The Ultimate Airliner: Pan Am Does It Again!On several previous occasions, Pan American had set the pace of airliner sponsorship to the extent that it had been the launching customer for many a famous line of aircraft, from the Sikorskys, Martins, and Boeings of the flying boat era to the Big Jets. In 1955 Juan Trippe had shaken the airline world by ordering 25 Douglas DC-8s and 20 Boeing 707s, to usher in the jet age for the United States airline industry. He then repeated the process, even more dramatically.
With the rate of increase of airline traffic keeping to an average of about 15% per year over several decades, larger aircraft were obviously necessary to keep up with the growth. Trippe had always been far bolder than his contemporaries in going for larger aircraft; indeed he seemed to have followed a policy of ordering types which were typically twice the size of the previous generation.
In the late 1960s, following a period of unprecedented growth, especially in transatlantic traffic, other considerations arose. In the past, airlines had been able to cope with the additional demand by other means, besides simply adding more or larger aircraft to the fleet. Faster aircraft ( as in the case of the quantum leap from piston-engined aircraft to jets ) took care of growth, because far more hours and miles could be flown in a given time, thus earning more revenue. Also, streamlined operating procedures enabled aircraft to fly more hours per day, thus extracting more productivity for the same investment. Finally, with better reservations procedures, load factors ( the percentage of seats filled ) steadily improved. The average productivity rot a DC-6B was based on an average cruising speed of about 300 mph, an annual utilization of about 2500 hours, and a load factor of perhaps 52%. The Boeing 707's was based on 550 mph, 4000 hours utilization, and about 60%.
By 1970, when Pan American introduced the Boeing 747, it had reached, in company with other leading airlines, the limits of reasonable levels of speed, utilization, and load factor. The only way to increase capacity, apart from adding frequencies ( another method of coping with increased demand, but which was practically impossible, because of airport and airway congestion ) was to increase the aircraft size.
This time, Trippe went for broke. The new Pan American airliner generation was more than twice as big as the Boeing 707's which were currently the flagships; and almost twice as big as the biggest airliner then in service, the "stretched" Douglas DC-8-63. Predictably, the new airliner was immediately dubbed the Jumbo Jet, a name deplored by many, but destined to stick to the type, whether the purists liked it or not.
Development HistoryOn 13 April 1966, Pan American Airways, in conjunction with the Boeing Aircraft Company, launched a new generation of airliners, by placing an order for twenty-five Boeing 747s. In mixed class seating, each could carry between 360 and 380 passengers. In all-tourist or all-economy configuration, it would later carry about 450, while special versions built for Japanese domestic services and inclusive tour operators would carry 500. By the standards of the period, and even today, twenty years later, the size of the airliner is (at the risk of over-working the term) somewhat awe-inspiring. Each 747 cost $21,000,000. Incidentally, the 1986 price averaged $110,000,000.
Boeing built a complete new factory, at Everett, north of Seattle, and construction of the 350-ton giant proceeded at a shattering pace, breaking all previous records for production, even by Boeing standards. Pan American had originally intended to start scheduled service across the North Atlantic before Christmas of 1969, following the successful maiden flight on 19 February 1969. But some irritating engine problems postponed this notable landmark date until 21 January 1970. Even then, an overheating engine delayed the take-off from John F. Kennedy Airport, New York, until 1.52 a.m. on 22 January. But the aircraft reached London the same day. A new era had begun, and during the next 16 years, almost 800 of the giant aircraft were to roll off the Everett production line... and still are.
The Ultimate Range: The Boeing 747SPAs shown by the accompanying aircraft inventory lists, Pan American was to augment its original order to a total of 60 of the Boeing 747 type. Most were of the basic -100 series, and some of the improved -200 series, almost indistinguishable from the first off the line, but with uprated engines to provide for a higher gross weight and thus greater lifting capability, both in passengers and cargo, and in range. For practicable purposes, however, no more passengers could be squeezed in, although some airlines ordered versions with the "stretched upper deck."
The World's Most Experienced Airline did, however, order a special version, with one main objective, the ability to fly with a full payload between New York and Tokyo, non-stop. Convinced that the traffic demand warranted such specialization, Pan Am persuaded Boeing ó always ready to explore imaginative market possibilities ó to produce a shortened 747, with the suffix SP, for Special Performance. This remarkable airliner could perform the mission demanded of it, and was able to carry 233 passengers, in mixed class, over the range of 6754 statute miles in about thirteen or fourteen hours. Pan American opened the New York-Tokyo service on 25 April 1976.
The Boeing 747SP's ability to cross the North American continent, plus the Pacific Ocean nonstop, was impressive. But it was not the outstanding success which the manufacturer had expected. The problem was that there were not enough markets comparable with New York-Tokyo, the world's two largest metropolitan areas. Later, Pan Am introduced other transpacific routes and other airlines were to use the SP. A passenger could, for example, fly from Hong Kong to San Francisco or Sydney to Los Angeles non-stop. But traffic demand for routes of such extreme range was normally insufficient to support a large production line. Just for once, the airline world did not beat a pathway to Boeing's door; and Boeing was itself partly to blame, because as time went on, technical improvements in the basic Boeing 747 permitted the standard-sized series to fly the same ranges as the SP, with the extra seats and cargo capacity as a bonus.