Philippine Airlines (PAL) has confirmed it has now ended all A340 operations following the disposal of its last remaining A340-300, registered RP-C3441 according to CH-Aviation.
In this article, we will review some of PAL’s A340 history, its current fleet structure and age profile. We also briefly review critical financial metrics for PAL that might help to explain why the A340 has gone and we take a look at why their dalliance with the plane lasted so long at 22 years.
The last revenue service of the four remaining A340s by PAL was in September 2018 when all four of its remaining planes were parked for the last time. PAL is the last A340 carrier in Asia and had operated the plane for a total of 22 years. Even though PAL has now retired all of its A340s, other airlines are still operating them: 50% of the 200/300s and 90% of the 500/600s, according to Modern Airliners,
Overall, PAL owned a total of eight A340 200/300s as it tried, like all other airlines that bought the model, to make hay out of the plane’s innovative long haul range capabilities.
Philippine Airlines fleet and age structure
PAL now has the following widebody fleet structure, according to flightradar24.com.
The age structure of the entire PAL fleet now looks like this:
The Philippine Airlines route structure
Where does PAL fly?
Essentially, PAL is a regional airline, covering all of South East Asia, from Sapporo New Chitose Airport, Japan in the North East to Jakarta Soekarno Hatta International Airport, Indonesia in the South West. They take in Port Moresby Jacksons International Airport too in the South East corner of the region. Of course, Manila Ninoy Aquino International Airport is their hub and home.
In addition, there are four super regions that PAL covers: Oceania, as they fly to Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne in Australia and Auckland in New Zealand. In the Americas, they cover Honolulu, Vancouver, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Toronto and JFK, New York. In the Middle East, they take in Riyadh and Dammam in Saudi Arabi and Doha in Qatar and Dubai in the UAE. Finally, they fly to London’s Heathrow, its sole European destination.
Philippine Airlines financials
The following are some of the key financials for PAL Holdings, according to Bloomberg, for the last four years: this is the ultimate holding company of the airline:
|PAL Holdings USD m||2015||2016||2017||2018|
|Net Income Margin||6.22%||3.98%||-6.16%||-2.88%|
|Debt to Assets %||11.44%||10.08%||11.79%||12.45%|
PAL Holdings is currently hovering around break even since the average of the last four years’ net income is almost zero! Such a result confirms why PAL was happy to offload its A340s in favor of the more modern and efficient A330s and A350s. In January 2019, ANA announced it has taken a 9.5% stake, valued at USD 95 million, in Philippine Airlines and that is something to watch out for in future financial reports.
Why was the A340 so popular?
Having launched the A340 series as part of a concerted effort to take over US dominance of the long haul market with its Boeing 707 and Douglas DC8 aircraft, Airbus started its most significant marketing efforts at the Paris Air Show of 1993.
At that show, they set up an A340 with the name World Ranger with extra fuel tanks and 22 people on board. It lifted off just before lunch on 16th June 1993 and flew non stop to Auckland, New Zealand. Here it refueled and flew straight back to Paris, arriving in time for lunch two days later, with a flying time of 48 hours and 22 minutes.
That flight broke six world records, including the longest nonstop flight by an airliner, at 19,277 km (10,409 nm). This record stood for 12 years until broken by a Boeing 777 200LR in November 2005 for a Hong Kong to London flight of 21,602 km (11,664 nm).
A record-breaking aircraft, a cunning marketing plan but in the end, only 377 of the entire range were built. When the plane fell from grace, it did so very quickly: why so?
On the plus side, in February 2004, Singapore Airlines used an A340-500 to begin the longest nonstop commercial flight route as it flew from Singapore to Los Angeles. Just a few months later, they began operating another mega nonstop flight, this time from Singapore to Newark NJ with an A340-500, a distance of 15,343 km (9,534 nm).
On the downside, just four years later, Thai International Airlines discontinued their 17-hour nonstop service from Bangkok to Los Angeles and sold their four A340-500s. In 2009, Cathay Pacific also phased out their three A340-600s in favor of the Boeing 777.
So, within just seven years of the Singapore Airlines mega routes having been opened, on 10th November 2011, Airbus announced that the A340 program had ended. All orders had been filled and 377 aircraft had been delivered.
What went wrong?
There are two factors at play here: oil prices and the acceptance of large twin-engined aircraft on long over-water routes. The A340 is a four-engined plane so, to paraphrase George Orwell’s Animal Farm, the old concept of four engines bad, two engines good, spelled the end of the series.
Was there anything interesting or unusual about the A340 series of planes?
Because of the ways in which Airbus organized their aircraft design and production, each type of plane was built with many features in common, including the flight deck. Apart from efficiency, economies of scale and so on at Airbus, this meant that a pilot who was already flying an Airbus plane could switch to an A340 within a week: minimal marginal training resources required.
Engine supplier Rolls Royce took over the development process for the A340-500 and -600 variants and gave them larger wings and a longer body so they had the capacity to travel for longer distances.
One estimate of the number of passengers served by an A340 at some time is that so far, 550 million people have flown on an A340: flying an average of 16.2 hours a day, with over 18 million flight hours gives the 550 million passengers. Based on 2011 prices, for an A340-600, quoted at $245 million, that would give an average capital cost per passenger of $166.4.
Qatar Airways and Air France also retire their last Airbus A340s
At the time of writing, we can see that Qatar has just completed its winding down of its A340 fleet, too. According to CH-Aviation, its 12-year-old A340-642, registered A7-AGD, was ferried to Enschede in the Netherlands for scrapping on May 1st, whereas its equally aged sister, A7-AGC, is resting in Doha as they intend to use it for crew training.
Air France left the world of the A340 with the demise of its 22-year-old A340-313, registered F-GLZJ, which was flown to St Athan Airport in Wales (DGX/EGSY) where it is to be scrapped.
Philippine Airlines have become part of the trend in the life cycle of the Airbus A340. In spite of PAL’s own financial and operational troubles, the airline operated the A340 for 22 years and it is only now that it has gone for a major revamp of its widebodied fleet of planes. 22 years for as many as 10 different planes suggests that something was working for the airline and its passengers, but no longer so it’s time to move on. Watch out, though, as there is some talk of an Airbus A340neo: watch this space.
My personal take on the A340? I flew DXB to MAN a number of times and I went through a phase where each time it was the very early departure from DXB for which they used an A340. I have to say, the seats on those planes were a nightmare. As hard as a rock and after so many hours, I was desperate to disembark.