Future flightpath? Vanishing 747’s are just the start of a new era

It’s a while yet before new models arrive and while I have a pile of freighters to review and only a couple of passenger aircraft. Now and again it’s good to have a look at the real world and how that affects us in our model world. Aviation changes so quickly it’s hard to know where we stand. We’re facing a world of greater homgenisation as so many aircraft types disappear, these days with extraordinary rapidity, to be replaced with so few new ones.

The 747

On the 11th January Air France withdrew their last 744, ending 45 years of 747 operations. Later this year Cathay Pacific will retire theirs, though a few 744F’s and a new fleet of 748F’s will be around for many years yet.

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Saudia will not be far behind as it retires its remaining passenger fleet. Virgin Atlantic, other than a few odd back-up flights, no longer schedules them for its main line Heathrow services, and retired three permanently, though Gatwick and Manchester will soldier on with them a for a few more years. Any day now expect Virgin to order A350-1000’s.

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Old makes way for the new. Everything has it’s day.

By mid January this year there were only 221 744’s left in service and almost a third of them were run by airlines such as BA, KLM and Lufthansa.  British Airways, the largest operator of the type, still is, though numbers will be run down to 18 aircraft by 2020. Once the A350-1000 deliveries begin BA’s 744’s will go one for one. Eight of those BA is keeping, refurbished for the last time in “Super High J” configuration, are already completed.

United Airlines still operates 22 but has made it clear those will be phased out by late 2017, Delta’s last few will be gone by 2018.

A the start of 2006 48% of long haul global flights were on a 747. That’s now down to just 10% and falling.

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BA, always with an eye to capital return on investment, will push it’s paid for and cost-neutral 744’s into old age.

Even though several airlines will keep their 744’s on stream for some years, BA, KLM and Lufthansa have committed to around 2020-2023, though these will be highly dependent on fuel costs. Airlines like Thai and Qantas will retire theirs at the soonest opportunity.

It isn’t either that they go and we don’t notice. Take the SFO route from Heathrow to the US. 12  months ago 3 744’s plowed that route, 2 BA, 1 Virgin. In peak, add another United 744 to that. From March 27th, that will have changed to 1 A380 & 1 772 for BA and 1 789 and 1 A346 for Virgin. 744’s had worked that route for 25 years, in 12 months they’d gone.

The A340

Never a big seller, despite an effort last year by Airbus, including a London meeting for owners and leasing companies to see plans for making them more desirable in the second hand market, nobody was convinced. A346’s remain painfully difficult to move on, running costs remaining a big issue. A343’s continue to be retired, the youngest is now 11 years old and many are scrap as soon as is viable. Cathay Pacific announced just this week that’s remaining fleet will be retired by next year.

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Still around until 2019, Virgin’s fleet once numbered 19 A346’s now down to just 11 and more to go.

A few will continue as Swiss retire theirs for 773ER’s, with Edelweiss but time is running out. Emirates A345’s, Qatar and Etihad are all looking running down their fleets, as more efficient aircraft become available.

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Thai pushed these out of service so fast the tyres nearly burned off.

Lufthansa announced only last week that it’s A350’s will start to replace it’s Munich based A346’s as they go into service.

It isn’t just the big aircraft either. Across the board from Voltea and its Boeing 717 fleet now scheduled to become A319’s, KLM’s Fokker 70’s becoming E jets, Bae146’s going, on and on, at an astonishing pace. Older aircraft variants are simply vanishing.

The Future

Now bearing in mind all of the above, and that there is very little truly new to come into service in the next few years, what does the future hold for us as model collectors?

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Finnair epitomize an airline in transition from A343’s to modern, efficient, A350’s.

Another version of the same A320/321 series, as the Neo versions take to the skies. The same with the 737Max. Tweaks to existing frames, new engines and a wing tip. The 787-8 and 9 are already here, only the 787-10 to come. The A350-1000 is a definite, the 8000 maybe not. A380Neo looks dead for now, though the A330-800/900 will be different at the nose, wings and engines. Then eventually the 777-8/9. The CS100 and CS300 are a reality but may never be adopted by enough airlines to persuade the likes of JCW/Phoenix to produce very many versions. A United order might be a start. What of the Embraer E-Jet2? And you can forget the Sukhoi, Comac and Mitsubishi – will anyone ever make them?

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We need more of these, the CS300 and the E-jets

So truly new models: A350-1000, A330-800, A330-900, 777-8, 777-9, 787-10. All of them will require a new mould. CS100 exists, CS300 may never see the light. The other A320 and 737 need little done to them.

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Could the 748i have ever really challenged the future of the twin engined alternatives? I don’t think so.

So what do we have to look forward as older aircraft are retired? Just five basic long haul types A380, A350, A330, 787, 777x. Two basic short haul in the A320 and 737. Maybe a tiny handful of others if anyone will invest in the moulds.

The inevitable grind of time and the ultimate logic of capitalism is that the most efficient solutions are inevitably going to look the same because only one solution is perfect – the underlying similarity in the 787 and A350 shows you that. It’s inevitable that designs reduce in numbers and the same solutions, even if tweaked differently, are inevitable. Formula 1 cars are another case in point.

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Still being made and into its fourth decade

But what does that mean for us as model collectors? What does it mean for the model makers? Airline numbers and consolidations have dramatically reduced the field of available liveries for the bigger airlines. A380’s are unlikely to see many new customers, 748’s are almost over.  Will there be fewer still airlines as economics force yet more mergers and buyouts? With fewer types of aircraft will we see less variety, fewer liveries and therefore fewer models of new aircraft. Will this generate a growing demand for retro models?

Will, in an unlikely turn of events, to those who lived in them, the first two decades of the 21st Century, come to be seen as the Last Golden Age of Aviation, before the inevitable condensing of aircraft types and airlines into ever smaller numbers?

We are looking at 15 years before the next A320 series ground-up replacement, the same on the 737. The only other maybe is a Boeing 757 replacement, but even that is 10 years off, if it ever comes about at all.

The cargo/freighter side is also far from redolent with new designs. Huge numbers of old 744’s you would think make good freighters but are for the most part being shunned as cargo is grossly over capacity and other than express services, still in decline, despite a brief respite in early 2015. The current generation of retirees is more likely to end up as razor blades and spare parts.

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Few may want them now but they will be here for many years,

The 777F dominates the new freighter segment, the 767F still rolls on and will until 2023 with one a month coming on stream for Fedex and even EVA Air Cargo. The 748F has lost orders and barely has enough to sustain deliveries at 1 a month until Air Force One is fully authorized, three frames built, and the line can then be closed.

The A330F has few customers, its quite small and only Qatar Cargo and Turkish Cargo run any numbers. Don’t expect an accurate model of one (AC did a Turkish Cargo that’s quite rare, but wholly inaccurate as they have a large under-nose dome to house the reinforced gear that they never bothered with).

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757’s still remain popular with over 50 being converted this year to cargo, mostly for express carriers.

The only big trends in the cargo market are smaller aircraft. 737 and A320/321 conversions are ordered and planned and there is still a robust market in 757’s.

There is much rumor as to the likelihood of current 773ER conversions as older models leave passenger service in the coming years.  The trouble is, that in depressed markets, airlines are being forced by economic pressures to consolidate. Fedex-TNT in Europe, and DHL taking control of US cargo carriers through majority share holdings.

In China the government is forcing the majors like Air China, China Eastern & China Southern to consolidate its cargo fleets and those of smaller carriers into one operation. That’s not going to provide much variation in new liveries, but cargo is less than 1 in 30 of 1:400 models produced.

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No mater how photogenic the latest 787 and A350’s may be, we can only expect more of fewer variants.

My conclusion? By 2020 we will have passed the optimum period for what we see now as modern aircraft in terms of type and variety.

The old-new mix will start to dwindle as a realistic option for collectors like me who run a ‘current’ airport diorama and it becomes a historical one. It may depend on the way and the why you collect of course, and if you stay the course. Sooner or later like any airline owner, you have to decide on the purchasing path to take.

Aviation. Never dull!

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