficult with older jets since their high fuel consumption made them profitable only when airplanes could fly longer routes at high constant cruising speeds and with high annual use—neither of which could be achieved on short routes. However, the advances in jet engine technology in the early 1960s, especially the introduction of the fanjet engine, forced airlines to reconsider. The new levels of reliability and efficiency (i.e., low maintenance costs) as well as their low noise levels made jets attractive even for short routes. The innovator in this area was not an American aircraft, but a French one, known as the Caravelle, built by the Sud-Est Aviation (later Sud-Aviation) company. Air France had flown this sleek twin-engine aircraft since 1959, and in July 1961, United Airlines began using the Caravelle on its New York-Chicago route.

Taking a cue from the design of the Caravelle, Boeing built the 727, a larger and faster jet with three engines, and perfect for both medium- and short-distance routes. Eastern Air Lines used the Boeing 727 on its Philadelphia-Washington-Miami route from February 1, 1964, while another domestic carrier, United, followed five days later on its San Francisco-Denver route. The 727's distinction was that it entered service with the Big Four—the largest domestic U.S. passenger carriers—Eastern, United, American, and Trans World Airlines (TWA), all within a period of four months. By 1970, the 727, one of the most versatile aircraft of the jet era, became the fastest-selling commercial jet plane in the world. It was the first plane to pass the 1,000 sales mark, and by the mid-1970s, as many as 60 airlines all over the world were flying the 727. Douglas offered its own DC-9 to compete with the 727 on its shorter routes, and after entering service in December 1965 with Delta Air Lines, the DC-9 also sold in large numbers around the world.

Another major advance was the introduction of the wide-body jets. Here, Pan American played a key role in shaping the economics and eventual design of a new generation of jets. Pan American's primary focus had always been to lower its operating costs by having higher block speeds, higher aircraft use, or higher load capacities. Having maximized all of these factors, Pan American's famous guiding manager Juan Trippe, began looking for the only remaining option: a massive airplane capable of carrying hundreds of passengers that would be an ocean liner for the skies. By defining requirements for size and passenger capacity, Trippe was instrumental in determining the eventual shape of Boeing's new aircraft—called the 747—which could carry as many as 490 passengers. Trippe ordered 23 passenger 747s for Pan American in April 1966. Although Boeing faced severe problems with its weight, its engines, and its size during development, the company successfully delivered its first flight model in December 1969. Pan Am had originally intended to begin regularly scheduled services across the Atlantic before Christmas 1969, but engine problems forced a delay to January 22, 1970, when its first Boeing 747 took off from New York's John F. Kennedy Airport and headed out over the Atlantic.

Other airlines followed Pan Am's lead. TWA inaugurated a New York-Los Angeles Boeing 747 service in February 1970, followed soon by American Airlines in March on the same route. Airlines such as Continental, Northwest, United, Delta, National, Eastern, and Braniff all followed with their own 747 services within the year.

Despite the economies expected from the introduction of wide-bodied jets, airline fares did not go down—at least not significantly. Also, the new planes were not faster than the earlier jet aircraft. Additionally, not all passengers liked being in a plane brimming with people, sitting in a cabin with ten seats abreast and two aisles. If the initial excitement over the grand ambition of the Boeing 747 attracted Pan Am and its passengers, by the mid-1970s, the major airlines had a slightly more cautious approach to the “big-is-better” solution.

The early momentum from the fascination with wide-body jets did, however, produce two other wide-body aircraft, the Lockheed L-1011 TriStar and the Douglas DC-10, each capable of carrying about 300 passengers. American Airlines used the DC-10 for the first time on its Los Angeles-Chicago route in August 1971. Eastern Airlines was the first user of the TriStar when it began flights with the wide-body jet in April 1972.

Ironically, the introduction and use of the wide-body jets may have contributed to an economic downturn for airlines in general. The early 1970s was a very tenuous time for many airlines—traffic growth was stagnating even as airlines were introducing additional capacity to carry passengers. After a number of airlines appealed to the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB)—the authority that regulated the entry of new airlines into the market and the setting of fares—the CAB granted a general increase in airfares (about 6 percent) as a safety net for the airlines. Unfortunately, the higher fares decreased passenger traffic even more, resulting in a “bottoming out” in 1971.

Internationally, airlines such as Pan American and TWA were also feeling the pinch, as low-fare charter services were taking their business away, especially on the transatlantic routes. After a torturous series of discussions through 1971, all the major transatlantic carriers agreed to set fares for the transatlantic route. An average flight across the ocean cost about $204, thus bringing intercontinental travel within the reach of a whole new economic group. While the oil crisis of the early 1970s raised airline fares significantly and reduced profits, most of the major airlines survived without fatal problems. Through the 1970s, the annual rate of total U.S. air traffic growth slowed, but there was never any real decline in the number of flights. In fact, the number of passengers grew significantly despite fare increases through the 1970s, evidence of the public's increasing reliance on air travel, now synonymous with jet travel, as a routine activity.

The introduction of jet aircraft changed the ground infrastructure of the air industry. For example, airports across the United States now had to build much longer runways with thicker concrete to support heavier planes. Chicago's O'Hare Airport was the first to introduce several innovations such as parallel runways that enabled simultaneous landings and takeoffs, and accordion-like corridors that replaced the old passenger stairs leading to the planes. Because of the louder noise of jets, newer airports were now located much farther from major urban centers, thereby boosting economic growth in many suburban areas.

The early years of the jet era coincided with widespread and profound changes in the way average fliers experienced air travel. If in the early 1950s, air travel still was considered adventurous by some, by the end of the decade, it had become routine for many Americans. In 1958, over one million passengers flew to Europe, thus displacing ocean liners as the premier method of transatlantic travel. Because of fast-flying jet aircraft, by 1968, transatlantic passenger service had increased to six million passengers per year. The ability for the middle class to travel far and wide meant new social habits: students were now traveling to Europe for summers, and families were now vacationing in far-off places for a single weekend. By the 1970s, the convenience of jet travel made vast international cultural exchanges a norm. Jet travel also physically affected passengers: the most obvious effect was the body's inability to cope with swiftly-changing time zones, an experience that introduced a new term into the English language: “jet lag.”

Note: This article was commissioned by and first appeared on NASA's U.S. Centennial of Flight web site. It appears here with permission. We gratefully acknowledge both the author and NASA.

 

References:

Bilstein, Roger. Flight in America: From the Wrights to the Astronauts, Rev. ed. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.
Boyne, Walter J. and Donald S. Lopez, eds. The Jet Age: Forty Years of Jet Aviation. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1979.
Brooks, Peter W. The Modern Airliner: Its Origins and Development. Manhattan, Kansas: Sunflower University Press, 1961.
Heppenheimer, T.A. Turbulent Skies
. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.1995.
Leary, William M. Editor. Encyclopedia of American Business History and Biography: The Air Industry. New York: Facts on File, 1992.


 

FLYING FACTS

The 'spacious' six abreast seating of the Boeing 707.

Photo courtesy of Boeing


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