The MD-12 – The A380 Alternative That Never Got Built

Back in the 1990s, aerospace manufacturer, McDonnell Douglas faced a challenge. The Boeing 747 had been dominating international routes and was leaving the company in the dust. Thus they designed a truly double-decker aircraft, the MD-12, 10 years before the A380.

Md-12
The MD-12. Photo: Wikimedia

Why was this aircraft designed?

In 1990, the aircraft landscape was completely different from what it was today. Jet fuel was cheaper and airfares were falling. Airlines chased each other to offer lower and lower prices to further global destinations. With the recent collapse of the Soviet Union, aircraft were now able to reach well across the North Pole and deep into Asia.

Thus airlines were looking for an aircraft that could:

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  • Carry a lot of passengers (300+)
  • Fly a long-range
  • Be a large aircraft that would bring the airline prestige

One aircraft that fit this role perfectly was the Boeing 747. With its four engines, it was (until the invention of the Airbus A340) the only aircraft allowed to fly across the Pacific, and had the largest passenger capacity in the sky.

Not wanting Boeing to have the whole pie to itself, fellow American aviation firm McDonnell Douglas decided to invent their own large-capacity aircraft.

They began by studying a stretched version of the MD-11. Originally they proposed only a slight improvement on the aircraft but quickly realized if they wanted to make a big splash they would need to investigate a second deck. The initial design of the MD-11 stretch had a bottom deck with had forward-facing panoramic windows.

In the early winter of 1991, the board of directors approved the development costs of the MD-12. It would cost in the region of $4 billion USD to develop and build a prototype. McDonnell Douglas shopped the development out to other firms, forming a limited partnership with Taiwan Aerospace, who would own 40% of the project, and other Asian companies (the remaining 9%). McDonnell Douglas would retain 51% of the project.

MD-12
An artist rendering of the McDonnell Douglas MD-12. Photo: Wikimedia

What happened to the project?

In April 1992, McDonnell Douglas launched the MD-12 to much excitement and media attention. The company planned to have the first prototype built by 1995 and the first flight by 1997. However, despite a lot of interest from airlines, none actually signed a memorandum or made an order.

This put the project into jeopardy, and when Taiwan Aerospace left the partnership it effectively killed the aircraft.

Looking back at the development, it was clear that McDonnell Douglas didn’t actually have the resources themselves to pull off the technically demanding and financially strenuous project. Some experts have commented that the entire project was a folly and only designed to make Boeing pay more money for the company when they took it over a few years later.

The designs would eventually be recycled into a new MD-XX tri-jet design presented at the 1996 Farnborough International Air Show.

How did it compare to the Boeing 747?

If we were to compare the MD-12 to the Boeing 747-400, we would see that the MD-12 was obviously designed with their rival in mind.

  • The Boeing 747-400 could carry 416 passengers in a three-class configuration to a range of 7,670 nmi (14,200 KM)
  • The MD-12 could carry 430 passengers in a long-haul configuration (3-class) or 511 passengers in an all-economy configuration (1-class). It would have flown 7,170 nmi (9,200 mi, 14,825 km).
KLM Boeing 747-400 Retirement
KLM still uses their Boeing 747-400s today. Photo: BriYYZ via Wikimedia

The MD-12 was superior in every way to the Boeing 747-400, yet for the economics of the time was an impossible sale to airlines. Airbus, of course, would go on to build the spiritual successor of the MD-12 in the A380, but aviation fans will always wonder what could have been.

Would you have flown on the MD-12? Let us know in the comments.

2 comments
  1. The 747 was not the only bird allowed to fly over the Pacific until the A340 came along. Tri-jets were also permitted.

    Delta’s weapon of choice was the L1011. American and Continental flew DC10s on those routes.

    While the 747 dominated Pacific routes in those days, she was not alone.

  2. Agree with Mark, Air NZ flew DC10’s for a number of years successfully across the Pacific as did United to New Zealand.

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