JAL retires fleet of Boeing 747s

>> Wednesday, March 2, 2011

JAL ground staff at Narita International Airport wave farewell to one of the airline's Boeing 747-400s on Feb. 28. The airline has retired its fleet of 747s to cut costs. (Mainichi)
Japan Airlines' fleet of Boeing 747-400 jumbo passenger jets officially flew into retirement on Feb. 28 as the planes made their last flights in JAL livery.

Faced with limited slots at Tokyo-area airports and steadily increasing passenger numbers, Japan Airlines (JAL) had purchased 112 of the enormous aircraft -- the most of any airline in the world. However, rising oil prices and the resulting spikes in the cost of fueling the gas-guzzling jumbos became the primary cause of the flag carrier's financial woes. Recent upheavals in the Middle East and North Africa, meanwhile, have caused oil prices to spike once more, prompting JAL to speed up its migration to smaller aircraft.

"This is the end of the 747's usefulness, an aircraft that has done so much to foster Japan's economic and cultural development," said JAL President Masaru Onishi at a news conference on Feb. 28. "We will now move to smaller aircraft, and implement a more frequent flight schedule."

JAL bought its first 747 in 1970, to fly from Tokyo's Haneda Airport to Honolulu in Hawaii. The 1980s saw JAL order large numbers of the aircraft, with 86 747s painted in JAL colors by the end of fiscal 1993 -- or about 70 percent of the airline's entire fleet. This reliance on what was the largest passenger plane available -- until the debut of the Airbus A380 -- was prompted first by the severely limited number of slots at the Tokyo area's two main airports, Haneda and Narita International Airport. The scarcity of slots meant JAL had to pack as many passengers onto each flight as possible, making the 747 an attractive option.

Furthermore, as Japan's economic bubble swelled in the second half of the 1980s, so too did passenger numbers, and buying 747s was the best option to meet demand. The path to large orders for the aircraft was further smoothed by the privatization of the airline in 1987, allowing it greater freedom to make expensive decisions.

One former JAL executive, meanwhile, told the Mainichi that the airline was also "aware that the trade dispute between the United States and Japan was heating up, and that the purchase of the jumbo jets could help reduce Japan's trade surplus with the U.S."

The year 1987, when the bilateral trade imbalance developed into a full-blown diplomatic dispute, saw JAL 747 orders reach double digits, while the Japanese government also decided to purchase two of the aircraft for official business.

However, rising oil prices eventually made the fleet of 747s a financial liability. In the early 1990s, oil traded at about 20 dollars per barrel, a price which soared to a peak of 147 dollars in 2008. Meanwhile, passenger numbers also dropped as the economy slumped, making the big planes and their persistently empty seats a symbol of JAL inefficiency.

JAL's primary competitor, All Nippon Airways (ANA), also operates 11 747s but plans to take them off its domestic routes by the end of March.

JAL is now speeding up a transition to smaller aircraft like the Boeing 737, hoping to save on fuel costs -- now some 25 percent of the airlines' total expenses -- and increase efficiency by reducing its main aircraft models from the current seven to four.

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