Most airliners today are jet airliners because jet aircraft are capable of efficiently functioning at high altitudes and high speeds. Historically, airliners used the simplest turbojet engine. As time passed, turbofans became the most popular propulsion system due to lower noise and greater fuel efficiency at moderate speeds.
The first airliners with turbojet propulsion were experimental conversions of the Avro Lancastrian piston engined airliner, which were flown with several types of early jet engine, including the de Havilland Ghost and the Rolls-Royce Nene. These, however, retained the two inboard piston engines, the jets being housed in the outboard nacelles, and these aircraft were therefore of 'mixed' propulsion. The first airliner with full jet power was the Nene-powered Vickers VC.1 Viking G-AJPH, which first flew on 6 April 1948.
The early jet airliners possessed much lower levels of noise and vibration than contemporary piston-engined ones, so much so that in 1947, after piloting a jet powered aircraft for the first time, Wing Commander Maurice A. Smith, then-Editor of Flight magazine, stated; "Piloting a jet aircraft has confirmed one opinion I had formed after flying as a passenger in the Lancastrian jet test beds, that few, if any, having flown in a jet-propelled transport, will wish to revert to the noise, vibration and attendant fatigue of an airscrew-propelled piston-engined aircraft"
The first purpose-built jet airliner was the British de Havilland Comet which first flew in 1949 and entered service in 1952. Also developed in 1949 was the Avro Canada Jetliner, and although it never reached production, the term jetliner caught on as a generic term for all passenger jet aircraft.
These first jet airliners were followed some years later by the Sud Aviation Caravelle, Tupolev Tu-104 (2nd in service), Boeing 707, Douglas DC-8, and Convair 880. National prestige was attached to developing prototypes and bringing these first generation designs into service. There was also a strong nationalism in purchasing policy, such that the Boeing and Douglas products became closely associated with Pan Am, while BOAC ordered British made Comets.
These two airlines with strong nautical traditions of command hierarchy rank and chain of command, retained from their days of operations with flying boats, were undoubtedly quick to capitalize upon, with the help of advertising agencies, the linkings of the "speed of jets" with the safety and secure "luxury of ocean liners" among public perception.
Aeroflot used Soviet Tupolevs, while Air France introduced French Caravelles. Commercial realities dictated exceptions, however, as few airlines could risk missing out on a superior product: American Airlines ordered the pioneering Comet (but later cancelled when the Comet ran into fatigue problems), Canadian, British and European airlines could not ignore the better operating economics of the Boeing 707 and the DC-8, while some American airlines ordered the Caravelle.
Boeing became the most successful of the early manufacturers. The KC-135 Stratotanker and military versions of the 707 remain operational, mostly as tankers or freighters. The basic configuration of the Boeing, Convair and Douglas aircraft jet airliner designs, with widely spaced podded engines under slung on pylons beneath a swept wing, proved to be the most common arrangement and was most easily compatible with the large-diameter high-bypass turbofan engines that subsequently prevailed for reasons of quietness and fuel efficiency.
The de Havilland and Tupolev designs had engines incorporated within the wings next to the fuselage, a concept that endured only within military designs while the Caravelle pioneered engines mounted either side of the rear fuselage.
In the 1960s, when jet airliners were powered by slim, low-bypass engines, many aircraft used the rear-engined, T-tail configuration, such as the BAC One-Eleven, Douglas DC-9 twinjets; Boeing 727, Hawker Siddeley Trident, Tupolev Tu-154 trijets; and the paired multi-engined Ilyushin Il-62, and Vickers VC10 whose engines were mounted upon the aft fuselage. This engine arrangement survives into the 21st century on jetliners with a maximum takeoff weight of less than 50 tons. However, other developments, such as the concept of rocket assisted takeoffs RATO, and the briefly mentioned water-injection as used and tested upon first generation passenger jets, as well as trailing edge mounted powerplants, afterburners also known as reheat used upon supersonic jetliners (SSTs) such as Concorde and the Tupolev Tu-144, likewise have been relegated to the past.
Airliner descriptions are commonly broken down into the distinctions of the generally long-haul civilian passenger jumbo and, widebody jet airliners, and short-haul civilian passenger "jet" airliners. Among some of these categories included among the short-haul civilian passenger "jets" are both longer and shorter ranged "narrow-body jet and regional jet types".