The Long Dark Night of the A340…

Edit: since I wrote this a couple of weeks ago there has been an avalanche of A340-300 retirement announcements. Virgin Atlantic brought the October end forward to March and promptly took G-VELD out of service leaving just G-VSUN. Then Friday Cathay Pacific announced they were withdrawing all 11 of theirs by 2017 and that they would be dismantled by AerFin in Wales. The very same day LAN Chile announced its last pair employed on the lengthy Santiago-Auckland route, would be retired by the end of April. 

It seems when night draws in it comes quickly.

I’ll tell you a secret. My favourite aircraft design is the A340-600. I don’t know what it is about it exactly, I think it’s the pencil thin body (though it’s far from being a narrow body) and those huge elegant wings with four gigantic, almost slightly too large engines. There’s something modern yet old fashioned about them. The A340-500 comes next. These were conceived as an ultra-long range version and Singapore Airlines flew them in an extraordinary 100 seat business class only format on the worlds longest flight from Singapore to JFK over the North Pole.  That stopped in late 2013.

The A340-300 is now on its last legs in the UK – only two remain with Virgin Atlantic and they will be gone by March 29th following a revised withdrawal plan. It has not been a very successful design, offering little advantage. The ill fated A340-200 has mostly vanished – Cathay Pacific were so disgusted by the performance of theirs they forced Airbus to take them back. Besides which the A343 and 342 just didn’t quite look the part, looking strangely inelegant and frankly rather old fashioned.

G-VNAP another Aircraft sold in large numbers by Gemini but it never actually wore this livery
G-VNAP another Aircraft sold in large numbers by Gemini but it never actually wore this livery

The A346 is still in service with Virgin Atlantic, one of its biggest customers, as well as Lufthansa,  South African and a handful of others. Two airlines however are about to end their A346 careers – Thai and China Eastern. The first in March and the later in April.

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Last year Airbus held a conference of leasing companies and airlines to work out what to do with the rapidly growing runway of A340’s at Lourdes in SW France where many are stored and with the dozens of aircraft that would be coming off lease at ten years old. Relatively new and painfully hard to re-market, with plunging values, high fuel consumption and not exactly quiet, there was a lot of positive spin but the reality was everyone knows that many will simply have to be scraped. Nobody wants them and they really aren’t suitable as cargo carriers in a market saturated with too many already.

Lufthansa are keeping theirs for some time, maybe another 6 years or so. Their A343’s however are being offloaded from the main airline to the long haul low cost subsidiary that starts up in October. Virgin are ditching A346’s as soon as the ten year lease is up. Can you blame them? They may have boasted “Four For The Long Haul” as everyone else went for two engines and they inadvisedly stayed with four, but the reality is they are hugely expensive to run and make little money.

C-GKOM by Gemini never wore this livery
C-GKOM by Gemini never wore this livery

So with Air Canada having ditched their A345’s years ago – they went to TAM and Argentina, Thai about to end A346 services, China Eastern the same, Qatar and Etihad pulling them from Europe, Virgin ditching theirs at an unseemly pace (though they have a few until 2018), I thought it worth a quick photoshoot of some of my favourite A340’s. I admit I have quite a few.

A346 G-VNAP is probably one of the most sold in the 2010 Virgin Atlantic livery. A Gemini model, sold in the Virgin Atlantic shop and in thousands elsewhere. She’s actually been withdrawn from service in the last four weeks, been to Manilla for pre-return service, Manchester Air Livery has already painted her back to white and she flies off to Lourdes on Saturday at the end of her 10 year lease.

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Yet did you know she never actually wore the 2010 livery? I only found this out at Heathrow back in June. I was on the way to SFO and standing photographing everything I could from the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse Garden on top of Terminal 3, there she was in the old livery.

Talking of aircraft that never wore liveries …C-GKOM the Air Canada A345 also by Gemini was never painted in the Ice Blue livery. If she had been it would have looked amazing.

And finally one of my favourite A346’s is the Thai version. It may be going in in real life, it may even never fly again, but it lives on in this excellent Phoenix version from 2012 and will continue to serve RLSI.

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