Delta’s history with 747 waxes and wanes

It started with a group of workers that people called The Incredibles.

The Boeing Co. took an ambitious bet on the 747 and the technological leap the massive jet represented, and its team of engineers, construction workers and others managed in less than 16 months to build a jet that airlines all over the world would fly.

But Delta’s history with the 747 has been spotty over the years.

Atlanta-based Delta was among the many carriers that began flying the 747 soon after it debuted, with its first flight on Oct. 25, 1970 on a daily route from Atlanta to Dallas to Los Angeles.

The four-engine 747 was nearly three times larger than the next-largest jet flying at the time.

Delta’s early 747s had the first “flying penthouse apartment” on the upper deck, a set of six seats sold as a unit and staffed by a dedicated flight attendant, next to the first class lounge. Those 747s were also the first Delta planes to have overhead bins that closed, instead of just open racks, and the first to have “Deltasonic” personal audio systems “playing the Beatles, Burt Bacharach and Beethoven.”

But in 1974, Delta decided the 747 was “too large for its routes” and started trading them back to Boeing. Delta stopped flying the 747 altogether in 1977.

It took until 2008, when Delta acquired Northwest Airlines and its fleet including 747s, for the jumbo jet to return to Delta’s fleet.

But nearly ten years later, Delta is retiring the 747 for a second time, replacing it with newer, more fuel-efficient Airbus A350s.

Fun facts on the 747

  • You can tour the “747 Experience” exhibit that opened earlier this year at the Delta Flight Museum on the company’s headquarters campus near Hartsfield-Jackson. It’s an actual Delta 747 on display outside the museum that passengers can board and walk through, see the cockpit, learn about the inner workings of the plane and walk out onto the wing.
  • Pan Am asked Boeing to design the 747. “[Pan Am founder] Juan Trippe envisioned the plane that could fly 500 people from continent to continent. He also had this really strong vision that he wanted a double-decker plane. He wanted a plane that looked like an ocean liner when you saw it from the side,” said Timothy Frilingos, manager of exhibits at the Delta Flight Museum. Boeing engineer Joe Sutter, known as the ‘Father of the 747,’ “knew the double-decker wasn’t going to work. It didn’t test well in wind tunnels, and also it was really felt impossible that it could be safely evacuated” within FAA time limits, Frilingos said.
  • When the 747 was designed in the 1960s, “the idea was in 10 years, 15 years, nobody would be flying these kind of jets anymore. Passengers would be on supersonic jets,” Frilingos said. As a result, the 747’s iconic hump was designed to allow it to be easily converted into a cargo jet that could be loaded through the nose.” To enable that, the cockpit was raised — creating the hump, with the upper deck and more passenger seats.
  • When flying in a 747, those seated at the front of the plane on the main level are actually in the nose, ahead of and below the pilots on the upper deck.
  • The 747 is one of three planes parked outside the Delta museum, but the only one that serves as such an exhibit. Also on display outside the museum are a DC-9 and a Boeing 757.
  • At Space Center Houston, a Space Shuttle carrier 747 opened last year for tours in an exhibit called Independence Plaza.
  • The first 747 is on display at the Museum of Flight in the Seattle area.
  • At the Evergreen Wings & Waves Waterpark in Oregon, you can ride a waterslide out of a 747 that sits on top of a building. That jumbo jet is a former Delta plane that was eventually sold to Evergreen International Airlines and converted into a cargo jet before it was retired.


AJC Business reporter Kelly Yamanouchi keeps you updated on the latest news about Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, Delta Air Lines and the airline industry in metro Atlanta and beyond. You'll find more on, including these stories:

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