Boeing 707 Begins Commercial Service

The introduction of large jet airliners on routes over the Atlantic in 1958 brought the fast-growing aviation industry into the business of mass travel.

Summary of Event

The transatlantic flights Transatlantic flight of 1958 brought the successful application of jet technology to commercial aviation and became the visible symbol of vast changes in transportation. On the evening of October 26, 1958, 111 passengers and 12 crew members boarded a Boeing 707 in New York City. They arrived the next morning in Paris after an eight-hour flight, including a refueling stop. In comparison with piston-engine airliners of a few years earlier, the 707 had nearly twice the capacity and speed. It soon acquired the 3,500-mile range to bridge the Atlantic Ocean nonstop. Reporters and passengers marveled at its speed and noted its absence of noise and vibration as well as its size. It inspired confidence, because it was more like a large room than a vehicle. Boeing
Boeing 707[Boeing seven o seven]
Jet aircraft
[kw]Boeing 707 Begins Commercial Service (Oct. 26, 1958)[Boeing seven o seven]
[kw]707 Begins Commercial Service, Boeing (Oct. 26, 1958)[seven o seven]
[kw]Commercial Service, Boeing 707 Begins (Oct. 26, 1958)
Boeing 707[Boeing seven o seven]
Jet aircraft
[g]North America;Oct. 26, 1958: Boeing 707 Begins Commercial Service[05940]
[g]United States;Oct. 26, 1958: Boeing 707 Begins Commercial Service[05940]
[c]Space and aviation;Oct. 26, 1958: Boeing 707 Begins Commercial Service[05940]
[c]Transportation;Oct. 26, 1958: Boeing 707 Begins Commercial Service[05940]
[c]Travel and recreation;Oct. 26, 1958: Boeing 707 Begins Commercial Service[05940]
[c]Manufacturing and industry;Oct. 26, 1958: Boeing 707 Begins Commercial Service[05940]
Allen, William McPherson
Trippe, Juan T.
Douglas, Donald W., Sr.

Beginning in 1919, the Atlantic Ocean was crossed repeatedly by aircraft. Commercial transatlantic flights began in 1939, with Boeing “flying boats” typically carrying two dozen passengers on a journey that lasted about twenty-nine hours. Jet aircraft received their first use in Germany and Great Britain during the course of World War II, but only in military roles. The anticipated application of jet engines to civilian use had to wait for improvements in fuel economy, reliability, safety, and power. Meanwhile, more powerful conventional piston engines were developed, although the law of diminishing returns was already recognized in their complexity and costs. The best four-engine aircraft cost about $2 million, and the United States held about 85 percent of the market, excluding the Soviet Union.

By 1958, propeller-driven airliners had relatively comfortable pressurized cabins and could cross the Atlantic nonstop in about twelve hours. Passenger volumes doubled between 1948 and 1952 and doubled again by 1957, reaching nearly one million annually. The same year, the number of people traveling above the Atlantic exceeded those traveling on it.

Although the North Atlantic was the largest world route, the majority of air travel occurred elsewhere, including the first jet service. British Airways British Airways (then British Overseas Airways Corporation, or BOAC) British Overseas Airways Corporation in 1952 flew a De Havilland Comet De Havilland Comet[Dehavilland Comet] jet aircraft carrying thirty-six passengers to Africa and Asia along transcontinental routes in nine-hundred-mile stages. This pioneering service ended in 1954 because of accidents resulting from structural fatigue. The fifty-passenger Russian Tupolev Tu-104 Tupolev Tu-104 began providing jet service in 1956. An improved version of the Comet returned to fly the first Atlantic jet service three weeks before Pan American World Airways’ Pan American World Airways 1958 Paris flight. Meanwhile, 707’s were making unscheduled proving flights to Europe.

Most national airlines did not have to pay their way at the time. Pan American had sought such a government-subsidized position, as the United States’ exclusive international carrier, but this had been vigorously resisted by other American airlines. In 1955 and without government assistance, Pan American (commonly known as Pan Am) signed agreements to purchase forty-five large jetliners from Boeing and Douglas.

Pan Am’s order caused a rush by other carriers, including BOAC, to add jets and remain competitive. They had to assume that Pan Am was right about the economics, safety, and even suitability of the new jets. In 1955, airlines placed orders for 174 jets, up from fewer than 10 in earlier years. The jets on order by 1958 and the cost of infrastructure changes easily exceeded the value of the entire propeller fleet already in service. Sooner than imagined, the airlines were relegating the whole propeller fleet to flying lesser routes.

Douglas, Douglas Aircraft Company followed by Lockheed, Lockheed Aircraft Corporation had been the dominant manufacturer of conventional airliners. Boeing, however, was the first with a jetliner on the market. It alone had the experience of designing and producing thousands of multiengine swept-wing bombers. Other companies had believed the technology to be insufficiently mature, but Boeing completed a flying prototype in 1954 with company funds to demonstrate configuration, size, power, performance, and flight characteristics. Skepticism persisted, but production started on a military transport. A year later, Pan Am triggered the jet-buying surge.

Progress in aircraft tended to follow engine development, so the 707 needed better engines than were available for the Comet. In fact, the power of jets had doubled, making possible larger aircraft with long-range fuel capacity. Good-enough engines had arrived, and the time was right for a transatlantic jetliner.

Pan Am had emerged from World War II as the lead international carrier for the world’s most prosperous country. With its close ties to government officials, it developed strong route and price structures. Pan Am’s 1958 introduction of economy fares sent air traffic numbers, mostly propeller-borne flights, soaring. With the Boeing 707, as he had many times before, Chairman Juan T. Trippe used his firm’s influence to push airliner development.

For the firms pioneering with jets, the risks were enormous. The traveling public claimed that speed was not a factor in its plans. Airports balked at enlargement and noise, and civil authorities were poorly prepared. The thirsty new jets also cost an unheard-of $5 million each and brought acres of empty seats to airports. The productivity of a 707-era jet, however, matched that of several of its slower predecessors and in fact equaled that of the best ocean liners. The public quickly placed reservations on almost every seat on a jet that Pan Am had to offer.


Aviation Airline industry, U.S. had a turbulent past in which fortunes were risked and sometimes lost. This did not change with the introduction of jets. The British rushed ahead of the available aircraft technology with the Comet in order to wrest control of the airliner market from the Americans; the Soviets also rushed forward, relying on an unsuitable military conversion. Other manufacturers took an overly conservative approach in choosing turboprops over jets.

Althouth jet airliners did not initiate the large changes associated with modern travel, they led to structural changes in other transportation industries, contributed to American economic strength as American manufacturers came to dominate the industry, and in subtle ways reshaped how the world did business in a globalized marketplace.

That jets “shrank the world” is surely true. The speed of jets was their most noted feature. Another significant aspect of the 707’s arrival in Paris, that it had arrived safely, went almost unmentioned. The new generation of jets was reliable—so safe that aircraft accident rates would drop more than an order of magnitude beginning in 1959. Part of this good record was the result of the nature of jet engines, but credit also went to higher safety standards, improvements in technology, and better methods of operation.

The introduction of jet airliners also marked the beginning of a golden age of transportation by flight. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, jet travel was an occasion for which people dressed formally and included well-groomed flight attendants who attended to passengers’ needs. Most often, the advantage of speed was seen in the context of passengers arriving fresh at their destinations. A short trip, everyone recognized, had a significant positive influence on a traveler’s ability to do work, desire to travel, frequency of trips, and length of stay. Also with jets came the realization of daily body rhythms and a new expression, “jet lag.”

Jet flight was not only romantic but also affordable: Ticket prices had fallen since the first $675 round-trip Atlantic fare of 1939. After World War II, fares on transatlantic flights were set by international agreement and resisted downward pressure. On the night of Pan Am’s first jet crossing of the Atlantic, round-trip economy seats cost $490. Downward pressure on fares mounted as a result of the huge seating capacity of jets in the 1960’s, bringing fare cuts that often ignored the official agreements.

Falling prices had always had far-reaching effects. On the eve of jets, less than 1 percent of Americans traveled internationally each year. Even as Pan Am flew its first scheduled jet service, newspapers contemplated a new sort of tourist, those who might fly to Paris for lunch, the so-called “jet-set.” Stays abroad shortened markedly, though not to the extreme of daily round trips. By 1971, a third of European trips were less than fourteen days. Foreign holidays, considered a luxury in 1958, had come within the reach of most families. Masses of young travelers benefited from the halving of fares. Increased travel brought a greater need for a common language. The spread of English around the world, or at least its hastening, is an indirect effect of jetliner use.

The spread of the English language is only one of a vast number of changes captured by the expression “globalization,” wrought by jets in concert with political forces and advances in telecommunications. The “global village”—manifested by the presence of multinational corporations, international organizations, worldwide standards, a single market for many goods, and tourism as a major industry—began to take shape, largely as a result of the speed and relatively afforable cost of international travel.

The 707 and the DC-8, its Douglas contemporary, increased cruise speeds to nearly 600 miles per hour. Except for a few supersonic flights, air travel continued at roughly the speeds that these two airlines made commonplace. Their shape, too, would be the commonplace configuration of the jet age, with swept wings and pylon-mounted engines. In several ways, therefore, the jet revolution was complete at its inception. The future would see a widening sphere of jet use and increases in efficiency but little change in basic form.

The new jets, while initially beneficial to Pan Am, soon aided foreign carriers even more. The long-lasting benefits in the United States went primarily to the manufacturers rather than to U.S. airlines. In 1946, foreign flag lines carried less than 10 percent of the North Atlantic traffic, but as early as 1961 they carried more than 70 percent. Aerospace products grew to be among the largest U.S. exports; more than two-thirds of those products were related to airliners.

After 1958, the growth in the industrial infrastructure of air travel was phenomenal. Worldwide passenger-miles, the basic measure of travel, expanded rapidly, growing from 75 billion annually to 1.1 trillion annually between 1960 and 1990. Long-term growth in air cargo was also pronounced. Similarly, foreign airlines purchased one-third of new jets in 1955 but bought two-thirds in 1991. Fortunately, there was usually cooperation on operating airways among the participants. In the case of airports, growth was mostly near large cities. In an extreme case, Europe’s three top airports handled 40 percent of the continent’s enplanements in the early 1990’s. Successful large airports encouraged further urban concentration, but airport growth met great resistance at the same time because of associated noise and ground traffic congestion.

Jets and mass travel brought the airlines into big business, but even though big, they were also as likely to have losses as profits. Their stability was achieved by governments and committees setting noncompetitive tickets prices. Deregulation of airlines beginning in the late 1970’s brought hardships for many. The ten thousand or so jet airliners active worldwide in the early 1990’s represented substantial overcapacity, as airlines struggled to provide the most convenient service on the most popular routes. With deregulation, an aging fleet, the rise in world instability (including terrorism), the impact of geopolitics on a dwindling oil supply, and consequent increases in fuel as well as infrastructure costs during the 1990’s and early 2000’s, the golden age of jet flight was over. Long airport waits, breakdowns in services, rising costs, and for many fear of flying after the use of jetliners by terrorists as weapons to crash into New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon had turned air travel into a chore for all but the wealthiest individuals. Nevertheless, jet travel remained a necessity; the “jet revolution” had reduced the world’s size and increased economic opportunity, at the same time that it facilitated the migration of dangerous elements, from disease to terrorism. Boeing
Boein g 707[Boeing seven o seven]
Jet aircraft

Further Reading

  • Bauer, Eugene E. Boeing: The First Century. Enumclaw, Wash.: TABA, 2000. A full history of the company, from 1916 through 2000, tracing the personalities, intercorporate competitions, and aircraft. Bibliography, index.
  • Davies, Ronald E. G. A History of the World’s Airlines. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983. An authoritative reference of broad scope, covering airlines and with good coverage of aircraft.
  • _______. Pan Am: An Airline and Its Aircraft. New York: Orion, 1987. Fine selection of detailed information on the company, grouped around equally detailed chronological descriptions of its aircraft.
  • “International Airlines: The Great Jet Gamble.” Fortune 58 (June, 1958): 120-124, 226-230. A contemporary examination of the “new” jet travel industry.
  • Lawrence, Philip K., and David Weldon Thornton. Deep Stall: The Turbulent Story of Boeing Commercial Airplanes. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2005. Combines a history of military and commercial aircraft from the days of the Wright brothers with a history of the Boeing-Airbus competition. Bibliography, index.
  • “The Selling of the 707.” Fortune 56 (October, 1957): 128-133. An insightful article written in the midst of the battle for the skies over the North Atlantic.
  • Serling, Robert J. The Jet Age. Alexandria, Va.: Time-Life Books, 1982. Highly readable account of the entire jetliner era through to the supersonics. Includes superior graphics.
  • Taneja, Nawal K. Introduction to Civil Aviation. Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books, 1989. Well thought-out textbook overview explaining civil aviation’s components, technologies, finances, and agencies.
  • Yenne, Bill. The Story of the Boeing Company. Rev. ed. Osceola, Wis.: Zenith, 2005. An updated history, from the days of founder William Edward Boeing through plans for the “dreamliner,” including detailed coverage of the revolutionary 707. Physically impressive, this foot-square, heavily illustrated volume offers sidebars of statistics on all the major Boeing aircraft.

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