American Airlines' Jumbo Years

This is the story of American Airlines (AA) and the Boeing 747, as seen through the type's 24-year-long history with the carrier.



May 24, 2022

DALLAS - When Boeing launched the 747 program in 1966, many airlines ordered the new 'Jumbo Jet' as a status symbol to keep up with the competition. 

One such carrier was American Airlines (AA), which signed on the dotted line for 16 examples in 1966. The Dallas/Fort Worth-based carrier wanted to compete with United Airlines (UA) and TWA (TW), who had also ordered the 747 for their highly competitive transcontinental routes. 

A mock-up image of the Boeing 747 appeared in the airline's 1966 Annual Report. Photo: American Airlines

The arrival of the 'Astroliner'

Wanting to stay ahead of its rivals, AA leased a pair of Boeing 747s (N740PA and N743PA) from Pan Am (PA) while it awaited the arrival of its own airframes.

American's inaugural Boeing 747 flight took off on March 2, 1970. Known as the 'Americana Service', the flight departed New York (JFK) bound for Los Angeles (LAX). San Francisco (SFO) was soon added to the Jumbo's route network along with Chicago (ORD) and Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW).

AA first launched flights to London on May 17, 1982. The route from DFW to Gatwick (LGW) was operated five times weekly. N9670 is seen here pushing back at the London hub. Photo: Tim Rees (GFDL 1.2, or GFDL 1.2)

Dubbed the 'Astroliner,' AA's first factory-fresh jets (N9661 and N9662) arrived in June and July 1970. A further eight airframes (N9663 to N9670) were delivered between June and December 1970. 

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American's 747s were unusual as they had the rare lower-deck galley configuration that Boeing had offered, yet many airlines had failed to take up.

The aircraft were configured with 58 first-class and 303 economy seats. American also installed the 'Captain's Deck First Class Lounge' in the Jumbo's iconic upper deck. In its advertising, AA stated that the lounge allowed its passengers 'to think and to dream BIG.'

American's coach lounge in 1971. Photo: American Airlines

The airline also added a 'Coach Lounge' at the rear of the economy section on the main deck to entice passengers onto its planes. Complete with a Wurlitzer piano, Frank Sinatra Jr. was enlisted to play during a packed red-eye from LAX to JFK.

American would later remove the coach lounge and rename the 'Astroliners' as 'Luxury Liners.'

AA would retire its dedicated freighter fleet as it expanded its wide-bodied fleet of DC-10s and Boeing 767s, which were capable of carrying freight containers in their holds. Photo: American Airlines

Freighter Conversions

However, the Jumbo Jets' arrival couldn't have come at a worse time for the aviation industry. Rapidly rising fuel prices and a struggling economy meant many airlines found it challenging to fill these high-capacity aircraft. 

In 1973, AA decided to remove eight of its Boeing 747s from commercial service. Six of these were converted to freighters. The first was placed into service on November 5 and is used to replace its aging 707 freighters. Capable of carrying a much bigger load (up to 221,000 lbs), the freighters were based in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Dallas/Fort Worth. 

AA would keep the 747Fs in service until 1984. The jets would find a second life with Flying Tiger Line, United Parcel Service (UPS), and Trans Mediterranean. 

In November 1983, AA's Chief Executive Robert Crandall announced he had signed a deal with Pan Am to swap 15 of its McDonnell Douglas DC-10s for a mixture of AA's 747s and cash. This was to make each carrier's fleet 'more uniform and efficient.' PA had acquired the DC-10s following its merger with National Airlines (NA) in 1980.

AA also operated a single -200 series jet (N749WA) from April to September 1984. The type was leased from World Airways to provide additional capacity during the busy summer months. 

Deciding to focus its wide-bodied efforts on the DC-10, AA retired its last 747 (N9665) from the original order in June 1985. 

N602AA went on to serve with the United Arab Emirates Government after retiring from the fleet in 1992. (Photo: JetPix (GFDL 1.2 or GFDL 1.2, via Wikimedia Commons)

Special Performance

However, the airline's association with the Jumbo didn't end there. In the late 1980s, AA was vying to gain access to transpacific routes to Japan. It was eventually permitted to fly between DFW and Tokyo (NRT) and needed a suitable aircraft to fly the route. Unfortunately, its DC-10s did not have the range, so a pair of 747SPs (Special Performance) were sourced from TWA (TW). 

American purchased the first (N601AA) in July 1986, and the second (N602AA) arrived in October. Both were then placed into service on the carrier's new 'International Flagship Service' on May 21, 1987.

The airline hoped to cater to business passengers with its new route and laid its aircraft out in a premium heavy configuration. The jet had 29 first-class seats, 78 business class seats, 78 economy seats, and two passenger bars.

The pair were retired in July 1992 after the airline received its McDonnell Douglas MD-11s.  

When AA was competing to gain the rights to operate more services between the United States and Japan, it actually secured delivery slots on a pair of 747-400s from Canadian Pacific (CP). AA subsequently lost out to United, and the delivery slots were handed back to CP. 

With its previous owner's basic livery and titles still visible, N905NA is pictured during wake vortex trials in 1974. (Photo: NASA)

Life After American Airlines

As well as freighter conversions, several of AA's 747s went on to have an interesting life after leaving the fleet. 

One of the most famous was N9668. The jet had joined AA in October 1970 and remained with the airline until July 1974, when NASA purchased it. The US space agency had been looking for an aircraft to transport its Space Shuttles from their landing sites to the Kennedy Space Centre.

After being heavily modified and re-registered N905NA, the jet still carried its previous owner's livery whilst flight testing was carried out. It remained with NASA until September 2012, when the airframe was retired after ferrying the decommissioned Space Shuttles to their museums.

The aircraft had flown 11,018 hours and had made 6,335 takeoffs and landings. It is now on display with the mockup shuttle Independence at Space Centre Houston.

Another two of AA's Jumbos would become movie stars. N9675 was delivered in May 1971. Before being converted to a freighter, it was leased by Universal Pictures, stripped of its titles, and entered service with the fictional Columbia Airlines, operating Flight 409 in the disaster movie "Airport 1975."

In the film's follow-up, 'Airport 77' it would be N9667, delivered in October 1970, that would be the show's star. 

While the 747 may not have had the long-term success with AA as it did with other Jumbo operators, for a few short years, with its piano bars and first-class service, it became the star of the airline's fleet.


Featured image: Boeing 747-123 (N9665) pictured at LAX in November 1970. The jet would go on to serve with rival United Airlines in 1987. Photo: Jon Proctor (GFDL 1.2 or GFDL 1.2 )