60 Years of the Transatlantic Jet Age

How BOAC beat Pan American World Airways in a race to begin the first scheduled transatlantic jet services between London and New York.

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Passengers boarding a BOAC De Havilland DH106 Comet 4 at London Airport, 4 October 1958
Passengers boarding a BOAC De Havilland DH106 Comet 4 at London Airport, 4 October 1958 (Image Credit: British Airways)

Today, Thursday 4 October 2018, marks 60 years since the first passenger jet service from London to New York.

One of British Airways predecessor airlines, BOAC, flew two de Havilland Comet 4 aircraft between London and New York International Airport, Idlewild.

This was a mere 24 hours after the Port Authority of New York granted approval for passenger jet services following concerns over noise. It was also less than a month after the aircraft had been delivered to the airline and it had received its certificate or air worthiness.

The westbound flight left London at 09:55 local time and landed in New York at 15:15 local time after a refuelling stop for one hour and ten minutes in Gander, Newfoundland. The total journey time was 10 hours and 20 minutes

There were 31 passengers out of a capacity for 48 on the aircraft. They included Sir Gerald D’Erlanger, Chairman of the board of BOAC. He carried a letter from the Lord Mayor of London, Sir Denis Truscott to Mayor Wagner of New York. There were 12 paying passengers, many of whom had made reservations in anticipation of passenger jet services years ago and were only called to travel at very short notice. There were two classes of travel, First and Deluxe.

The aircraft carried 15 crew members, instead of the usual 8. One of the cabin crew members was Peggy Thorne who made a return visit to British Airways yesterday.

Flight and cabin crew operating a BOAC De Havilland DH106 Comet 4 at London Airport, 4 October 1958
Flight and cabin crew operating a BOAC De Havilland DH106 Comet 4 at London Airport, 4 October 1958 (Image Credit: British Airways)

Peggy Thorne, Cabin Crew for BOAC visiting British Airways
Peggy Thorne, Cabin Crew for BOAC visiting British Airways (Image Credit: British Airways)

The eastbound flight left New York at 07:01 local time and arrived in London at 18:13 local time. This was a record journey time of 6 hours and 12 minutes for a commercial aircraft flying across the atlantic. It had arrived 32 minutes ahead of schedule, travelling at an average speed of 580 miles an hour and hitting a top speed of 640 miles an hour.

This cut the journey time in half compared to piston driven aircraft. The flight initially operated weekly, but soon increased to daily.

BOAC had been in race with Pan American World Airways to operate the first transatlantic jet flight, which it had won. Pan Am had taken out advertisements in UK newspapers promising to operate the first jet flight. “British Gloat As Their Comet Wins Race To Inaugurate Transatlantic Services” was the headline in the New York Times on 5 October 1958.

Pan American actually had a Boeing 707 aircraft in London ready to operate flights. This was a larger aircraft with capacity for 86 passengers in First Class, 143 in tourist class and 163 in economy class. However, it did not begin scheduled flights until 17 November, partly due to difficulties in negotiating with pilot unions. The transatlantic rivalry did not abate. “707 Outruns The Comet At Sea” was the headline in the New York Times on 19 November 1958 after a Pan Am Boeing 707 overtook a BOAC Comet, beating it by 11 minutes to fly to New York.

60 Years On

British Airways London - New York Poster (circa 1994)
British Airways London – New York Poster (circa 1994)
British Airways New Club World Advertisement circa 2006.
British Airways New Club World Advertisement circa 2006 (Image Credit: British Airways)

Today, 7 airlines operate more than 30 flights a day from London to New York alone. The transatlantic market, and the London – New York route in particular, has attracted many new airlines. Some have been successful. Others, as we have seen this week with Primera Air, have not.

In the sixty years since the first passenger jet flight we have seen Concorde come and ago, the arrival of the Boeing 747, the disappearance of Pan Am and TWA, many start-ups come and go such as eos, Laker Airways, MaxJet and Silverjet, the testing of the all-business class and low cost long-haul models, next generation aircraft such as the Airbus A380 and Boeing 787 and the Boeing 737 MAX and Airbus A321 Long Range single aisle aircraft.

Next year, we will see both British Airways and Virgin Atlantic launch the Airbus A350-1000 with new Club World and Upper Class cabins respectively proving it is still one of the most fiercely competitive long-haul markets in the world.

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