Pena wrote and recorded the song in 1973 for his New Train album. However, due to conflicts between him and his label, New Train was not released until 2000.Miller decided to record "Jet Airliner" for his band's Book of Dreams album in 1977 after hearing the unreleased album via Ben Sidran, who produced it, and who was formerly in Miller's band. The Steve Miller band version has lyrics that are slightly different from the Pena original. It was concurrently released as a single, and reached #8 on the Billboard chart. In Canada, the song spent two weeks at #3.
On classic rock radio, "Jet Airliner" is generally played in tandem with "Threshold", the all-synthesizer instrumental that precedes it on Book of Dreams and Miller's Greatest Hits 1974–78 compilation.
The single edit of Miller's recording features a truncated version of the guitar intro. In addition, one line of the song's lyrics was altered for radio play; instead of "that I don't want to get caught up in any of that funky shit goin' down in the city", it was changed to "funky kicks." The single edit was included on the original release of Greatest Hits 1974–78, although the full album version has been used for later reissues of the compilation.
The single edit also had a slightly different mix of Miller's lead vocal on the song. On the album version, one can often hear Miller breathing into the microphone as he begins singing a line. His breathing was mixed out of the single release.