China Airlines Initiates Boeing 747-400 Retirement Process

China Airlines has announced plans to retire its passenger Boeing 747-400s starting late-2014 in favor of the more economical Boeing 777-300ERs & Airbus A350-900XWBs. The Taiwanese airline is one of the largest 747 operators in the world and the last customer of the passenger 747-400. The airline is undergoing a much-needed fleet renewal process to enhance both its profitability and reputation. The first Boeing 747-400s of the plan to be retired will be N168CL and B-18251. In particular, B-18251, delivered in 1995, is the oldest 747 of the current China Airlines fleet. Over the past few years, China Airlines has retired a few 747-400s, of which 2 became the Boeing 747-400LCF “Dreamlifter”.

B-18251, the alleged to-be-retired Boeing 747-400.
B-18251, the first Boeing 747-400 to be retired under the plan, at Osaka Kansai International Airport. Oddly, B-18251 features a hybrid new-old livery: its tail has the old version of the CI plum blossom while its fuselage has the new CI logo.
N168CL is the only CI 747-400 to carry an American registration.
N168CL at New York JFK Airport in 2011. N168CL is the only CI 747-400 to carry an American registration.

China Airlines has ordered 10 Boeing 777-300ER and 14 Airbus A350-900XWB for its next generation long-haul fleet. The 777-300ERs will be replacements of the 747-400s while the A350-900XWB will replace the A340-300. The 777-300ERs will either be leased or sold and leased back. This indicates that China Airlines is not planning on using the aircraft kind for the long-term and is planning on ordering other next generation aircraft, likely the Boeing 777X or the Airbus A350-1000XWB. Fleet renewal is crucial for China Airlines as it is directly linked to the underperformance of the carrier. Many of its long haul routes has not been profitable due to the inefficiency of the aircraft deployed. China Airlines mainly flies the Boeing 747-400 and the Airbus A340-300 to North American & European destinations. Ever since oil prices sky-rocketed to over 100 USD per barrel, the fuel-guzzling four-engine jets have made profiting a rather challenging task. The Taipei Taoyuan – New York JFK route has not been making money for years while the Taipei Taoyuan – London Heathrow nonstop route was cancelled due to heavy losses. Yet, the failure of the airline to promptly renew its long-haul fleet and the delay of the Airbus A350 delivery have forced the carrier to continue using out-of-date and inefficient jetliners while competitors, especially EVA Air, are busy making profits and expanding networks utilizing next-generation aircraft.

How can the Boeing 777-300ER & Airbus A350-900XWB help China Airlines make money on long-haul routes? According to the carrier, the cost of each 777-300ER can be up to 10M USD/ 22% lower than the Boeing 747-400 per year. The 777-300ER also has a significantly larger belly-cargo capacity compared to the 747-400. Reportedly, the A350-900XWB is even more fuel-efficient, with an efficiency rate of up to 20% lower than the Boeing 777-300ER.

2 China Airlines Boeing 747-400 at Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport
2 China Airlines Boeing 747-400 at Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport

China Airlines has had a successful medium/short-range fleet plan but a disastrous long-haul fleet plan. The Airbus A330-300 and Boeing 737-800 are extremely economical and the carrier is still placing orders for more of the kinds. The Boeing 747-400 and Airbus A340-300 are, however, in serious needs of being replaced. While both are uneconomical, the A340-300 is even worse due to its lower capacity and worse in-flight performance. The cargo fleet plan wasn’t successful either. The 747-400F was initially a great addition to the fleet and helped China Airlines Cargo become one of the largest cargo airlines in the world. However, ever since the global recession and the rise of smaller personal electronic devices (e.g. smart phones), the airline has been having troubles filling up its freighter jets. China Airlines Cargo has sent 3 747-400Fs to Victorville, an aircraft boneyard, for storage as a result. China Airlines currently operates 34 Boeing 747-400s, including 13 passenger-versions and 21 cargo-versions. The airline was the last customer of the passenger version 747-400. B-18215 was the last passenger 747-400 built and delivered in 2005.

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