Plenty of time and energy goes into developing an aircraft, but that doesn’t always translate into sales.
Despite the hopes and intentions of aircraft manufacturers, aircraft variants sometimes fall short in terms of sales and orders. There are two big reasons a particular aircraft variant could be a poor seller: A poor or inaccurate assessment of the market by the company, or a competing planemaker simply offers a better product. Sometimes these factors are combined with poor timing, and an aircraft’s development timeline is just a few years – or a decade – later than would have been ideal. So what are some of the less popular airframes developed by Airbus and Boeing? Today we look at a handful of examples.
To keep our list manageable, we’ll only go back as far back as the 1980s and focus on aircraft variants that took in orders for less than 40 airframes. There were, of course, poor-selling aircraft before the 80s, and there are a few other types of aircraft that sold a few more units but are also considered poor sellers. It’s also worth noting that we won’t be including military variants, as those sales figures are expected to be relatively low compared to their commercial passenger counterparts.
The Airbus A330-200F: 38 ordered
The passenger variant of the A330-200 entered into service with the airline ‘Canada 3000’ in 1998, four years after the A330-300 began flying commercially. However, it was more than 10 years before the A330-200F would take its first flight in advance of entering service in 2010.
With just 38 units ordered, the A330-200F was far less popular than its closest Boeing rival, the 767-300F, which to date, has accumulated orders for 280 aircraft. The A330-200 freighter had a maximum payload of 61 tonnes and a maximum take-off weight (MTOW) of 233 tonnes. According to Airbus, the jet is capable of flying up to 7400 km, or 4000 NM. Meanwhile, the aircraft’s Boeing competitor offered a maximum payload of 52.7 tonnes with an MTOW of 185 tonnes. At its maximum payload, the jet is stated to have a range of 6,025 km or 3,225 NM.
So with the ability to offer more capacity and fly further, why was this Airbus freighter such a poor seller? Some postulate that the jet was heavier than ideal to fly short-haul missions, but at the same time failed to have sufficient range for long-haul flights. For comparison, the larger Boeing 777F has a range of 9,038 km, or 4,880 NM. As one contributor on airliners.net noted, “it is slightly bigger than the 767, but much heavier and of course more expensive, takes up as much ramp space as a 777F, but can barely fly across the Atlantic.”
With the first 767-300F entering service in the early 80s, and the first 777F following in 2009, it may well be that Boeing was able to dominate this market before Airbus could offer something close to being competitive. Notable operators of the A330-200F over the years include Etihad, Qatar Airways, Malaysia Airlines, and Avianca. Turkish Airlines was the largest single customer of this freighter aircraft, having ordered nine.
Get all the latest aviation news right here on Simple Flying
The Boeing 767-400ER: 38 produced
Tied for last place on our list, development of the Boeing 767-400ER began in January 1997 through a technical assistance agreement between Boeing and the former Douglas Aircraft Company. This stretched variant of the 767-300ER offered increased passenger capacity and improved operating economics. The aircraft entered revenue service in 2001 with Delta Air Lines, with its inaugural flight taking passengers between New York’s LaGuardia Airport and Florida’s Fort Lauderdale Hollywood International Airport.
According to Boeing, the 767-400ER is 6.4 meters (21 feet) longer than the 767-300ER. The wing span of this variant is also increased by 4.35 meters (14 ft 3 in) over its ‘smaller sibling’. The larger size and higher capacity meant that the -400ER had a maximum takeoff weight that was 38,000 lb (17,240 kg) more than the -300ER.
So why was this stretched 767 variant such a poor seller? The jet’s lack of sales could be blamed on the A330-200, which had entered service three years earlier, in 1998. The Airbus widebody, with its slightly longer airframe, was close enough in size but also offered more capacity with a better range. An extended-range 767-400ERX would be offered later, but this project would eventually be canceled.
While Boeing data shows that 59 767-400s would be ordered, many of these orders would be canceled or swapped. In the end, 37 would be produced for just three customers: Delta Air Lines, Continental Airlines, and United Airlines. With the latter two carriers merging, there are now just two operators. Delta has 21 in its fleet while United has 16. With 38 of these airframes built, the one standout jet was built as a military testbed (E-10A prototype) but then sold as a VIP transport. This jet is still listed as active with Bahrain Royal Flight.
A340-200 (28) & A340-500 (34)
While other A340 variants fared better, the -200 and -500 versions of the Airbus quadjet weren’t so lucky. While the A340 program overall was a case of bad timing in light of evolving ETOPs (twin-engine) regulations, some variants were far less attractive than others.
With just 28 airframes built, the A340-200 was considered too heavy in relation to the number of passengers it could accommodate. Indeed, the jet had a maximum seating capacity of 420 with an MTOW of 275 tonnes. Entering service in 1993, the jet’s sales were diminished with Boeing’s offering of the 777-200. The twinjet had a maximum capacity of 440 passengers with an MTOW of 247 tonnes. So while the A340 came to market first, the economics of Boeing’s upcoming offering, which entered service in 1995, was just too attractive for airlines to pass up. Lufthansa, Air France, and South African Airways would be the largest operators of the A340-200.
It’s a similar story for the A340-200’s larger sibling, the A340-500, which attracted orders for just 34 airframes. Accommodating a maximum of 440 passengers, this stretched quadjet was designed for ultra-long-range service, with its four engines meant to adhere to emergency diversion requirements of the time. Already meant to serve a fairly niche segment of the market, the jet would eventually be outmatched by the superior economics of the twin-engine 777-200LR, which could accommodate the same number of passengers. Emirates and Singapore Airlines would be the main operators of the ultra-long-range A340 variant.
“Both were intended to shake the world up but were almost obsolete as soon as they entered service,” recounts an ex-Airbus employee. A member of the planemaker’s marketing team at the time, the source tells Simple Flying that Airbus was well aware of the monumental task they had in terms of marketing the A340.
With the ‘C’ standing for ‘convertible,’ 737-700C offered a cabin that could be converted relatively quickly into different configurations. Featuring a large door on the left side of the aircraft, the jet was able to accommodate various combinations of both passengers and cargo. While the jet was offered to the commercial aviation market, the -200C’s launch customer was actually the US Navy, which had ordered 17. According to 737.org.uk, this program was launched in 1997 but only ever attracted three civilian customers: Two -700Cs were delivered to Saudi Aramco, one went to Angolan airline SonAir, and another two went to Air Algerie. In total, 22 of these airframes were ordered.
The 737-700ER is a fairly interesting case. Not featuring as a separate variant in Boeing’s orders and deliveries data, this extended-range -700 saw Japan’s All Nippon Airways (ANA) as its launch customer in 2006. Fitted with auxiliary fuel tanks, the aircraft was apparently developed purely to satisfy the needs of ANA. According to FlightGlobal, this modified -700 was fitted with -800 based wings and nine auxiliary tanks. This provided the jet with a maximum range of 10,200 km (5,510 NM) – nearly double the range of the base -700! Entering service in 2007, it appears that only two of the type were ever produced. Key.Aero notes that the pair of jets were used for special all-premium services between Tokyo and Mumbai, somewhat reminiscent of British Airways’ now-discontinued Airbus A318 service between London City and New York JFK.
Two 747-400 variants
While the iconic 747-400 was, in general, a wild success with full-service, long-haul legacy carriers, two of the type’s variants were far too niche to gain wider acceptance. Those two variants are the 747-400D, which had orders for 19 airframes, and the 747-400ER, with only six produced.
Created specifically for the Japanese market for short-haul, high-density routes, the 747-400D had the same dimensions as the 747-400, but was configured internally to carry up to 660 passengers in a single class. To make room for so many passengers, the upper deck galley was removed in favor of more rows of economy seats. The -400D also lacked the winglets found on other aircraft because the fuel efficiencies would not be realized over such short missions. There would only be two customers for this short-haul 747 variant: Japan Airlines and ANA.
As for the 747-400 variant on the opposite end of the mission-profile-spectrum, the 747-400ER was developed to satisfy Qantas’ desire for an extended-range jumbo jet. “Dating back to their first jet airplanes in the 1950s, Qantas has always urged Boeing to provide more range,” said Boeing’s Toby Bright when the first Qantas 747-400ER landed in 2002. Like the -400D, the -400ER was the same size as the standard 747-400. However, the variant featured one auxiliary fuel tank in the forward cargo hold as well as a strengthened fuselage, landing gear, and wings. The jet was also fitted with larger tires, presumably to handle its increased weight. Qantas would be the only customer for the 747-400ER.
The Airbus A330-800
Stepping into the latest generation of aircraft for a moment, the Airbus A330-800 has thus far been a poor seller with orders for just 11 airframes. Spread out across just four airlines, the customers include Kuwait Airways, Uganda Airlines, Air Greenland, and Garuda Indonesia. At this point it’s difficult to tell if more orders for this shorter A330neo variant will trickle in. In a worst-case scenario, Airbus may only ever produce just seven airframes – as Garuda Indonesia’s order for four remains unfilled amid the airline’s financial difficulties. Garuda, which is now billions of dollars in debt, ordered the -800 in 2021. However, numerous stories have emerged over the last two years covering the airline’s plans to restructure and reduce its outstanding orders.
The Airbus A330-800 should be a strong seller. After all, the jet is a more efficient update of the identically-sized A330-200 – which has accumulated orders for 664 airframes. The jet offers exceptional commonality with older A330 variants, as well as the -900. While optimists will assert that it’s just a matter of time, and that airlines will eventually need to replace those aging A330-200s, others will offer reasons for the A330-800’s lack of success. To some, the aircraft offers more range than is needed, while for others the longer -900 offers better economics. As we noted in a previous article, the A330-900 per-seat cost is 13% lower than the -800. So, while the A330-800 objectively is a little more fuel efficient and can fly further, the -900’s increased capacity allows airlines to accommodate more passengers and generate more revenue, with near-negligible additional costs. Another explanation is that the Boeing 787-8 came out first and has thus stolen a lot of the demand for the A330-800.
The Airbus A350-900ULR
Similar to ANA’s request for the 737-700ER and Qantas’ request for a 747-400ER, Singapore Airlines wanted an extended-range variant of the Airbus A350. Airbus responded by developing the A350-900ULR – an aircraft which Airbus says integrates a modified fuel system, “which increases the aircraft’s fuel carrying capacity by 24,000 litres without the need for additional fuel tanks.” In addition to the ability to carry more fuel, Singapore Airlines’ premium-only configuration ensures the jets can go the full distance needed. In total, Singapore Airlines would take just seven A350-900ULRs.
The “winner”: One order for the Boeing 757-200M
The ‘M’ suffix in 757-200M has been Boeing’s way of indicating that an aircraft is a ‘combi’ aircraft. This means that the main deck is split between passengers and cargo. The 757-200M featured a large, side cargo door towards the front of the left side to enable loading of freight. Nepal Airlines’ 757-200M was unique in the sense that it was the only 757 specifically ordered as a Combi. Nepal Airlines took delivery of this aircraft in September 1988 after ordering it in February 1986. Now retired, the aircraft bore the registration 9N-ACB.
Again, the variant’s extremely niche role in simultaneously moving smaller amounts cargo and passengers limited its appeal. Moving more passengers and more freight across longer distances, its ‘bigger brother,’ the 747-400M at least managed to rack up orders for over 60 airframes. Retired in 2018, Planespotters.net currently notes that the jet is due to go to CSDS Aircraft Sales and Leasing in the United States.
There are certainly other aircraft variants that performed poorly in terms of sales. Indeed, it’s a sliding scale and it’s difficult to find a good place to draw the line. However, we should make honorable mentions of a few other aircraft.
The A319neo is still struggling to “gain altitude,” as it has only racked up orders for 91 jets. This is only slightly better than its older and shorter sibling, the A318, which saw orders for 81 airframes. On the Boeing side, the non-extended-range version of the 737-900 only saw orders for 52. 61 777-200LRs were ordered and 60 for the non-extended-range 777-300. Finally, for the last passenger variant of the Queen of the Skies, just 48 were produced.
Although less popular, which of these variants is your favorite? Which of these jets do you think should have performed better in terms of sales? Let us know by leaving a comment!
Sources: Planespotters.net, 737.org.uk, FlightGlobal, Key.Aero