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Airline Mismanagement

After an unsuccessful period in the 1940s & 50s, Boeing returned to full commercial success with the release of the 707 in 1957.

The 1960s saw the enormously successful 727, 737 and 747 families of planes launched. Boeing became the unquestioned world leader in commercial aircraft building.

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Where is Boeing Going?

Part 2 :  Boeing's Best Years - the 1950s to the 1970s

Back in Boeing's glory days, airplanes like the revolutionary 707 defined all that was best about travel, and changed the lives of millions of people, everywhere in the world, making air travel affordable and convenient.

What has gone wrong since then, and why?

Part 2 of a 5 part series - click for Parts  One  Two  Three  Four  Five



The 707 changed everything. It changed the way people flew, it changed the way planes were designed and sold, and it changed the aviation industry, making Boeing the clear international leader.

Boeing continued on a positive winning streak, with its 720, 727, 737 and 747 airplanes. But then it fumbled, and has been slipping backwards ever since.


The Dawn of a New Era

Initially there was hot competition between Boeing's 707 and the very similar Douglas DC-8, but Boeing decisively won the larger market share, and when production ceased, it had produced an extraordinary number of planes - 1009 707s compared to only 556 DC-8s produced by Douglas, by far the largest number of passenger planes Boeing had ever manufactured.

The 707 was a very fast plane - it cruised at 600-610 mph. Only the shortlived and unsuccessful 747SP would cruise at this speed; no other Boeing plane has subsequently been as fast as the 707.

The Revolution of the 707

The 707 was a revolutionary plane. It transformed passenger flight from an expensive, inconvenient, and uncommon form of travel for only the very rich, and made it instead accessible and affordable to the masses.

The 707 was an engineering marvel in its day. It was almost twice the weight of any earlier plane, and carried almost twice as many passengers as any earlier Boeing plane.

Although propeller powered planes had already made major inroads into passenger liner traffic, the economics of the 707 made this an unbeatable match. A single 707, costing $4 million (later models cost more), could carry as many passengers across the Atlantic as could the $30 million Queen Mary. The 707 used 10% as much fuel per passenger, and required only 1% of the man hours per passenger journey.

In a single decade, the number of trans-Atlantic ocean passengers halved, while the number choosing to fly quadrupled.

The growth in air travel of course meant a growing need for airplanes. Although Boeing was late to release a passenger jet (both Britain and Russia had already released jet airliners) Boeing's 707 quickly became the market leader, and returned huge profits to Boeing in the process.

The 707 was the first jet to have its engines slung below the wings - a trend that continues to this day. Another less fortunate 707 legacy can be noted any time you board a 737 or a 757. The 707 was developed with a 148" wide fuselage (4" wider than earlier Boeing models and 1" wider than the competing DC8). This was generous in its day, but this width has remained constant in all single aisle Boeing planes for the almost 50 years since.

It is interesting to note that what was viewed as 'wide' then is now viewed as pitifully narrow and inadequate, and one of the advantages of the single aisle Airbus planes is that they have a 7" wider fuselage, making for appreciably greater passenger comfort.

Airplane Development Slows

Until the 707, most planes developed were never as capable as the manufacturer or the client would like. In general, planes never carried enough people, never had enough range, and never flew fast or high enough. This meant that there was a fairly clear progression in airplane development - each new model plane was better than the models before it, either in terms of passenger capacity, range, speed, or cruising altitude, and often in terms of several of these measures. Each plane type would also be quickly replaced by a newer, better, plane type.

The 707 carried so many people, so fast, and sufficient distance to cross the US or the Atlantic without stopping, that the need to develop bigger faster planes slowed.

The basic airframe design of the 707 was sufficiently advanced that new model planes did not need complete new designs. Instead, greater range was simply obtained by updating the engines that were hung off the wings, and more passenger capacity could be obtained just by 'stretching' the plane - lengthening its fuselage, allowing for more rows of seats to be added. The versatility and functionality of the 707 design was such that the plane would be manufactured for 22 years, in six different variations, before finally being retired.

Smaller Planes

Meanwhile, the airlines and the manufacturers that supplied them started to think about smaller jets, with less range, that could be used on shorter domestic routes, and which could operate from shorter runways. A smaller version 707 was called the 720, and then evolved into a new model, the 727.

In the interests of manufacturing economy, the 727 had the same diameter fuselage as the 707, but was a different length, with different wings, different engines, and different performance characteristics; indeed with three engines, all mounted at the rear, and a high 'T' shaped tail, it represented yet another design innovation on Boeing's part. It carried fewer passengers than the 707, and had a shorter range.

The 727 had its first flight in 1962 and was first flown commercially in 1964. It also was manufactured for 22 years, with the final model coming off the production line in 1984. Unlike both the 707 and later model planes, the 727 was only released in two versions, the standard version (727-100) and a stretched version (727-200) which carried almost half as many again passengers as the -100).

The plane needed to have 200 sales to reach breakeven on the development costs, and Boeing initially planned a total production run of 250 planes. But, during its long life, a staggering 1832 planes were built, making it the best selling passenger plane ever, a status it held until 1987 when the 737 series of jets passed this milestone (as of the end of January 2006, there have been 5000 737s sold).

The airlines and Boeing continued to 'think small', and in 1968 an even smaller plane had its first commercial flight - the 737. Again, to save on manufacturing costs, the 737 had the same diameter fuselage.

Amazingly, the 737 series is still being manufactured today, although in very different form than the first 737-100 that was made 35+ years ago. A modern 737 has 50% greater range, much greater efficiency (from new wing designs, lighter weight, and improved engines) and carries almost double the number of passengers that the early -100 series did.

Fewer Technical Crew

An innovation in the 737 was the elimination of the need for a flight engineer - the plane could be operated by a pilot and co-pilot only. This was a far cry from the early days of aviation, with a technical crew of as many as six - captain, pilot, copilot, navigator, flight engineer and radio operator.

This quickly reduced to five, with the captain and pilot duties being merged. Then the radio officer position was eliminated. Then the navigator. And then the flight engineer; all modern planes fly with a crew of only two.

And Bigger Planes, too

For ten years the 707 reigned supreme as the largest plane Boeing made. But with the increasing popularity of air travel, the airports and even the air lanes in the sky were becoming congested.

A solution to this problem was suggested in the form of a much larger plane, and so Boeing made a quantum leap into the future, in the form of the 747 - a plane that was to carry more than twice as many passengers as Boeing's largest 707, weighing more than two and a half times the weight of the heaviest 707, and with a range that quickly exceeded that of the 707 as well.

Boeing offered the 747 for sale in March 1966. Pan Am quickly ordered 25, at a cost of $20 million each. Other airlines also placed orders, and so in July that year, Boeing committed to build the plane. By the end of the year, Boeing had 88 orders on its books, for a project that was costing them $1 billion to develop. By the time the first plane rolled off the production line, a short 16 months later, 158 planes had been ordered.

The 747 project was worked on by a team of 50,000 people. Boeing was able to 'recycle' a lot of the research and development it had invested in bidding on an Air Force project for a very large transport aircraft - a project eventually won by Lockheed with its C-5A Galaxy, but even so, developing this revolutionary plane that was full of new challenges in such a short term is an achievement unsurpassed in aviation history.

Boeing introduced the 747 to the rest of the world at the Paris Air Show in 1969, where it was displayed alongside the first Concorde, presenting the world with two very different ideas of the future of aviation.

The end of the 1960s - and the ending of an Era

As the 1960s drew to a close, Boeing seemed invulnerable and the king of the skies. Going in to the 1970s, it had a broad product range, from the venerable 707, through the most popular plane in the world (the 727) and the plane that would take that title from it (the 737) and culminating in the largest plane in the world, the 747.

In terms of competition, Lockheed was no longer a major force. Its only passenger jet, the L1011, was introduced in 1972, but was never particularly successful.

The 707 was preferred to the Douglas DC-8 by most airlines, and although the DC-9 competed with the 737, it also was not as popular. For mid-sized planes, the 727 had no major competitor, and for very large sized planes, the 747 reigned unchallenged.

Meanwhile, in Europe, aircraft manufacturers unsuccessfully struggled to build anything other than small planes at a loss, and ended up with several such failing companies merging into a new company that seemed to offer little promise for any future real competition in 1969. This company gave itself the unglamorous name of Airbus.

After a staggering decade of development and success, Boeing could be forgiven for feeling complacent as it marched confidently into the 1970s.

What could possibly go wrong?

Read more in the rest of this five part series

Part 1 :  Boeing's early years

Part 2 :  Boeing's best years

Part 3 :  Boeing in decline

Part 4 :  Does Boeing have a future

Part 5 :  Key facts and figures about Boeing, its planes, and its competition

If you liked this, you might also enjoy our multi-part series 'Airbus Fires the First Shot in the New A320/737 War with Boeing'.

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Originally published 12 Dec 2003, last update 30 May 2021

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

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