Anatomy of an Airliner

Our maxim: The airlines giveth, and the airlines taketh away.

Inventions large and small have combined over the years to create the modern experience of air travel. And you don’t have to be a frequent flier to know that today’s airliner is still a work in progress: What you see today may not be there tomorrow. Harry Whitver

Inventions large and small have combined over the years to create the modern experience of air travel. And you don’t have to be a frequent flier to know that today’s airliner is still a work in progress: What you see today may not be there tomorrow.

Flight engineers

Debuting on Pan American Airways’ trans-Pacific flying boats in the 1930s, flight engineers were charged with coaxing maximum range from the fuel supply. In the mid-1950s, as airliner systems grew more complex, the Airline Pilots Association mandated three-man crews. In the early 1970s, computers in cockpits replaced flight engineers, who currently fly only on 1970s-era airliners, like the Lockheed L-1011.

Oval windows

The world’s first jet airliner, the British-built de Havilland Comet,  was a streamlined beauty with large, square cabin windows. But after two fatal accidents in early 1954, investigators found that repeated cycles of cabin pressurization fatigued the Comet’s thin, aluminum alloy skin where it met the window corners. Oval or rounded-corner windows help prevent metal fatigue by better distributing the stresses of pressurization.

Overhead bins

In the 1920s, passengers flying Transcontinental Air Transport placed their hats and other small, lightweight items in open overhead racks — located above the rear seats only — made of aluminum and netting. With the 1969 arrival of the Boeing 747, closeable overhead storage bins became standard equipment on airliners, and passengers have been overstuffing them ever since.

Aircraft skin

Duralumin, an alloy made up largely of aluminum, a handful of copper, and just a dash of magnesium and manganese, was developed in 1903 by German metallurgist Alfred Wilm. Its first use was in airship frames, but by the early 1930s, its lightness and strength led to widespread use in aircraft. If the mostly composite Boeing 787 is as successful as its builders hope, duralumin will likely be eclipsed by even lighter and stronger carbon composites.


Almost as soon as the turbojet emerged in the 1940s, engineers began looking for ways to hush the engine and increase its efficiency. The solution, which first appeared in engines on the Douglas DC-8, was a large fan, driven by the turbine, that heaved masses of cold air rearward, bypassing the combustion chamber and mixing with its hot exhaust.


Airplanes with ’em can fly farther than airplanes without ’em. They have the effect of increasing the wing’s span, and therefore its lift, without increasing its length. The first airliner to use them was the 747-400 in 1988, and you’ll see them on almost all Boeing airliners (Airbus uses wing fences for the same benefits).


For seven other inventions that have made air travel what it is today, see the photo gallery at right. - the editors.

Little liquor bottles
Turbulence disrupting your pour? Mini-bottles solved that problem. According to distilled spirits historians, the little bottles were first manufactured soon after Prohibition ended in 1933 and made their way aboard airliners within a few years. Beach Packaging Design
Tray tables
If passengers wished to write letters or play cards in the 1920s, cabin stewards attached aluminum trays to the seats. In 1958, Boeing introduced a fold-down tray built into a seat back on its 707. Today, the tray table is more than just another way for kids to annoy the passengers in front of them; in 2003, America West was the first to place ads there. Paul Santos/
Terrain warning
Between 1979 and 1991, 80 percent of the fatalities in commercial airplane crashes occurred when a perfectly sound aircraft under the control of its crew slammed into the ground. Since 2005, by federal mandate, all U.S. airliner cockpits have had enhanced systems to warn pilots if they’re coming too close to the ground. (In practice, the “ground” is usually a mountain hidden in fog.) Using a terrain database in the aircraft flight management computer; GPS data for position, velocity, and ground track; and altitude measurement by a radar altimeter, the system knows just where the airplane is in reference to stuff it could run into. Honeywell International
Flight attendants
They were once stereotyped as pretty young women hoping to find husbands aloft, but the first ones were men, hired by Stout Airlines in 1926 (the first woman, Ellen Church, was hired in 1930). Early attendants, called cabin boys, heaved luggage, ticketed passengers, and served sandwiches. China Southern Airlines
What — no peanuts? US Airways dropped the snack in 2006, citing allergies that endangered some passengers. This year, the airline stopped serving free snacks altogether on domestic flights. Some airlines now charge fees for coffee, pillows, window seats, and other former freebies. Courtesy of Southwest Airlines
Airsickness bags
There are early anecdotal reports of queasy passengers being given cardboard ice-cream containers, but airsickness scholars agree that the “modern” receptacle, a plastic-lined bag, was invented by Gilmore “Shelly” Schjeldahl of North Dakota, and debuted in 1949 on Northwest Orient flights. Inevitably, the bags, which once bore only airline logos, have gone multi-purpose; in 2005, Virgin Atlantic sold ad space on its sacks to promote a Star Wars movie. Today barf bags are collectibles; Niek Vermeulen, a Dutch marketing consultant, has the world’s largest collection, with examples from 1,065 airlines. Courtesy of Rune Tapper and Von Glitschka
Igor Sikorsky is the father of the airliner lavatory, having put toilets in his 1912 Ilya Muromets and 1913 Vitiaz. Later, the Ford aircraft division mounted a toilet over a hole in the floor of its mid-1920s Tri-motor, and Fokker Aircraft of America equipped its late-1920s, 12 passenger F-10 with a bathroom in which everything — including the toilet — was covered in glamorous constellation-theme wallpaper. DASELL

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.