When Does An Aircraft Get Written Off?

Aircraft are expensive. With the cost of a new A380 coming in at $444 million USD list price, airlines are incredibly reluctant to ever take an aircraft out of service. But, throughout history, airlines have either been forced to write off an aircraft (sometimes even brand new) or in some special cases, spent millions of dollars more than the aircraft is worth to not write it off.

Boneyard
Written off aircraft are normally taken to scrapyards. Photo: Wikimedia

What does ‘written off’ mean?

Before we dive into the specifics of what it takes for an airline to write off an aircraft, we first need to understand what the term ‘written off’ means.

There are two major terms in the aviation industry:

  • Hull loss – The aircraft has been destroyed, is no longer flight worthy and cannot be repaired
  • Written off – The aircraft has been extensively damaged and the cost of repairs would be more than the aircraft is worth

Specifically, if an aircraft is split in two and its parts spread over a runway then its likely that this is a hull loss. But if an aircraft is damaged through use, an incident or just requires extensive maintenance, airlines might choose to just write off the aircraft and replace it with a (sometimes cheaper) new aircraft.

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However… it also depends on who is paying for these repairs. If an aircraft was grounded due to a fault (such as the Boeing 737 MAX groundings) would the airline actually pay for the aircraft being written off? Or would the manufacturer? Depending on insurance, it is possible that the aircraft will be rebuilt, recertified, repainted and back in the skies on someone else’s dime.

There have been some incidences where an airline has straight up had to write off an aircraft; Etihad had to give up on a brand new Airbus A340-600 (Tail number F-WWCJ) after the test pilot ran it into a wall at the Airbus factory. The forward section of the aircraft actually split off and the whole aircraft had to just be scrapped.

A340
The aircraft had to be written off. Photo: Bureau of Aircraft Accidents Archives 

Do airlines always write off aircraft?

There are some times, however, where airlines have chosen to do anything but write off an aircraft.

In 1999, Qantas QF1 was landing at Bangkok airport during a heavy rainstorm, when it overshot the runway. According to the crash report, it was a combination of pilot error, low visibility, problems with the flaps and the aircraft hydroplaning on the wet runway. The Boeing 747-400 overshot the runway, collapsing its nose and right landing gear and damaging two of its engines. Fortunately, beyond the runway was an empty golf course (due to the rain) and no one was seriously injured.

By all accounts, the entire Qantas Boeing 747-400 was a write-off. It would cost Qantas more than the book value of the aircraft to get in back in the sky. But there is something worth more to Qantas than money, and that’s its reputation for never losing an aircraft.

qantas boeing 747 retirement
A Qantas Boeing 747 heads out of Sydney. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Thus Qantas footed the bill for the incident, spending the cost of a brand new Boeing 747 to get their older one back in the sky. The Boeing 747-400 in question, tail number VH-OJH, would go on to serve the airline until September 2012 (essentially another 13 years!).

What do you think? Should airlines write off aircraft? Let us know in the comments.

12 comments
  1. There are situations in which it can be dangerous to try to salvage aircraft that are essentially “written off” . This applies, for example, to aircraft that have suffered a bad tailstrike. JAL 123 crashed into a mountain and killed 520 passengers and crew because bulkhead damage from a tailstrike 7 years previously had not been properly repaired by Boeing technicians…

  2. Nice article, it’s very informative and I was wondering the same. A little correction though:
    “boing” – Boeing
    “Bankok” – Bangkok

      1. Alright, noted. I’ll make use of it if there’s any more corrections on more articles to come. Thanks for the reply, Chris!

        1. We’re refining our notifications system with regards to comments. Right now authors aren’t notified directly when people comment. So sometimes reports of typos or mistakes aren’t addressed all that quickly. So yeah – the Corrections form is the way to go! Cheers!

  3. Why would our opinion on what Airlines should do matter or even be asked?

    Airlines will make a determination based on what they feel is in their best interests.

    As long as a re=built aircraft is worth, then its a non issue.

    As noted with Qantas, it was a PR decision. No one but Qantas can make that call.

  4. When Emirates’ A340-500 A6-ERG had a heavy tail strike in 2009 and then had a major repair for re-entry into service, there were rumours that the tail section from that Qatar F-WWCJ was used to replaced the more damaged A6-ERG tail. I don’t know how true that is but I’m sure Airbus who did the repair, and the airlines using the plane, would not want anyone knowing they used a “scrap” part if so.

  5. Most of the articles are very educational and amazing to learn more than only experience the inside of an aircraft during flight or seeing them on runways.
    I live in South Africa and think that airlines must donate the Redundant or written off BEC Aircraft For Educational and Recreational Purpose to the public that can accommodate them.
    I own a Farm Land Of 47 Hectares in the Western Cape on the Cape Namibia Route And have a Proposition for any airline that would be able to donate.
    The donation will create jobs and tourism investment.
    The possibility of education in the aviation development to empower people in rural areas.
    The idea will make Disposal a great money saver for Airlines.
    Tax Benefits
    Expensive airport storage facilities Etc.
    Please assist as we can accommodate approximately 4 Of the Giants on our Land.

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