Jet airliners were able to fly much higher, faster, and further than older piston‑powered propliners, making transcontinental and intercontinental travel considerably faster and easier: for example, aircraft leaving North America and crossing the Atlantic Ocean (and later, the Pacific Ocean) could now fly to their destinations non-stop, making much of the world accessible within a single day's travel for the first time. Since large jetliners could also carry more passengers than piston-powered airliners, air fares also declined (relative to inflation), so people from a greater range of social classes could afford to travel outside of their own countries. The one exception to jet-powered domination by large airliners was the contra-rotating turboprop design that powered the Tu-114 (first flight 1957). This airliner was able to match or even exceed the speed, capacity and range of contemporary jets, however the use of such powerplants in large airframes was totally restricted to the military after 1976.
The introduction of the Concorde supersonic transport (SST) airliner to regular service in 1976 was expected to bring similar social changes, but the aircraft never found commercial success. After several years of service, a fatal crash near Paris in July 2000 and other factors eventually caused Concorde flights to be discontinued in 2003. This was the only loss of an SST in civilian service. Only one other SST design was used in a civilian capacity, the Soviet era Tu-144, but it was soon withdrawn due to high maintenance and other issues. McDonnell Douglas, Lockheed and Boeing were three U.S. manufacturers that had originally planned to develop various SST designs since the 1960s, but these projects were eventually abandoned for various developmental, cost, and other practical reasons.
The term "Jet Age" was coined in the late 1940s. At the time, the only jet-powered aircraft in production were military types, most of which were fighters. The expression reflects the recognition that the jet engine had effected, or would soon, a profound change in aeronautics and aviation.
In one view, the jet age began with the invention of the jet engine in the 1930s and 1940s. In the history of military aviation it began in 1944 with the introduction into service of the Arado Ar 234 reconnaissance bomber and the Messerschmitt Me 262 fighter during World War II. In commercial aviation the jet age was introduced to Britain in 1952 with the first scheduled flight of the de Havilland Comet airliner and to America some years later with the first American-built jet airliners.
The British de Havilland Comet was the first jet airliner to fly (1949), the first in service (1952), and the first to offer a regular jet-powered transatlantic service (1958). One hundred and fourteen of all versions were built but the Comet 1 had serious design problems, and out of nine original aircraft, four crashed (one at takeoff and three broke up in flight), which grounded the entire fleet. The Comet 4 solved these problems but the program was overtaken by the Boeing 707 on the trans-Atlantic run. The Comet 4 was developed into the Hawker Siddeley Nimrod which retired in June 2011.
The first five jet airliners to fly were:
- The UK de Havilland Comet, 1949
- The Canadian Avro Jetliner, later in 1949
- The French Sud Aviation Caravelle, 1955
- The Soviet/Russian Tupolev Tu-104, 1955
- The US Boeing 707, 1957
The first five jet airliners in service were:
- The UK de Havilland Comet, 1952
- The Soviet/Russian Tupolev Tu-104, 1956
- The US Boeing 707, 1958
- The French Sud Aviation Caravelle, 1959
- The US Douglas DC-8, 1959
(The Canadian Avro Jetliner never achieved commercial service)
Following the grounding of the Comet 1, the Tu-104 became the first jet airliner to provide a sustained and reliable service, its introduction having been delayed pending the outcome of investigations into the Comet crashes. It was the world's only jet airliner in operation between 1956 and 1958 (after which the Comet 4 and Boeing 707 entered service). The plane was operated by Aeroflot (from 1956) and Czech Airlines ČSA (from 1957). ČSA became the first airline in the world to fly jet-only routes, using the Tu-104A variant.
The first western jet airliner with significant commercial success was the Boeing 707. It began service on the New York to London route in 1958, the first year that more trans-Atlantic passengers traveled by air than by ship. Comparable long-range airliner designs were the DC-8, VC10 and Il-62. The Boeing 747, the "Jumbo jet", was the first widebody aircraft that reduced the cost of flying and further accelerated the Jet Age.