Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Goodbye to a flying sports car.

Fleet rationalization is happening everywhere in the commercial aviation industry. With fuel prices sky-rocketing, airlines are doing whatever they can to cut costs, and fleet simplification is one of them.

That is no exception with the airlines of Japan too. When Japan Airlines (more commonly referred to by its ICAO three-letter code JAL) and Japan Air System (JAS) merged in 2002 to take on All Nippon Airways (ANA), which had and still has the biggest share of the domestic market in terms of passenger numbers, it not only created an initial series of coordination problems but also a diverse fleet as well, as the two only had one aircraft type in common. Operating more aircraft means more maintenance work, a larger spare parts inventory, more training of its employees, etc, which adds to costs.

For example, the competitors in the short-haul market are the Airbus A320 family, Boeing's 737 family, and the McDonnell Douglas (merged into Boeing in 1997) MD-80/90 series. Production of the latter was terminated not long after its takeover by its former arch-rival, so essentially the A320 and 737 have the market all to themselves now.

JAL had been operating a substantial fleet of 737s, while JAS had been loyal to the Long Beach-based manufacturer, operating the MD-80 and also acquiring the advanced MD-90s in the mid-1990s. So the merged airline operating two (or three) major types for the short-haul sector was naturally deemed uneconomical, and the decision was made to acquire newer 737s to eventually replace the Douglas twin-jets. JAS operated the MD-81, MD-87, and MD-90, and the first to say farewell became the MD-87.

First delivered to JAS on June 3, 1988, the fleet eventually built up to eight aircraft. The MD-87 is basically a MD-82 (a MD-81 with more powerful engines) with a shortened fuselage, compromising capacity for longer range and better take-off and landing performance. JAS acquired these 117-seat jets, sometimes nicknamed the "flying sports car" for its superior climbing performance, to bring jet age to the local regional airports in Japan with limited runway length. These markets had long been served by the Japanese-built NAMC YS-11 turboprop airliner.

After the merger, all eight were repainted in JAL's new "Arc of the Sun" corporate livery which was developed by Landor Associates, however, as the merged airline took delivery of more newer 737s, it was only a matter of time before retirement. So the first of eight was withdrawn from service in October 2007, and the ultimate aircraft is now planned to operate its last revenue flight on March 31, 2008, flight JL1386 from Nanki-Shirahama to Tokyo's Haneda airport. All were already withdrawn from scheduled service by the end of February, and have since been operating mainly as back-up equipment.

The MD-87 was never the most popular jetliner like Boeing's venerable 747, but it did have its own niche, and brought jet age to the regional airports in Japan, boosting tourism. It surely will be missed by its crews, employees, and those local airplane spotters. Fortunately, many are now finding a new lease of life in Thailand with low-fare airline One-Two-Go (a subsidiary of Orient Thai Airlines), instead of being reduced to piles of metal somewhere in the southwestern USA where many older jetliners end their life.

Farewell, sports car in the sky. :-)

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