Pena wrote and recorded the song in 1973 for his New Train album. However, New Train was not released until 2000, due to conflicts between him and his label.
Steve Miller decided to record the song 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 lyrics of the Steve Miller Band version are slightly different from the Pena original. Miller's performance of the main riff is in turn slightly different from Pena's original, which has a more funky edge to it. The song is also notable for an early reference to the catchphrase "keep on keepin' on", also found in John Lennon's 1974 song "Old Dirt Road" and in the Bob Dylan songs "Tangled Up in Blue" and "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere." 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, Miller's "Jet Airliner" is generally played in tandem with "Threshold", the all-synthesizer instrumental that precedes it on Book of Dreams and the 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.