Jumbojets Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The term jumbojet was coined to refer to the Boeing 747, and by extension, to any wide-bodied plane that seats five hundred or more passengers.

The Jumbojet has been so popular that the U.S. Post Office recently put it on a 33-cent stamp in the Celebrate the Century series, honoring the most significant people, places, events, and trends of the 1970’s. Once airlines discovered that jets were significantly cheaper to operate per passenger mile than even the most efficient piston-engine planes, it was only a matter of time before jumbojets came on the market. The first jumbojet was the Boeing 747, capable of carrying five hundred passengers. However, most 747’s were designed for about four hundred passengers, allowing room for mail, freight, and baggage. The 747’s inaugural commercial flight was made in 1970.

The Boeing 747 has four jet engines and reaches a cruising speed of 550 miles per hour. Other manufacturers soon produced their own versions of wide-body jumbojets. McDonnell Douglas built the DC-10, a three-engine plane. McDonnell Douglas later modified this design to produce the MD-11. Lockheed had its own jumbojet, the L-1011 TriStar, which is no longer produced. Airbus Industrie produced the A300 twinjet wide-body.

The 1980’s witnessed changes in jumbojets. McDonnell Douglas manufactured the MD-80 series of twin-engine jets, while Boeing introduced the 757 and 767 twinjets. The 757 was a narrow-body jet, complementing the wide-body 767. Meanwhile, Airbus introduced the A310 twinjet and its own narrow-body A320. The A320 twin was unique, featuring a sidestick controller for pilots, replacing the typical control columns and wheels. Airbus also came out with the A330, a larger twin-engine, and the A340 four-engine plane, designed for longer flights. Airbus plans to manufacture superjumbos that will carry more than 550 passengers.

Other manufacturers also have plans to build larger jumbos. Boeing’s 777 wide-body jumbo currently holds up to four hundred passengers. Boeing purchased McDonnell Douglas in 1997, and in 1999 revealed plans to expand the 747 to hold up to 524 passengers.


In the early 1960’s, Douglas, Lockheed, and Boeing were in competition for a U.S. Air Force contract for an order of a new heavy cargo jet. The Lockheed Galaxy was the Air Force’s choice. However, even though Boeing lost the contract, the company put its experience to good use in a project to build a new civil aircraft. This aircraft would have a huge passenger capacity, made possible by General Electric and Pratt & Whitney’s new engine. Boeing engineers built the fuselage as one long tube, including an upper flight deck. The new plane would have a maximum of five hundred passengers in rows of ten seats (divided into set of three, four, and three). The 747 became popularly known by its nickname, the “jumbojet.”

The jumbojet was revolutionary in many ways. Its wing concept was different from that of other planes. It was the first civil plane to have four huge, powerful engines such as the Pratt & Whitney JT9D, which were needed to power an airplane with a weight of nearly 335 tons.

On February 9, 1969, the 747 made its maiden voyage. Twenty-six airlines had ordered the 747. Pan American was the first airline to make a commercial flight with the jumbojet, on a New York-to-London flight on January 22, 1970. The success of the first 747’s led to the development of new engines by Pratt & Whitney, as well as General Electric and Rolls-Royce. On October 11, 1970, the first 747-200 flew. The 747-200 weighed about 378 tons and sported a larger fuel capacity. There is a version for passengers, the 747-200B, and one for cargo, the 747-200F. The 747-200C can be converted to passenger or cargo use. The 747-200 had 650 units delivered, easily the most successful jumbojet.

Boeing wanted a shorter version of the 747 and in 1973 produced the 747SP (Special Performance). It was a challenge to the Lockheed TriStar and the Douglas DC-10. The 747SP can fly very long distances. Furthermore, 90 percent of the parts used in the 747SP are the same as those used in the 747-200. It has a higher tail than the 200, as well as a longer elevator unit. Boeing manufactured forty-four 747SP’s. From a shorter plane, Boeing turned to a larger one, the 747-300. It had a stretched upper deck that could seat sixty-nine passengers. Ninety of these planes were manufactured. The first of this series flew commercially on October 5, 1982.

The next of the 747’s was the 747-400. It had a new wing design and new fuselage material as well as a two-pilot glass cockpit. These features made the 747-400 the most advanced and economic jumbojet. Its new engines allow the 747-400 to carry over 394 tons. It also has both cargo and the convertible models.

Other Jumbojets

McDonnell Douglas decided to improve its DC-10, and in the 1960’s produced the longer DC-10-60. It was able to seat up to four hundred passengers. The DC-10-60 was supposed to have better engines and a better wing performance. However, it had more accidents than Douglas was comfortable with, and the company decided not to produce any new versions of the DC-10.

In 1981, McDonnell Douglas began trying various winglets and better engines on DC-10’s. These proved sound, and in 1984, McDonnell Douglas debuted the MD-11. The first version, the MD-11X-10, was the same size as the DC-10. However, it had more powerful engines and a higher gross weight. In July, 1985, McDonnell Douglas released its passenger version. The standard version has a two-pilot cockpit, is longer than the DC-10, and has a 28 percent longer range. Nevertheless, it is a more economical plane; expenses are about 31 percent less. The MD-11 was a success. There are three versions available, a passenger, cargo, and convertible. The passenger version can hold up to 405 passengers and has a range about 7,000 miles.

In 1996, McDonnell Douglas manufactured the MD-11ER. This version has longer range and larger tanks than previous versions. Boeing’s takeover of McDonnell Douglas in 1997 means that no further MD-11’s will be produced after current orders are filled.

Airbus Industrie, a European consortium founded by France and West Germany in 1970, is the largest European producer of large jets. They shared the goal of Hawker Siddley, sponsored by the British government, to develop, construct, and market a European short- and medium-range airliner. The first Airbuses to be certified for flight in Europe and the United States were the A300-B1 and the A300-B2, in 1974. The first commercial A300-B2 had a takeoff weight of 138 tons and was sold mainly to European airlines, particularly Air France and Lufthansa.

Eastern Air Lines ordered thirty-eight A300-B4’s, which had a higher takeoff weight and greater fuel capacity than did previous models, as well as optimized flaps. This was Airbus’s medium- and long-range airplane. After the Airbus A310 made its successful debut, Airbus added new features: a two-pilot cockpit, improved wing design, and nonmetallic structures, creating the A300-600, which made its first flight in 1983. The A300-600 has the same cockpit as the A310-300, and both aircraft can be operated with the same type rating. However, the A300-600 has a stronger engine and a higher fuel capacity, for long-range flights, and the usual freighter and convertible versions. Its shape has led to it being nicknamed the Beluga.

Freight Carrying

Jumbojets are increasingly turning their efforts toward the hauling of freight. Boeing has turned more toward the freight or mixed use of its 747. The success of even Airbus’s proposed superjumbo may depend on its ability to haul freight. In fact, Airbus has secured orders from Federal Express and others for freighter versions of its superjumbojet.

There is speculation that smaller widebodies, such as Boeing’s 777 and 767 and Airbus’ A330 and A340, eventually will fill the market for jumbojets. The reason for this move to smaller jumbos is that passenger routes are fragmenting as passengers’ travel preferences shift toward frequent nonstop flights between cities and away from hub-to-hub trips. The shorter flights use smaller aircraft, while the longer flights are most efficient for the jumbojets.

This preference is not a problem in the cargo business. The economies of scale favor large hubs from which cargo can be sorted and dispatched, a situation that favors the largest possible planes. Airbus’s proposed superjumbojet, for example, would be able to carry 150 tons of freight, compared with the 747’s 120 tons.

The Future of the Jumbojet

Although there were many innovations in jet travel in the 1960’s, no jetliner has yet matched the impact of the original jumbojet, the Boeing 747. At that time, there was increasing danger from crowded skies, which was averted through the use of more powerful engines. The 747 is still the world’s largest commercial jetliner. With nearly 1,200 delivered, the 747 is the best-selling twin-aisle jet in the industry. The 747’s longevity and popularity are based on its unbeatable low seat-mile costs, flexibility, long-range dominance, and unmatched comfort. During its lifetime, the 747 worldwide fleet has logged more than 50 million flight hours, 12 million flights and 20 billion miles, enough to make 42,000 trips to the Moon and back. The 747 is capable of carrying up to 568 passengers, depending on the model and its interior configuration. The 747-400, the only model in production in 2001, entered commercial service in 1989 and has sold more than any other 747 version.

The jumbojet is moving into the age of the superjumbojet with not only increased size but also increased range. The first jumbojet engines have been greately improved upon in later models. Their range has expanded to over 8,000 miles. The next increase will be in its size.

Boeing, however, has stated that it will not build a successor to the 747. It has yielded the market for large jets to Airbus and its A380. Boeing will instead develop its Sonic Cruiser, a jet that can fly faster and farther than commercial jets currently flying. Except for the Concorde, no commercial jet flies significantly faster than 550 miles per hour, the 707’s cruising speed. Boeing says its new sonic cruiser will fly at 648 miles per hour. It will also be more economical. Thus, the company that pioneered the jumbojet appears to be taking another direction. Airbus says that its new A380 has chased Boeing from the field.

  • Endres, Gunter. McDonnell Douglas DC-10. Osceola, Wis.: Motorbooks International, 1998. A well-illustrated history of the DC-10, including history, production, and coverage of its crashes.
  • Irving, Clive. Wide-body: The Triumph of the 747. New York: William Morrow, 1993. A behind-the-scenes account of the development of the first jumbojet.
  • Norris, Guy, and Mark Wagner. Boeing 747: Design and Development Since 1969. Osceola, Wis.: Motorbooks International, 1997. A well-illustrated history of the 747 since its inception.
  • Tennekes, Hank. The Simple Science of Flight: From Insects to Jumbojets. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1996. An overview of the development of flight, including the importance of the jumbojet.

Air carriers


Airline industry, U.S.



Lockheed Martin

McDonnell Douglas


707 plane family

The new Airbus A380 double-decker jumbojet can hold 555 passengers.

(AP/Wide World Photos)
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