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Life after death

Max Kingsley-Jones/LONDON

When the MD-11 was launched at the end of 1986, the estimated $500 million investment must have looked like money well spent. McDonnell Douglas (MDC) was promising that it could quickly and relatively cheaply bring to the market a new generation long haul aircraft developed from its popular DC-10 tri-jet.

Neither Airbus Industrie or Boeing was in a position to offer deliveries of any rival until several years after the MD-11 and MDC was confident that it could sell over 300 aircraft by 2000.

The MD-11 launch came on the back of the success of the DC-10. A major order from the US Air Force for 60 DC-10 tankers had kept deliveries ticking over during the early 1980s and bought the company time to update the tri-jet. Almost all of the MD-11 launch customers were also DC-10 customers and MDC was in the enviable position of having a product in the marketplace ahead of its rivals, with an established customer base and early delivery slots.

Unfortunately, the following years were to see the delivery advantage eroded by programme slippages, while some very public criticism from customers of the aircraft's failure to achieve MDC's performance promises damaged the MD-11's image irreparably.

The problems were exacerbated by the response of the opposition - the all-new Airbus A340 and Boeing 777 - which between them have infiltrated almost the entire MD-11 customer base.

The turning point in the programme came in August 1991, when MDC lost the custom of Singapore Airlines, which dropped plans to order 20 MD-11s (citing the performance shortfalls) and ordered A340s instead. MDC was not to secure another new flag carrier customer until Lufthansa Cargo in 1996, and that was for the freighter version at discount prices.

A watershed came in April 1995 when American Airlines confirmed plans to dispose of its entire MD-11 fleet to FedEx. With the decrease in passenger orders, MDC focused on the freight market. The Long Beach plant, where the MD-11 is built, hoped that production could be sustained by selling as few as 12 freighters a year.

By the end of 1995, the backlog had dropped to fewer than two dozen aircraft and MDC revealed early in 1996 that it had put aside $1.8 billion to write off losses. The charge left the group with the option of winding down production.

A year later, the company announced its planned merger with Boeing. A stay of execution for the MD-11 was granted late last year, but the decision to kill the programme in early 2000 followed swiftly at the beginning of June.

Some 180 MD-11s are in operation with 22 customers and this is likely to have grown to around 200 aircraft when production is wound up. While American and Swissair/ LTU have already arranged to sell their entire fleets to FedEx, which together with the freight airline's own fleet accounts for some 60 aircraft, the destiny of the rest of the passenger fleets is unclear.

Les Weal, a senior analyst with aerospace consultancy Airclaims, expects the remaining passenger aircraft to make their way to the freight market. "The type is proven as a good freighter-but Boeing has done its homework and realised there was not a huge market for new MD-11Fs,"he says.

Weal believes that other freight carriers may acquire the type. He adds that MD-11 availability may hit DC-10-30 values, saying that the older model could be affected by the increasingly significant noise and emission issues.

Delta operates 20 MD-11s, but the long term future of the fleet is in question, given that the airline has signed for up to 62 777s. Alitalia and KLM, which operate eight and 10 aircraft, respectively, are known to be examining potential replacement deals with Boeing and Airbus.

Japan Airlines, with 10 MD-11s, has no plans to dispose of them and says Boeing has assured it that support will be available as long as necessary. Although it still technically has 10 options, it has no plans to exercise them nor to bolster its fleet with secondhand purchases. Lufthansa Cargo will introduce the first of eight MD-11Fs later this month and has until November 1998 to decide on three options for delivery in 2000.

UPS is believed to have been offered new and used MD-11s as part of its widebody regional freighter requirement for 60 medium sized freighters. A final selection is expected in the coming weeks. Gemini Air Cargo, the US DC-10-30F operator, had been negotiating with Boeing for a small number of new or used MD-11 freighters.

"We are disappointed but not shocked at the decision," says chief executive Bill Stockbridge, who adds that he will now look at acquiring a used passenger aircraft for conversion.