““[Bill Gates] has been historically one of my best supporters…One of my favorite e-mails he ever sent me…I proposed this crazy project. And he sent back this two-line response: ‘This has got to be the craziest thing you’ve ever suggested. Please proceed.’” ”
Step right up and take advantage of the four-engine fire sale.
Welcome, buyers, to our bargain-filled used-airplane lot and aviation emporium. Have you ever wanted your own late-model, four-engine jumbo jet so you could fly practically anywhere in the world unrefueled? We’re talking 9,900 nautical miles nonstop on one bag of gas. That’s 1,200 nautical miles farther than Singapore to New York—trips so long you’ll need three flight crews.
Have you ever wanted an airplane so massive that you could bring along your spouse, all your friends and relations, dozens of children, their nannies, tutors, your butler, cooks, valets, stewards, footmen, personal aides, security staff, translators, deputy ministers, a dozen pesky reporters and all their truckloads of stuff? With room inside for an elevator, three kitchens with ovens big enough to roast a whole goat, a fully equipped operating room and a secure communications suite in the cargo hold?
Of course you have. But perhaps you’ve been held back by the price—up to $400 million for a new airplane with luxury interior. If so, we’ve got good news for you here on the lot, where we’re going to sell you a barely used, late-model Airbus A340 jumbo quad jet that can do everything you want not for $250 million, not even for $100 million—no, not even for $50 million. We’re going to let you have this airplane for a mere $20 million.
How can we do it? Read on.
When Airbus launched the A340 in 1991, the wholesale price of a gallon of jet-A fuel was 55 cents. In February 2014 it was $2.97. However, it spiked at $3.89 in July 2008, and that’s when the world’s airlines began parking their A340s and shortening their routes to enable them to use more fuel-efficient twinjets such as the Airbus A330 and Boeing 777. Today, more than 50 A340s are in storage.
Airbus shut down the A340 production line in 2011 after 377 were made. The bulk of these (218) are Dash 300 series—fitted in airline configuration with seating for up to 295 passengers and a range of 6,700 nautical miles.
Values of used A340s are still plunging, even though they’re well equipped, relatively new and burn only marginally more fuel than comparable twinjets. But for airlines, pennies count, sometimes disproportionately, occasionally illogically.
This is how crazy it has become: the A330 twinjet and A340 share a fuselage, have nearly identical wings and carry about the same number of passengers. Indeed, the aircraft were developed in tandem and use many of the same parts. Nevertheless, an A330 of identical vintage sells for up to four times as much as an A340, simply because it burns slightly less fuel. (However, new-generation widebody twinjets such as Airbus’s 350XWB and the Boeing 787 are up to 30 percent more fuel efficient than an A340.) Airline actuaries are focused on only one formula: four engines = bad.
I disagree. Most of the world remains covered with water and a twinjet traversing it is governed by the doctrine of ETOPS, or extended-range twin operations, something of a complex formula with a simple implication: if one of the two engines quits or a major aircraft system fails, you likely will be required to divert to an airport that is not your destination. And there’s a long list of countries near large bodies of water where you wouldn’t want to do this if you are a wealthy or high-profile individual. With four engines, you could continue to your destination at the pilot’s discretion.
“You can do more with four,” quips David Velupillai, the marketing director for Airbus Corporate Jets.
Because of the huge price chasm between a twin widebody and the A340, the extra—fuel—burn argument is a non-starter. Assuming you pay full retail for fuel, an A340 carries direct operating costs of around $14,000 an hour on the Dash 200s and $21,000 an hour on the long-range Series 500. One in private hands would be unlikely to be used even 400 hours per year. And Airbus and engine-maker Rolls-Royce are working diligently to bring costs down. Rolls recently announced an improved support program and engine modifications designed to cut maintenance expenses and reduce fuel burns to levels that rival those of a twinjet widebody.
Airbus, on the hook for potentially $2 billion in resale price guarantees on the A340, is moving to end the fire sale by attempting to get the airplane approved to carry up to 475 passengers, about 35 more than its current capacity in airline configuration. Doing that requires removal of the mid-cabin galley and lavatory and it remains to be seen how many airlines will find that option attractive—their passengers certainly will not.
A340s will never return to robust resale prices, but for those who want a truly insane discount, time may be running out.
A340s come in four main variants—the Dash 200, 300, 500 and 600 models—starting with footprints that are nearly 200 feet long and a wingspan of almost 200 feet and proceeding to 247 feet long and a wingspan of 208 feet, with maximum takeoff weights of 606,000 to 840,000 pounds.
Outfitted in mixed-class configuration, the A340-200 came fitted to carry 240 to 261 passengers with a range of 8,100 nautical miles; both it and the slightly larger A340-300 are powered by CFM56 engines, with maximum thrust levels of 25,000 to 34,000 each. Both models of aircraft have been fitted for VVIP usage, with the latter being operated by the German government. The larger A340-500 and 600 variants are powered by the Rolls-Royce Trent series 500 engines, with 54,000 pounds of thrust each. The 500 was the world’s longest-range commercial aircraft at its introduction in 2002, able to carry 313 passengers 8,650 nautical miles; in VVIP configuration that range can be increased to 9,900 nautical miles. At just over 247 feet, the 600 remains one of the world’s longest airliners, and it can carry 379 passengers 7,500 nautical miles.
Both the 500 and 600 are so massive that they have cameras to help pilots navigate during ground taxi. Airbus made 28 Dash 200s, 218 Dash 300s, 34 Dash 500s and 97 Dash 600s. Due to their range, the 500s appear to be the most desirable aircraft for conversion to VVIP configuration, a process that can take up to two years and—depending on the opulence of material selection and features—cost more than $100 million.
However, Airbus has developed a refurbishment option called Gala that considerably reduces the cost and time of this conversion by limiting its scope to the section of the aircraft between fuselage doors two and three—still a big chunk of real estate, but not as big an endeavor as recompleting the entire aircraft. “If you limit the VIP bit to the middle of the aircraft, you can have it more cost effectively and easily” and still have room to carry guests and support staff in airline first, business and economy classes, points out Airbus’s Velupillai. With Gala, the principal still gets a private lav, bedroom, office and conference area.
Airbus doesn’t do the work itself, but will assist customers in finding a qualified completion center and provide engineering and project-management services. So if you need to span the globe in the style of a potentate while saving tens of millions of dollars, the A340 may be just the ticket.
But you’d better hurry, folks. At these prices, they won’t last long.
Mark Huber is a private pilot with experience in more than 50 aircraft models.
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