The 747 has been a popular aircraft with airlines and passengers for decades. It is now, sadly, out of production and numbers in service are reducing. The pandemic, of course, has expedited this. It was once the flagship offering of many airlines, though, with large numbers in many fleets. This article takes a look at which airlines have been the largest operators of each type over the past 50 years or more.
Boeing launched the Boeing 747 with the 747-100 in 1970 with launch customer Pan American World Airways (the first aircraft had flown back in February 1969). The motivation for it came from Pan Am and the success of the Boeing 707, with a desire for an aircraft over twice the size. This would help the airline change the economics of flying – something the 747 went on to do in a big way.
The 747-100 was a good commercial success, with 176 747-100 and 29 747-100SR aircraft delivered. Engine power was an issue, though, and this was the main area improved on by the quickly following 747-200.
Overall, the largest operator of the 747-100 was Pan Am. Including 747-100(F) aircraft, it operated 47 aircraft operated in all (with 24 passenger versions). The largest passenger version operator of the 747-100 was Trans World Airlines (TWA). This is based on data from ATDB.aero. Air France was close as well, with 27 aircraft. British Airways operated 19 747-100s.
Pan Am was the launch customer for the 747-100 and the largest operator overall. Photo: Getty Images
The Boeing 747SP was a variant of the 747-100 with a shortened fuselage. It came about to meet airline demand for a longer range aircraft that could operate between New York and the Middle East. It entered service in 1976 with both Pan Am and Iran Air. 44 aircraft were produced by 1982, and then one final one in 1987 (for the UAE government). Pan Am became the largest operator, with 13 aircraft overall – 11 of these later transferred to United Airlines. Iran Air has only ever operated four aircraft.
Pan Am launched the 747SP but United Airlines ended up the larger operator. Photo: Public Domain via Wikimedia
The 747-200 followed quickly after the 747-100, entering service in February 1971. With more powerful engines, it was even more of a success and saw introduction by several more airlines. Overall, Boeing delivered 389 aircraft, including passenger (747-200B), cargo (747-200F), combi (747-200C) and convertible (747-200M) models.
Over time, cargo operator Kalitta Air has operated the most, with 37 aircraft. Southern Air (which merged with Atlas Air in 2021) was also a major operator, with 31 747-200s. Lufthansa operated 30 aircraft (including nine passenger 200B versions). British Airways also operated 30 aircraft (with 20 passenger versions). And Qantas had 26 aircraft – 22 of them passenger versions.
The 747-300 introduced the stretched upper deck, and entered service in 1983. Only 81 aircraft were delivered. This was not as it was unpopular – it was quickly replaced by the much improved 747-400. Swissair was the launch customer and operated eight aircraft.
The largest operator was Saudi, with 35 747-200s (including eight cargo versions). Saudi was a major 747 operator. It also operated 22 747-100 aircraft, not retiring the last until 2010. The 747-300 stayed with the airline until 2012.
Boeing delivered an impressive 694 747-400 aircraft, from 1989 right up to 2005. It stuck with the stretched upper deck of the 747-300 but added additional fuel tanks, efficiency improvements, a two-person cockpit, and new engine choices.
The largest operator of the passenger version was British Airways, operating 59 aircraft in total. This made its early retirement in 2020 particularly sad. When freighter aircraft are considered as well, Cathy Pacific stands out with a total of 74 aircraft (including 43 passenger versions). For freighter versions alone
Atlas Air leads the way, having operated 58 aircraft.
British Airways 747-400. Photo: Getty Images
The last 747 variant was introduced in 2010. It is stretched over five meters longer than the 747-400. The 747-8 sold better as a freighter aircraft than a passenger version. Boeing only sold 47 passenger 747-8I aircraft compared to 103 747-8F freighters. Unsurprisingly, the largest operator of the type is cargo airline UPS Airlines, with 27 747-8Fs. Lufthansa leads for 747-8Is, with 19 aircraft.
Lufthansa is the largest passenger operator of the 747-8. Photo: Simple Flying
The 747 has a long history, and widespread use across many airlines, cargo operators and charter companies globally. There are many important operators that we have not discussed here, and plenty more interesting statistics. Feel free to share more and discuss these in the comments.
Lufthansa will now offer daily flights between Frankfurt and Buenos Aires.
About The Author