Saturday, January 27, 2018

More on the twilight of four-engined passenger jets

Following up on something I wrote about last month: Delta, the last domestic passenger operator of the Boeing 747, has retired their fleet of the iconic jumbo jet and parked them at the Pinal Airpark. But, as the New York Times notes in an interesting pictorial, "Farewell Doesn't Mean the End:"
The desert climate makes county-owned Pinal Airpark, between Phoenix and Tucson, an ideal place to store airplanes long term, and about 120 aircraft are here right now, scattered across the desert floor. The dry air prevents major corrosion, so their parts can be used to help keep other planes flying. Airplanes can even be kept in flying condition, ready to go back into service on short notice.
Pinal Airpark - and the multitude of planes stored there in various stages of (dis)assembly  - is clearly visible from Interstate 10 between Phoenix and Tucson. The aviationgeek in me really wants to visit one day.
But going to the desert doesn’t always mean an airplane will be broken apart and turned to scrap. 
“I would say close to half of the aircraft or more will get reintroduced into service at some point in time,” said David Querio, the president of Marana Aerospace Solutions and Ascent Aviation Services. 
His company, which also sometimes dismantles aircraft, is performing heavy maintenance on about 25 airplanes, and is storing more than 100 others at Pinal Airpark, including the 747 fleet that Delta just retired. Although the airline has not announced specific plans for those aircraft, Mr. Querio has seen similar planes become workhorses in other parts of the world. 
For air carriers in Africa, Asia and South America, buying a used aircraft is “a lot more affordable than buying new aircraft,” he said. Even though they are less fuel efficient than modern planes, their higher operating cost is offset by the low purchase price, making secondhand jumbo jets an ideal choice for airlines looking to expand.
Pinal Airpark is sometimes called a graveyard or boneyard for planes.  Jim Petty, the airpark’s manager, bristles at that description. 
“It’s really not what we are,” he said. “It’s a maintenance and storage facility.” 
He’s trying to change that perception with informal tours and a visitor-friendly attitude. He wants to spread the word that planes here, in one way or another, almost always have more to come.
There's plenty more to come from the 747; it's still in widespread use (as a visit to Flightaware's live airborne aircraft tally will attest) and it's not going to disappear from the skies anytime soon. Nor is its major four-engined competitor, the double decker Airbus A380, although it is facing an uncertain future of its own:
Airbus, the European aerospace group that makes the A380 superjumbo, said on Monday that it would have to end production of the plane if its only major customer, Emirates, did not order more. 
The admission by John Leahy, the company’s chief operating officer, was the latest indication that Airbus miscalculated more than two decades ago when it bet that clogged runways would create demand for larger planes that could deliver more people with fewer landing slots. Instead, airlines bypassed the major hubs and ordered midsize planes that could fly directly between regional airports. 
“The A380 was better suited to 1995, before air routes fragmented,” said Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at Teal Group Corp., a consulting firm in Fairfax, Va. 
Airbus said Monday that it has not given up on the plane, but acknowledged that it is endangered. 
“If we can’t work out a deal with Emirates, I think there is no choice but to shut down the program,” Mr. Leahy said during a webcast with journalists.
Emirates did indeed throw a lifeline to to the A380, ordering at least 16 additional aircraft and keeping the program afloat for now, but I think even Airbus execs will admit that it's not a good position to depend on a single customer to keep a single product viable. With that said, they remain optimistic about the aircraft's future:
Mr. Leahy, the Airbus chief operating officer, said on Monday that the A380’s best days were ahead. Passenger traffic is doubling every 15 years, he said, meaning that the original rationale for the model still holds. 
Airbus, as a result, is still betting that airlines flying between large, highly congested hubs in London or New Delhi will have no choice but to buy larger planes if they want to continue to grow. 
“If people want to fly, they need to fly in bigger aircraft,” Mr. Leahy said. “This is an airplane whose time will come.”
I'm a bit skeptical that the A380's time is "yet to come;" while there might be a handful of routes that will remain busy enough to require only the largest aircraft servicing them, the fact remains that newer two-engined aircraft, such as the Boeing 787 or the Airbus A350, offer so much more in fuel economy and flexibility over their four-engined counterparts that products such as the A380 (or, for that matter, the 747, whose -8 model is technically still in production by Boeing) are likely going to struggle to remain economically viable.

But who knows what passenger air travel will be like ten or fifteen years from now? Maybe these large, four-engined aircraft will indeed get a second wind. Time will tell, I guess.

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