When 1088 people flew on a 747 at once

Nearly 30 years ago, an El Al Boeing 747 broke the Guinness World Record for the greatest number of passengers on a single aircraft at once – a record that still stands. Here’s how and why it happened 

With a typical capacity of between 350 and 400 passengers in a three-class configuration, the Boeing 747 is known for being able to carry a lot of people a very long way. The story of the time one managed to carry 1,088 people is a sombre one, but it’s an example of when aviation came to the rescue for thousands of people in a very difficult situation.

El Al 747
The record was broken using an El Al Boeing 747. Wikimedia Commons/Eduard Marmet

The year is 1991 in Ethiopia. The sitting government led by Mengistu Haile Mariam was close to being toppled following the military success of Eritrean and Tigrean rebels, who were threatening the country with political destabilisation. 

World Jewish organisations such as the American Association for Ethiopian Jews and Israel were concerned for the wellbeing of the country’s Jewish population. The existing regime had made mass emigration difficult and now that it was on its way out, there was an opportunity for those wanting to move to Israel. 

BA 747
A typical 747 seats between 350 and 400 people. For this mission the seats had to be removed. Flickr Commons/Rene Ehrhardt

What followed was a covert operation to airlift some of the African nation’s Jewish population to Israel. Between May 24 and 25, over a period of 36 hours, 14,325 people were transported. Dubbed Operation Solomon, the process involved non-stop flights of 35 Israeli aircraft between Addis Ababa and Tel Aviv. These included Israeli Air Force C-130s and most notably, El Al Boeing 747s. 

There were 40 separate services, and among them was a El Al 747 which set and still holds the Guinness World Record for the most passengers on a single aircraft ever. The seats were removed from the jet to make room for all the people. 

The number is commonly cited as 1,088 and this includes two babies that were born during the flight. Various contemporary reports state slightly different passenger totals ranging from as low as 1,078 to as high as 1,122. Anywhere in this range would still hold the record.