The Chart:

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Older 747s Disappearing (R.I.P. line 1085)

No news here really, just my own ramblings.

Three weeks ago I went to Seoul and back on two United 747s, and was reminded why I love the 747. Not specifically United, who's service was adequate although definitely a step down from my recent KLM and Air France flights to Europe, but the 747 itself. It feels fantastic in the air, notably sturdy and solid, and it's spacious inside, even in economy seating. The cabin itself feels so roomy. I flew on N197UA there (new livery, 15 years old), and N120UA back (old livery, 14 years old). It got me thinking about United's 747 fleet, and a recent ferry flight I'd noticed. Back on December 27th 2012, N193UA (line 1085) flew from Victorville to Tupelo in a three hour flight. This frame was put into storage in 2008, after just twelve years of service, sat around for the next four years, and I was hopeful this ferry flight meant something good for line 1085. Well, after doing some more research due to my renewed interest in United jumbos, I found this frame was sold to Universal Aircraft Management, an aircraft salvage company, and Tupelo is their killing ground. Sadly it's probably already lying in pieces. A number of United 747s got the short end of the stick, like line 919.

Here's line 1085's final flight:

Twelve years isn't a bad run. My car is 15 years old and seems ancient. Twelve years tearing through the skies is a decent amount of time, not nearly as sad as frames like line 977 for China Airlines (written off at six months old), line 1083 for Korean Airlines (written off at two years old) or line 1416 (maybe a couple hours in the sky, but at least it should have a future... if this frame goes to Tupelo I'll slip into depression!) Still, other United frames, like N171UA (line 733) which is 24 years old and doesn't look to be retiring any time soon, press on with daily long haul routes. Hell, Delta is still flying the original 747-400 and probably will be until around 2020. Lufthansa recently retired a few 24 year old 747-400s with over 120,000 hours on them. Now that's a properly utilized airframe. Alas, line 1085 probably had less than 50,000 hours on it, and that was it. It makes me wonder about the decision making process that lead to a twelve year old frame being parked while a twenty year old frame lives on.

  • Was it because the newer frame was worth more? United never sold a few of the newest frames that they had retired though (like lines 1085 and 1113).
  • Was there a heavy check due on the newer frame that was a ways off on the older frame? Not really a benefit when the older frame is still going to need one eventually.  At least, you'd think they'd fly the older frame till it was up for a heavy check while storing the newer frame in the desert, then apply the inevitable check to the newer frame and scrap the old one.
  • Was there something wrong with the newer frame? Some damage or something else that doomed it?
  • Some sort of depreciation tax issue that made retiring the new frame beneficial. This is sadly my first guess.

Considering these, what about the advantages of a new frame that were apparently not enough to keep it flying? Namely improvements in design, weight, and performance that usually happen over the course of a particular model's manufacturing run. Wouldn't the newer United frames that got parked be lighter and less fuel hungry than the early frames?

This has made me wonder about the dreaded heavy checks as well. Are they flight time/cycle based, solely time based, or a combination (36,000 hours in the air or six years since last check, whichever comes first). If it's the later, does that mean a new frame like line 1416, which has been in the air maybe 10 hours, is due for a heavy check in the next two years? That seems crazy, but there's something to the six year time period regarding 747s and other heavy planes. They often seem to get retired at the 12, 18, 24, or 30 year mark.

Anyways, 747-400s retirements are accelerating, and Classics (100s, 200s and 300s) are all but gone. Cathay has parked a bunch this month in particular. It makes me somber because these 747s are being replaced with other frames I'm not as fond of flying on, and with the dearth of 747-8I orders, just a reminder that over the next ten years the opportunities to get that special 747 experience are dwindling. I'm still hopeful an American carrier orders some 747-8Is but it feels like a long shot at this time. Hopefully that changes.

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