The 747: When Getting There Was Half the Fun

Garry Berman
7 min readDec 12, 2022

Here’s a recent news item that didn’t receive much attention, what with a war, pandemic, political upheaval, and other stories to rob us of a good night’s sleep:

CNN.com: After 53 years and more than 1,570 planes, the last Boeing 747 rolled off the assembly line in Washington state Tuesday evening, on its way to serve as a cargo plane.The once-groundbreaking jumbo jet, with the distinctive second-floor bulge, is perhaps the most notable and popular plane Boeing has ever built.

Boeing hasn’t built a passenger version of the 747 since it delivered the last one to Korean Airlines in 2017. That same year, the last 747 owned by a domestic airline was retired — Delta Airlines flight 9771 from Atlanta to Pinal Airpark in Arizona, with 48 people onboard (including a couple who got married mid-flight), marked the final flight of a 747 for any U.S. airline.

Today, Luftansa flies 25 of the 44 passenger 747s still in service. Virgin Airlines flew its final Boeing 747 aircraft departure from London Heathrow Airport on December 21, 2020, marking the end of the airline’s 36-year history with the plane (British Airways also retired its last Boeing 747 earlier in 2020). A number of factors, not the least of which being the global pandemic and its debilitating effect on air travel — especially for the huge 747 and even bigger Airbus A380 — made it painfully clear that, despite the subsequent recovery of the airline industry, there is little or no future for the huge, majestic 747 or other super-sized planes.

This news story of the last 747 to be constructed made my heart sink a little. I was nearly nine years old when Pan Am and TWA introduced their first 747s for regular service in December of 1969. I had seen TV commercials and magazine ads leading the hype to that event, and I was fascinated.

Hal Linden’s voiceover introduces Pan Am’s 747.

The sheer size of the plane, unlike anything any of us had seen before, was unbelievable. To this day, I remember its vital statistics, which quickly became ingrained in my mind as a kid: the plane was 231 feet long, with a 195-foot wingspan, seating for 430 passengers, an 8-foot high ceiling, 12 restrooms, two aisles, 9 seats across…and, the most mind-blowing feature of all, a spiral staircase in first-class leading to a 2nd-floor lounge! On an airplane! (only decades later would I learn that earlier, propeller-driven passenger planes included lounges, and some even had a second deck). Most early 747s even had a piano in first class.

I became obsessed, and, whenever a plane would pass overhead, I’d search for its “hump” in the front end to identify it as a 747.

Adding to my excitement that same year was the news that my family was to visit my brother in London that April, as he was spending the year in a study-abroad college program. Our visit would take place in time for my birthday. And, naturally, it would be a Pan Am flight — back when Pan Am, which delivered the first passenger jet in 1959, was still the airline to take for international flights. Best of all, I learned we would be flying on a 747!

I remember those first steps inside the plane from the boarding gate: the famous spiral staircase to the left in first class, and the countless rows of seats in economy class, stretching back almost as far as the eye could see. As my mother scanned the cabin, her first words were “I don’t believe it.” My own first words were probably more like squeals of delight rather than anything intelligible. Once the flight was underway, I took as many opportunities as I could to roam the spacious plane, walking to the very rear of the cabin and its maze of restrooms, returning up the opposite aisle to the very front of economy class, crossing through the galley to the other aisle, and finally back to my seat.

A totally unexpected delight came when the chief steward arrived at my seat (as per a previously-arranged request my father had made for my birthday), and offered to take me on a tour of the plane.

I was both excited and hesitant — being quite shy — but my family cheerfully sent me off with him (what was he going to do, anyway — kidnap me on a plane?). He escorted me not only into first class, but up the spiral staircase to the lounge. He then opened the door to the cockpit and let me take a peek, as the pilots waved hello. Wow! I returned to my seat fairly overwhelmed, and thankful to my parents for having arranged this. It was already a great trip, and we hadn’t even arrived in London yet.

Smoking in the first class lounge? How soon we forget.

I’ve enjoyed many other flights on 747s since then, on trips to and from London several more times, to other stops in Europe, Israel, California, and perhaps a few that have slipped my mind. There was also the People Express flight in the 1980s, with its budget-friendly fares and meals served in picnic baskets, and Virgin Atlantic in the ’90s with new, seat-back TV screens (also an endangered species now, thanks to the takeover of smartphones, laptops, and other personal devices passengers use to keep themselves entertained).

I’ve even been on a flight that had Virgin owner Richard Branson onboard. As was his custom (and maybe it still is), he strolled the aisles to serve water to any passenger requesting a cup. I took him up on the offer and said, “Nice little airline you’ve got here.”

I guess the orange juice was for first class only. We only got water.

The 747 interior, as designed for different airlines around the world to their own specifications, later offered a variety of configurations, sleeper-seats, and lounge designs — some quite elaborate, luxurious, and expensive.

First class on a Luftansa flight.

In recent decades however, most ordinary people, regardless of the plane type, have endured increasingly cramped planes, resembling sardine cans rather than the airy, comfortable flights the 747 once offered to everyone, even to those in coach class. In many cases, the upstairs lounge would be replaced with still more seats, and an elongated upper deck, to cram as many passengers into the available space as possible.

As I learned on a recent overseas flight to Barcelona — my first in twenty-five years, (on a wide-body 777)— an aisle seat definitely has its advantages for the illusion of having a bit of extra room, and worth sacrificing a potentially great view from the window. So, choosing a seat does require a bit more strategy than it used to.

It’s often difficult to know in advance when something so familiar to us will cease to be, so it’s equally difficult to express appreciation for it before it’s too late. But getting sentimental over an airplane?

Well, why not?

The passing of the 747 from our skies can evoke memories of happy, exciting times traveling the country, or the world. Sentimentality has a way of creeping up on us when we least expect it, especially when a source of those memories is gone, or nearly gone completely.

Until next time…

New bonus addition to this story: Check out this brief video about an L.A. restaurant created for people who would like to relive the glory days of Pan Am’s 747:

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Garry Berman

Pop Culture historian, Freelance Writer, Author, specializing in American comedy history in films, radio, and TV. Beatles and jazz enthusiast, animal lover.