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Significance of the Jet Revolution Exploratory Essay


The invention of the engine-powered airplanes is one of the most significant technological inventions of the last century. This innovation led to a revolution in the transportation industry as it provided the fastest means to travel to any destination in the world. Over the course of its existence, the airline industry has not had many major technological breakthroughs.

The most important breakthrough in the industry occurred in the 1950s and this was in the form of the invention of the jet engine and its subsequent adoption in commercial planes. Jet engines led to a significant change in the way the airline industry operated and prompted the growth of air travel. This has led to some people referring to the widespread adoption of jet engine as the jet revolution.

This paper will set out to demonstrate that the introduction of jet engines revolutionalized air transport and led to the development of some unique commercial and regulatory issues in the air industry. The paper will provide a brief historical overview of the airline industry and discuss the significance of the jet engine.

Brief Historical Overview

The modern era of air transport began in 1903 when the Wright Brothers successfully flew their prototype aircraft. The success of this pioneers paved the way for the advancement of powered, sustained, and controlled flight. The development of aircrafts received a major boost during the First World War.

During this war, the Britons and Germans endeavoured to improve their aircrafts in order to gain an advantage in the war. By the end of the war, fighter plans that could fly at higher altitudes and greater speeds had been created. These planes had a high carrying capacity and they were modified into passenger and freight aircrafts after the war.

The jet engine was invented by Frank Whittle, a member of the Royal Air Force. He patented his design in 1930 and through the decade, he carried out numerous tests on the design. The first turbojet aeroplane was the Heinkel He, which flew in 1939 and it was designed by the German inventor Hans von Ohain.

This marked the birth of the jet engine and in the years following the war, the technology was refined for use on a commercial scale. The jet engine became a major challenger of the established piston-engine types that dominated commercial air travel in the 1940s and 1950s.

Jet engines continued to operate together with piston engines and it was only after 1958 that the jet revolution took root. Brooks (1967) asserts that the jet revolution proper started in 1958 with the commissioning of the first turbojet airliner, the Boeing 707 and the DH Comet. These jet engine airplanes plied the Trans-Atlantic route.

Issues with Introduction

The jet engine did not enjoy success in its early years of use in the civilian markets. Mowery and Rosenberg (1999) state that the in the early 1950s, the technology had significant uncertainties in its performance. The major airlines did not support the jet engine due to a number of disasters associated with this technology.

In 1952, metal fatigue in jet powered aircrafts operated by British Overseas Airline Corporation led to a series of crashes. In these early years of commercial airline operations, the general population was wary of air travel. Reports of accidents further alienated the population from air travel. This led to the initial commercial failure of the jet engine.

However, jet engine technology had been fine-tuned by the end of the 1950s. The significant advantages attributed to this new technology led to a positive response especially by people in the industry.

Mowery and Rosenberg (1999) highlight that the increased productivity attributed to jet engines led to great enthusiasm by most people involved in the airline industry. The increased capacity of the big jets meant that greater profits could be realized from air travel and sustainable growth could be achieved.

Implications of the Jet Revolution for Airlines

The jet engine contributed to the growth of the airline industry as it encouraged more people to make use of air travel. The quality of flight from piston-engine airplanes was poor and most people preferred to make use of the slower traditional forms of transportation such as train and ship for long distant travel. The quality of air travel increased dramatically with the development of the jet engine.

Brooks (1967) documents that because of the increased comfortability of air travel; there was a marked increase in air traffic especially across the North Atlantic.

The market of the air industry was also expanded by the jet engine. The OECD (2010) notes that the jet revolution increased the commercial viability of airlines by promoting growth in the tourism industry. Due to the lower cost of flying, the European tourist industry in the 1960s experienced a boom.

The viability of air travel was guaranteed by the jet revolution. In the decades before the revolution, the air industry was heavily dependent on government subsidies. Before the 1960s, most airlines did not exhibit operating profits and governments did not make any money from the industry.

The jet revolution led to an increase in the overall economy of the industry and airlines started to show operating profits that make it possible for the industry to cover almost all the costs of providing air transport. The introduction of jet engines considerably shortened travel times and this had a positive impact on demand.

The OECD (2010) notes that while the fuel consumption of jet engines was higher than that of the piston-engines, these engines offered improved energy efficiency and higher carrying capacities. Airlines could therefore make more profit on one trip.

The airline industry was able to compete favourably with established freight transporters such as rail and ships. The jet engine led to an increase in the power to weight ration of the plane and this increased the payload that an airplane could handle.

Bigger planes with higher load capacities could be built since the jet engines were capable of providing the energy required to operate this crafts. Because of the increased power-weight ratio offered by jet engines, it was possible to construct wide-bodied jets in the late 1960s and these machines could carry significant amounts of freight for long distances (OECD 2010).

The jet engine also encouraged the consolidation of major airlines. Before the jet revolution, there were a significant number of airlines in operation all over the world. Small airlines were able to maintain a fleet of small aircrafts and remain profitable. However, the introduction of jet engines led to the development of larger and more expensive airplanes.

These machines were technically sophisticated and required more financing than the piston engine types that had been used before the jet revolution.

Brooks (1967) asserts that the nature of jet engine planes forced airlines to consolidate themselves into fewer and stronger companies that could afford the larger more expensive aircrafts. Government also actively persuaded smaller airlines in their country to join into stronger groups in order to benefit from the advantages offered by jet engines.

The jet engine caused some airlines to be pushed out of the market due to the price advantage. While jet engine aircrafts were at first more expensive to operate due to the increased fuel consumption and the high capital cost of obtaining the aircraft, the operational cost decreased over the years (Mowery & Rosenberg 1999).

By the 1970s, the jet revolution had pushed real airfares downwards leading to the decline in profitability for smaller operates.

Regulatory Issues

In its initial years, the jet revolution prompted greater government regulation to ensure that the industry was sustainable. Adoption of jet engines led to the emergence of various competing airlines within a short duration of time. These airlines engaged in aggressive competition with each other as they sort to increase their market share in the industry.

Brooks (1967) reveals that this aggressive competition threatened the future viability of more airline companies as they were forced to reduce their prices in order to remain competitive. These actions led to some form of government intervention in the industry. The greater regulation by the government ensured that the fierce competition did not render the airline industry uneconomic.

The jet engine revolution promoted the move towards widespread deregulation in the air transport industry. The close relationship between the airline industry and the state experienced a change, tens of airlines were privatized to some level, and the airline market was liberalized. This opened up the industry to competition and led to the collapse of some of the smaller carriers.

The jet revolution promoted the development of the hub and spoke network, which is today the most widely used network. Even before the prevalence of jet engines, this form of network that was centred on major airports was in operation.

However, regulations by local authorities deterred the expansion of airlines. The jet revolution contributed to deregulation, which led to the adoption of hub and spoke networks nationally and internationally.

Discussion and Conclusion

With a history of a bit over a century, air transportation has grown to be the most significant component of the global transportation system. The Jet revolution was the most significant leap in aeronautical technology. The airline industry is yet to witness a technological innovation that is as dramatic as the jet revolution.

Even so, improvements have been made on the fuel efficiency of the jet engines and engineers have worked on reducing the noise pollution caused by jet engines. However, none of these developments is as dramatic and influential to the airline industry as the jet revolution was 6 decades ago.

This paper set out to discuss the significance of the jet revolution on air travel. The paper has demonstrated that the introduction of the jet engine made it possible for airplanes to travel faster and at an overall reduced operating cost.

The jet revolution contributed in making air travel the cheapest and most efficient form of public transportation across long distances. The benefits brought about by the jet engine continue to be enjoyed by the world today.


Brooks, PW 1967, ‘The development of Air transport’, Journal of Transport Economics and Policy, vol. 1, no. 2, pp. 163-183.

Mowery, DC & Rosenberg, N 1999, Paths of Innovation: Technological Change in 20th-Century America, Cambridge University Press, Oxford.

OECD 2010, Globalisation, Transport and the Environment, OECD Publishing, London.

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