When the Boeing 747 made its maiden flight 50 years ago, long-haul air travel was just taking off. Once that twin-aisle, wide-body passenger plane took to the skies, everything changed. As the first of the “jumbo jets,” it more than doubled the number of passengers that airlines could pack onto a flight, dramatically reducing fuel cost per passenger and making flying more affordable—and more accessible.

Before jetsetting could go mainstream, Boeing had to figure out how to mass-produce the new aircraft. The 747 was so large that no existing facilities could accommodate it, forcing Boeing to create a new factory in Everett, Washington, USA. Airports had to adapt too, lengthening runways and redesigning terminals. (Because of its noise, newer airports were located farther from cities, helping boost suburban economies.)

>3.5 billion

Number of passengers carried by the 747 since it debuted in 1970

The first plane was built in 28 months—14 months faster than usual for passenger planes—despite the fact that heated design debates and competition for engineers within Boeing nearly derailed the project. A subsequent obstacle: supersonic jets such as the Concorde, which were supposed to dethrone the 747. That never happened. Even after the 1973 oil crisis led some airlines to favor smaller, more fuel-efficient jets, the appeal of the 747 could not be denied. Boeing amped up the luxury in the jet’s roomy cabins. Lounges featured swivel chairs, wide-screen movies, fully stocked pubs with arcade games, even a grand piano. The 747 has carried more than 3.5 billion passengers, hauled space shuttles for NASA and staked its claim as the plane of choice for world leaders.

While U.S. airlines retired the jet in December 2018 (some international carriers and freight companies continue to use it), the 747 remains a symbol of inspiration for a generation of globe-trotters. When Pan American World Airways made the first commercial flight of a 747 in 1970, just over 310 million people traveled by plane each year; today that number is more than 4 billion.