Since the 1950s Japan has had a mutually dependent relationship with US aircraft manufacturers. Japanese airlines bought US aircraft and gradually Boeing, Lockheed and McDonnell Douglas built relationships with Japanese aerospace firms like Mitsubishi Heavy Industries who supply many of the aircraft's components. This is reinforced naturally by the Japanese tendency to build long term relationships based heavily upon loyalty and obligation. In this atmosphere it is no surprise that it wasn't until 2013 that Japan Airlines broke its reliance on US aircraft and purchased A350s. However this wasn't the first time that Airbus had competed for a JAL order.
In 1987 Japan Air Lines was privatised and ordering huge fleets of new Boeing aircraft. In fact the orderbook stretched to include no less than 74 Boeing 747-400s. At the time JAL had just taken the drastic step of breaking one of its long term relationships by foregoing the use of Pratt & Whitney engines to power the new jumbos. JAL had had a sole supplier relationship with P&W for engines for years, but supply chain issues eventually forced it to switch to General Electric instead. This was a major break for JAL though not as major as having chosen Rolls-Royce would have been.
In this environment of growth and change at JAL Airbus no doubt sensed an opportunity and went up against McDonnell Douglas' MD-11 with its, at the time paper aeroplane, the A330. The MD-11 was to be the first of the new generation large widebodies into service and JAL was looking for a replacement for its 16 Dc-10-40s to be delivered between 1993 and 1998. The competition was tough with the performance of the Airbus plane no doubt up against JAL's strong loyalty to the USA and its unproven status. In the end the outcome was as expected and in March 1990 Japan Air Lines ordered 10 MD-11s with 10 further options.
The MD-11 struggled for sales off the back of failing to meet its performance guarantees and strong competition from the newer twinjet designs that gradually came onto the market. It is telling that when JAL was looking for further aircraft in the same size range only the next year that they ordered 10 777-200s with 10 further options. This was November 1991 with the Boeing twinjet not available at the time of the MD-11 order. Bizarrely for this order Airbus wasn't even asked to bid.
The MD-11 had a short and undistinguished career in passenger service and most airlines sold on their aircraft quite quickly for conversion into freighters, which the MD-11 to its credit was perfect for. The trijet layout was just not as efficient as the twinjets whilst performance problems were never entirely solved and the aircraft suffered a poor reputation for handling on landing. It was only 3 years after last delivery that JAL annuounced, in November 2000, a deal with Boeing to replace the 230-300 seater MD-11s with 8 777-200ERs seating 300-350 and 2 767-300Ers seating 240. The deal involved trading in the MD-11s to Boeing for freighter conversion and meant that JAL had to buy out the leases of the 8 non-owned aircraft.
The MD-11s began to leave the fleet in August 2002 and only one frame, JA8582, would survive to wear the new "Arc of the Sun" livery. This aircraft performed its last revenue service on October 12, 2004 flying from Hong Kong to Tokyo Narita. All of the aircraft would join UPS with whom they still serve. In a twist of fate the decision to replace JAL's DC-10s wasn't taken until June 2001, again with further 767s and 777s. This was probably a reflection of the value of the MD-11s on the seconds market rather than a statement of them vis a vis the DC-10s. This did however mean that rather perversly the DC-10 survived in the JAL fleet for longer than the younger MD-11s, indeed the last DC-10 (JA8541) didn't fly its last service (Seoul-Tokyo) until October 31, 2005.
The MD-11 was a beautiful aircraft but not the right choice for JAL and it is interesting to think whether A330s would still be in JAL service today if the order had gone the other way. Nevertheless the J-Birds looked the part and helped JAL into the 2000s.
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
I'm Richard Stretton: a fan of classic airliners and airlines who enjoys exploring their history through my collection of die-cast airliners. If you enjoy the site please donate whatever you can to help keep it running: