For many years Japan Air Lines was a closed shop in terms of aircraft purchasing and engines. Douglas or Boeing for the former and Pratt & Whitney for the latter. Indeed they were one of only a handful of airlines to equip their DC-10s with Pratts. So a late 80s competition for new aircraft was always likely to go to the USA, however Airbus were close runners up and in hindsight would have perhaps been the better option.
'We are overjoyed they will buy our planes,' said Yasutoshi Msuzawa, president of McDonnell Douglas Japan as you'd expect. It does however seem they were lucky. JAL's operations managers preferred the Airbus and it was a last minute decision to instead stick with tradition and remain loyal to the US supplier - one that they would probably come to regret. JAL's then president Susumu Yamaji wrote an apologetic letter to Airbus saying “It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve had to make”.
Nonetheless JAL remained committed to the MD-11s and in July 1991, showing that again it was beholden to its past relationships reverted back to Pratt & Whitney to provide the engines for the new trijets, in the form of PW4460s. The first MD-11 joined the JAL fleet on May 11, 1993 registered JA8580. Only two of JAL's MD-11s were actually purchased with the other 8 being leased from various sources. The ten options for the type were dropped and the MD-11 deliveries stretched into April 1997 when the tenth and final frame (JA8589) arrived. Interestingly the MD-11s (and 767s) did not replace the DC-10 fleet which continued in service and even grew to 20, with aircraft returned from Japan Asia Airways, in 1997.
Left: A JAL phonecard
Despite any misgivings JAL was keen to show off its new MD-11s, which each gained its own individual identity based upon Japan's native fauna. The J-Birds, as they were known, were named after a Japanese bird and had a visual representation of the bird painted onto their large wingtips. JA8581 as shown with this Dragon model was named after the Fairy Pitta a small colourful bird of dense undergrowth. Here is the full list:
JA8580 - Tufted Puffin
JA8581 - Fairy Pitta
JA8582 - Red-Crowned Crane
JA8583 - Golden Eagle
JA8584 - Okinawa Rail
JA8585 - Hodgson's Hawk Eagle
JA8586 - White Stork
JA8587 - Pryer's Woodpecker
JA8588 - White Tailed Sea Eagle
JA8589 - Rock Ptarmigan
Aircraft detail: MD-11. Japan Airlines
Japan Airlines history timeline. Japan Airlines
1990. JAL picks McDonnell Douglas over Airbus. UPI Archives
1991. JAL Chooses Pratt & Whitney for MD-11s. Chicago Tribune
1991. Boeing adds JAL to 777 customers. Flight Global
2001. JAL takes giant step in fleet renewal. Flight Global
2013. JAL's Airbus deal good for Japan. Orient Aviation.com