Pena wrote and recorded the song in 1973 for his New Train album. However, due to conflicts between Pena and his label, New Train was not released until 2000. Miller decided to record "Jet Airliner" 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. It was concurrently released as a single, and reached #8 on the Billboard chart.
On classic rock radio, "Jet Airliner" is typically played in tandem with "Threshold", the all-synthesizer instrumental that precedes it on Book of Dreams and Miller's Greatest Hits 1974–78compilation.
The song's main guitar riff as played by Miller is reminiscent of (but not identical to) one used by Eric Clapton in Cream's version of Robert Johnson's song "Cross Road Blues" (from Cream's 1968 album Wheels of Fire). 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 single edit of Miller's recording features a truncated version of the guitar intro. In addition, one line of the song's lyric was altered for radio play: instead of "'Cause 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 goin' down in the city". 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 featured 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.