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