The definition of an airliner varies from country to country, but the common definition is an aircraft with an empty weight above 22,680 kg (50,000 lb.), with two or more engines.
If an airliner is defined as a plane intended for carrying multiple passengers in commercial service, the Russian Sikorsky Ilya Muromets was the first official passenger aircraft. The Ilya Muromets was a luxurious aircraft with an isolated passenger saloon, comfortable wicker chairs, bedroom, lounge and a bathroom. The aircraft also had heating and electrical lighting. The Ilya Muromets first flew on December 10, 1913. On February 25, 1914, it took off for its first demonstration flight with 16 passengers aboard. From June 21–June 23, it made a round-trip from Saint Petersburg to Kiev in 14 hours and 38 minutes with one intermediate landing. If it had not been for World War I, the Ilya Muromets would have probably started passenger flights that same year.
The second airliner was the Farman F.60 Goliath from 1919, which could seat up to 14 passengers. Approximately 60 were built. It was followed in 1923 by a less successful quad-engine Farman F.121 Jabiru.
The Ford Trimotor was an important early airliner. With two engines mounted on the wings and one in the nose and a slabsided body. It carried eight passengers and was produced from 1925 to 1933. It was used by the predecessor to TWA as well as other airlines long after production ceased. In 1932 the 14-passenger Douglas DC-2 flew and in 1935 the more powerful, faster, 21–32 passenger Douglas DC-3. DC-3s were produced in quantity for WWII and sold as surplus afterward.
The first jet airliners came in the immediate post war era. Turbojet engines were trialled on piston engine airframes such as the Avro Lancastrian and the Vickers VC.1 Viking the latter becoming the first jet engined passenger aircraft in April 1948. The first purpose built jet airliners were the de Havilland Comet (UK) and the Avro Jetliner (Canada). The former entered production and service while the latter did not. The Comet was unfortunate in that metal fatigue caused crashes.
Jets did not immediately replace piston engines and many designs used the turboprop rather than the turbojet or the later turbofan engines.
The largest airliners are wide-body aircraft jets. These aircraft are frequently called twin-aisle aircraft because they generally have two separate aisles running from the front to the back of the passenger cabin. Aircraft in this category are the Boeing 747, Boeing 767, Boeing 777, Airbus A300/A310, Airbus A330, Airbus A340, Airbus A380(which can hold up to 800 passengers), Lockheed L-1011 TriStar, McDonnell Douglas DC-10, McDonnell Douglas MD-11, Ilyushin Il-86 and Ilyushin Il-96. These aircraft are usually used for long-haul flights between airline hubs and major cities with many passengers. Future wide-body models include the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350.
Examples include the Boeing 717, 737, 757, McDonnell Douglas DC-9 & MD-80/MD-90 series, Airbus A320 family, Tupolev Tu-204, Tu-214, Embraer E-Jets 190&195 and Tu-334. Older airliners like the Boeing 707, 727, McDonnell Douglas DC-8, Fokker F70/F100, VC10, Tupolev, and Yakovlev jets also fit into this category.
Regional airliners typically seat fewer than 100 passengers and may be powered by turbofans or turboprops. These airliners, though smaller than aircraft operated by major airlines, frequently serve customers who expect service similar to that offered by crew on larger aircraft. Therefore, most regional airliners are equipped with lavatories and have a flight attendant to look after the in-flight needs of the passengers.
Typical aircraft in this category are the Embraer ERJ, Bombardier CRJ series and "Q" (DASH-8) series, ATR 42/72 and Saab 340/2000. Airlines and their partners sometimes use these for short flights between small hubs, or for bringing passengers to hub cities where they may board larger aircraft.
Passenger aircraft with 19 or fewer passenger seats are called commuter aircraft or air taxis, depending on their size, engines, and seating configurations. The Beechcraft 1900, for example, has only 19 seats. Depending on local and national regulations, a commuter aircraft may not qualify as an airliner and may not be subject to the regulations applied to larger aircraft. Members of this class of aircraft normally lack such amenities as lavatories and galleys and typically do not carry a flight attendant as an aircrew member.
Other aircraft in this category are the Fairchild Metro, Jetstream 31/41, IPTN CN-235, and Embraer EMB 110 Bandeirante. The Cessna Caravan, a single-engine turboprop, is sometimes used as a small airliner, although many countries stipulate a minimum requirement of two engines for aircraft to be used as airliners.
Modern airliners are usually low-wing designs with engines mounted in underwing pods (usually two of them). For airliners, multi-engine design is mandated by some national regulations so that aircraft can continue to climb even in the worst case of power loss in one engine right after take-off. Another regulatory demand is that aircraft are able to fly a minimum specified amount of time after one engine fails in flight (see ETOPS).
The idea of mounting the engines underneath and to the fore of the wing was first implemented by Boeing with the B-47 bomber of the 1950s, with the realization that this would provide for lesser efforts on the wings and therefore allow for a lighter wing structure. After this feature proved successful, Boeing introduced it to its 707 airliner design and it has been increasingly adopted since.
Mounting the engines in underwing pods also makes physical access for maintenance quicker and easier compared to tail-mounted engines.
Additionally, low wing design helps keep the engine nacelles and refueling valves closer to the ground to simplify access and the wing's surface acts as a barrier to prevent the engines' noise from reaching the fuselage in-flight.
In a few special cases, where engine proximity to ground is detrimental (e.g. rural airfields with risk of foreign object damage or dirt), airliners will feature tail-mounted engines (e.g. MD-80 or Tu-334) or high-wing designs with underhung nacelles (e.g. BAE-146). These planes become rarer every year as almost all newly-built airliners have underwing nacelles. Tail-engined designs are mostly used by business jet manufacturers.
Future airliners may feature innovative delta-wing or lifting body outlines.
The international market for middle-sized and large-sized airliners is now divided between Airbus and Boeing, though Russian/former Soviet manufacturers still sell significant numbers of airliners to their traditional markets. Smaller-sized aircraft manufacturers include, in addition to these two, ATR, Embraer and Bombardier.
While almost every airliner will be reduced to scrap (the exceptions end up as museum pieces or flown by collector groups) they may pass through many owners before they are retired. A well-maintained airliner can operate safely for decades, depending on how often it is flown, its operating environment, and whether damage and wear and tear is properly repaired.
What may end an airliner's working life is a lack of spare parts, as the original manufacturer and third manufacturers may no longer provide or support them. Corrosion and metal fatigue are other issues that become more expensive to deal with as time goes on. Eventually, these factors and advances in aircraft technology lead to older airliners becoming too expensive or inefficient to operate.
To protect the environment, the Airbus company has set up a centre in France to decommission and recycle older aircraft. More than 200 airliners will finish active life each year, and will be dismantled and recycled under the newly established PAMELA Project.
An airliner will usually have several classes of seating: first class, business class, and/or economy class (which may be referred to as coach class or tourist class, and sometimes has a separate "premium" economy section with more legroom and amenities). The seats in more expensive classes are wider, more comfortable, and have more amenities such as "lie flat" seats for more comfortable sleeping on long flights. Generally, the more expensive the class, the better the beverage and meal service.
Domestic flights generally have a two-class configuration, usually first or business class and coach class, although many airlines instead offer all-economy seating. International flights generally have either a two-class configuration or a three-class configuration, depending on the airline, route and aircraft type. Many airliners offer movies or audio/video on demand (this is standard in first and business class on many international flights and may be available on economy). Cabins of any class are provided with lavatory facilities (see board toilets).
Passengers seated in an exit row (the row of seats adjacent to an emergency exit) usually have substantially more legroom than those seated in the remainder of the cabin, while the seats directly in front of the exit row may have less legroom and may not even recline (for evacuation safety reasons). However, passengers seated in an exit row may be required to assist cabin crew during an emergency evacuation of the aircraft opening the emergency exit and assisting fellow passengers to the exit. As a precaution, many airlines prohibit young people under the age of 15 from being seated in the exit row
The seats are designed to withstand strong forces so as not to break or come loose from their floor tracks during turbulence or accidents. The backs of seats are often equipped with a fold-down tray for eating, writing, or as a place to set up a portable computer, or a music or video player. Seats without another row of seats in front of them have a tray that is either folded into the armrest or that clips into brackets on the underside of the armrests. However, seats in premium cabins generally have trays in the armrests or clip-on trays, regardless of whether there is another row of seats in front of them. Seatbacks now often feature small color LCD screens for videos, television and video games. Controls for this display as well as an outlet to plug in audio headsets are normally found in the armrest of each seat.
The PSU will also normally contain the drop-down oxygen masks which are activated if there is a sudden drop in cabin pressure. These are supplied with oxygen by means of a chemical oxygen generator. By using a chemical reaction rather than a connection to an oxygen tank, these devices supply breathing oxygen for long enough for the airliner to descend to thicker, more breathable air. Oxygen generators do generate considerable heat in the process. Because of this, the oxygen generators are thermally shielded and are only allowed in commercial airliners when properly installed - they are not permitted to be loaded as freight on passenger-carrying flights. ValuJet Flight 592 crashed on May 11, 1996 as a result of improperly loaded chemical oxygen generators.
Pressurization presents design and construction challenges to maintain the structural integrity and sealing of the cabin and hull and to prevent rapid decompression. Some of the consequences include small round windows, doors that open inwards and are larger than the door hole, and an emergency oxygen system.
To maintain a pressure in the cabin equivalent to an altitude close to sea level would, at a cruising altitude around 10,000 m (33,000 feet), create a pressure difference between inside the aircraft and outside the aircraft that would require greater hull strength and weight. Most people do not suffer ill effects up to an altitude of 1800–2500 m (6000–8000 feet), and maintaining cabin pressure at this equivalent altitude significantly reduces the pressure difference and therefore the required hull strength and weight. A side effect is that passengers experience some discomfort as the cabin pressure changes during ascent and descent to the majority of airports, which are at low altitudes.
Airliners must have space on board to store baggage that will not safely fit in the passenger cabin.
Designed to hold baggage as well as freight, these compartments are called "cargo bins", "holds", or occasionally "pits". Occasionally baggage holds may be referred to as cargo decks on the largest of aircraft. These compartments can be accessed through doors on the outside of the aircraft. Despite what is seen in many movies, access doors between passenger cabins and baggage holds are rare in modern airliners.
Depending on the aircraft, baggage holds are normally inside the hull and are therefore pressurized just like the passenger cabin although they may not be heated. While lighting is normally installed for use by the loading crew, typically the compartment is unlit when the door is closed.
Baggage holds on modern airliners are equipped with fire detection equipment and larger aircraft have automated or remotely activated fire-fighting devices installed.
Baggage is normally stacked within the bin by hand, sorted by destination category. Netting that fits across the width of the bin is secured to limit movement of the bags. Airliners often carry items of freight and mail. These may be loaded separately from the baggage or mixed in if they are bound for the same destination. For securing bulky items "hold down" rings are provided to tie items into place.
However, most baggage and loose freight items are loaded into containers called Unit Load Devices (ULDs), often referred to as "cans". ULDs come in a variety of sizes and shapes, but the most common model is the LD3. This particular container has approximately the same height as the cargo compartment and fits across half of its width.
ULDs are loaded with baggage and are transported to the aircraft on dolly carts and loaded into the baggage hold by a loader designed for the task. By means of belts and rollers an operator can maneuver the ULD from the dolly cart, up to the aircraft baggage hold door, and into the aircraft. Inside the hold, the floor is also equipped with drive wheels and rollers that an operator inside can use to move the ULD properly into place. Locks in the floor are used to hold the ULD in place during flight.
For consolidated freight loads, like a pallet of boxes or an item too oddly shaped to fit into a container, flat metal pallets that resemble large baking sheets that are compatible with the loading equipment are used.