The battle for the skies is not just restricted to waves of fighters and bombers being thrown at each other until one side is more dead than the other, especially as we continue through the 21st Century. Ever since man first took to the air an even more vicious battle involving espionage, corruption, market trends, efficiency and price has been waged, that being the battle for the best commercial airliner.
Today, airliner construction has been narrowed and rationalised to the point where only a small handful of manufacturers remain. Like all forms of evolution it was survival of the fittest and therefore only few would prevail from the onslaught of cutthroat competition while attempting to satisfy the needs of customers and stakeholders.
Therefore, I’ll be counting down the Top 22 commercial airliners which failed to cut the mustard in the eyes of prospective carriers. Please note that I won’t be including aircraft of the Soviet Union on this list as these were handicapped by the constraints on their market as well as trade embargoes.
22. Lockheed L-1011 Tristar (250 units)
The L-1011 Tristar seemed to be doomed from the start. A complicated development phase coupled to the bankruptcy of its sole engine provider, Rolls-Royce, meant that confidence in the aircraft was low from very early on. This was followed by the aircraft being deemed too complex for the needs of most airlines, forcing Lockheed to take drastic and highly illegal measures to get their plane sold.
The result was the company bribing Japanese officials, including the then Prime Minister, to get the L-1011 into the fleet of All Nippon Airways. When this was discovered it caused a major scandal which further damaged the reputation of the Tristar.
In a last ditch attempt, Lockheed began talks with the Soviet Union to have license-built versions of the aircraft constructed in communist Russia for the Soviet national carrier Aeroflot. However, this concept was nipped in the bud when then US President Jimmy Carter placed a trade embargo on the USSR due to human rights violations, destroying any chance of the L-1011 being built and sold in Russia.
The Tristar struggled on until 1983, when it finally and unceremoniously left production. By 2000, most had been retired from service and became common and prominent features in the scrapyards of the world.
21. McDonnell Douglas MD-11 (200 Units)
The MD-11 upgraded the twenty year old design of the controversial Douglas DC-10 in order to make a Trijet that would outperform rival twinjets like the Boeing 767 and Airbus A300. While initial sales were successful, Boeing and Airbus quickly struck back with new models of superior performance, equal capacity and greater efficiency, including the Airbus A330 and Boeing 767-300ER.
Furthermore, the 1990 launch of the MD-11 came little over a year after the devastating crash of United Airlines Flight 232; involving a preceding Douglas DC-10. When investigators found that the problem was traced to the aircraft’s tail-mounted engine, the many questions of safety regarding trijets which had tarnished their reputation back in the 1970’s were once again raised, putting the MD-11 in a dim light.
However, it was the 1995 launch of the Boeing 777 which saw the MD-11’s sales fall off a cliff, the aircraft making a huge loss which eventually saw McDonnell Douglas forced to merge with longtime rivals Boeing. The MD-11 continued to sell following the merger in 1997, but only in its freight configuration. Eventually, McDonnell Douglas and, by extension, the MD-11 were discontinued in 2000 when Boeing decided that it would avoid internal competition between it and the Boeing 777, bringing an end to the last of the classic Trijets.
20. Boeing 720 (154 units)
The Boeing 720’s only notable features against the pioneering Boeing 707 off which it was based were its smaller size and lower weight, making it the company’s first domestic jet airliner. While the 720 could land and take off from shorter runways, its inefficient four-engined design coupled with its somewhat large size meant it wasn’t ideal for smaller airports, these being lost to either rival jets like the BAC 1-11 and DC-9 or were kept in the hands of propeller planes.
However, the aircraft proved to be merely a stopgap until the company created the revolutionary Boeing 727, their first purpose-built short-to-medium range jet airliner. Upon the 727’s launch in 1963, the 720 was put out to pasture before quickly fading into obscurity by the end of the decade.
19. Hawker Siddeley Trident (117 units)
The world’s first three-engined passenger jet airliner, but its pioneering nature didn’t guarantee it success. The Trident’s main party-piece was the inclusion of a highly advanced Automatic Landing System, the first of its kind ever fitted to an aircraft.
While this allowed the Trident to land during conditions which would leave other aircraft grounded, such as the common ‘Pea-Souper’ fogs at London Heathrow, this system was incredibly expensive and difficult to maintain. Couple that with the aircraft’s somewhat tepid performance and the launch of the comparatively simple but much cheaper to use Boeing 727 a year later and the Trident was thrashed in terms of sales.
The aircraft was designed for and primarily sold to British European Airways, though this was due largely to the nationalised carrier’s obligation to buy UK built aircraft. BEA attempted to buy Boeing 737’s instead of Tridents during 1968, but were forced to continue buying Tridents by the UK government until they left production in 1978.
Unlike the 727, of which many still fly in revenue earning service, the Trident had largely disappeared by the end of the 1980’s, retired to the quiet life of a museum piece after only, at most, 25 years of service.
18. De Havilland Comet (114 units)
It’s hard to be a trailblazer, but the De Havilland Comet sadly suffered the fate of so many pioneers in that it took on all the problems with tragic consequences.
However, even before the terrible Comet crashes of 1953 and 1954, the aircraft was struggling to sell to begin with. Confidence in jet airliners, at a time when they truly were cutting edge, was not exactly at its peak. Therefore, early Comets only really sold to British carriers such as BOAC or to airlines associated with the UK including South African Airways and Air Canada.
However, any attempt to become a slow burning sales success was crushed when Comets started plunging from the sky due to a then unknown phenomenon named Metal Fatigue. The Comet’s square windows, while very scenic, were not structurally sound. This, combined with the development of microscopic cracks caused by constant pressurisation and depressurisation of the cabin during flights, was a recipe for disaster.
Though the Comet was eventually redesigned with the more modern oval windows, it was far too late. The Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8 leapt onto the stage in 1958, the same year as the revised Comet made its debut. As such, the Comet was doomed to fail and barely sold another aircraft until production ended in 1964. By the end of the decade most large carriers had opted for 707’s and DC-8’s and those aircraft which were sold quickly found themselves redundant.
17. Boeing 747-300 (81 units)
The Boeing 747-300 was envisioned as a gradual evolution of the 747 range from the 747-200 of the 1970’s, including a larger airframe, improved performance and advanced avionics. However, the -300 turned out to be a prime example of the left hand not knowing what the right is doing.
When the 747-300 was being developed, the bright sparks at Boeing were also developing the 747-400, one of the most advanced airliners in the world and an aircraft which could easily outperform its predecessors. At the same time, the 747-200 was a perfectly capable aircraft and selling well regardless of the Energy Crisis or airline deregulation. Therefore one wonders why the 747-300 even had to exist.
Upon the announcement of the 747-400 project in 1984, with a scheduled date for first deliveries in 1989, the 747-300 of 1982 was left high and dry in terms of sales. Most airlines either held on for the -400 or stuck with the tried and tested -200, all while the -300 was left to languish with mediocre sales and eventually left production even before the nearly 20 year old 747-200 it was meant to replace.
Today, barely any 747-300’s are left in service, most being replaced by 747-400’s by the end of the 1990’s.
16. Airbus A318 (80 units)
The Airbus A318 was to be the company’s answer to the regional jet. A small design and comparatively low weight meant the aircraft could fly into smaller airfields so as to eat up the lucrative inner city airport market. At the same time, Boeing had proposed the 737-600, an aircraft of similar dimensions that would compete with the A318 for this role.
However, both of these companies failed to take into account the fact that regional jet airliners such as the BAe 146, the Embraer ERJ-135 and the Bombardier CRJ series already existed and were selling like hotcakes. The primary attraction of these regional jets over the A318 and 737-600 were their Short Take-Off and Landing (STOL) capabilities, which meant they could easily access small regional fields and inner city airports easily and efficiently. These aircraft were also comparatively quiet, ideal for suiting the noise abatement issues which surrounded city-based airports.
By comparison, the large and lumbering A318 could only take-off from certain airports on half a tank of fuel, as is the case today with the British Airways elite flights out of London City. Therefore, this small aircraft which cost just as much to operate and maintain as the larger A319 and A320 was not seen to have any real commercial value, especially in the post-9/11 world where seating the most passengers as possible is paramount.
As such, the A318 was decimated in terms of sales. The few major operators, such as Frontier Airlines, who bought the aircraft have since retired them after only 5 to 8 years in service. The real tragedy is that because the A318 is seen as such a worthless venture, most of these nearly new aircraft are more valuable as parts donors for other aircraft in the A320 range, therefore being stripped down and scrapped when they’re far from life-expired.
15. Boeing 737-600 (69 units)
Much like the A318 above, the 737-600 attempted to worm its way into the hearts of regional carriers for flights into smaller airfields. However, at the same running costs as larger 737’s but with a lower capacity, the 737-600 suffered even worse than the A318 in terms of sales.
The 737-600 really did have no appeal whatsoever, being too small for trunk routes, too noisy and expensive for small regional hops, and being too large for STOL work. The result was an aircraft no one wanted, becoming a complete and utter sales bomb.
14. Convair 880 (65 units)
During the early days of jet aviation, it was an absolute free for all among aircraft manufacturers to build a jet-powered commercial airliner that would conquer the world. As such, a myriad of different designs rocked up, ranging from the highly successful but very simplistic design of the Douglas DC-8 and the Boeing 707, to the extremely complex and undeniably niche Vickers VC10. However, Convair didn’t want to miss out, and decided that their unique selling point was to be faster than its rivals.
The Convair 880 was the world’s fastest subsonic jet airliner, with a top speed of 615mph that easily outdid the 707 and the DC-8. To do this, they simply designed a smaller fuselage and fitted it with four hugely powerful turbofan engines that were so inefficient that they’d make modern-day environmentalists weep. Aside from the noise and huge exhaust smoke expelled by these powerplants, their fuel consumption was utterly atrocious, which compromised the aircraft’s range. The result was a comparatively small jet airliner that could overtake everything but had to stop for fuel at least once on a transcontinental U.S. flight. While the aircraft’s speed left the likes of the 707 and the DC-8 in the dust, they still possessed both greater range and greater capacity, which meant that in the time it took for the 880 to sit on the ground being refuelled, Boeing’s tortoise could catch up with Convair’s hare.
The result was a sales calamity, the 880 only being operated for a short period by mainstream carriers before being largely retired from passenger service by 1975.
13. British Aerospace ATP (64 units)
By the time the BAe ATP showed up to the STOL turboprop party in the late 1980’s, all the guests had long since gone and the caretaker was stacking chairs!
The ATP (Advanced Turbo Prop) was the last of the four primary STOL turboprops which quickly became the face of regional aviation; the Dash 8, the ATR-42, the Fokker 50 and finally the ATP. By the time this aircraft attempted to replicate the success of its predecessor, the HS.748, it was over four years later than the highly successful ATR and 5 years later than the Dash 8.
Couple that with a design that was as fresh and technologically advanced as a toothbrush from the Ming Dynasty, and you’ve got Britain’s last ever turboprop.
12. Vickers VC10 (54 units)
The VC10’s failure, much like the Trident, came from the fact that it was far too specialist for the appeal of most airlines. The aircraft had been created to take on the Boeing 707 and attempt to regain the footing of the British aviation industry after the Comet disasters.
The main feature of the VC10 was its performance, being faster than the 707 and DC-8, but also being able to fly into tedious Hot and High airports such as Singapore and Nairobi. The VC10 was essentially purpose built for BOAC’s Empire routes to what were then UK colonies, but this is where problems start.
The inflexibility, inefficiency and expense of the VC10 meant that BOAC, the company the aircraft had been designed for, refused outright to purchase them. It was only because the company was nationalized and therefore at the whim of the UK government that eventually, after much haranguing, they took on a small fleet of the troubled airliners. However, BOAC got their own back by supplementing their VC10 fleet with Boeing 707’s.
Regardless, in the face of requiring at least 80 units to be built in order to make its money back, only 54 ever left the factory; a huge commercial failure for Vickers which eventually led to the marque being dropped in 1965.
11. Boeing 737-900 (52 units)
The original 737-900 of 1997 appeared at the outset to be a good aircraft ruined.
The longest variant of the Boeing 737 family, the aircraft was comparable to the Boeing 757 and, most importantly, the Airbus A321. However, while it filled the capacity quota perfectly, Boeing, for whatever reason, chose not to give the aircraft the range it deserved to make it a viable aircraft.
The result was abysmal sales as airlines saw no interest in buying a large aircraft which was too impractical for short hops, instead opting to buy either A321’s or 757’s instead. The only examples of the original 737-900 to be sold went to airlines which used them on short-to-medium haul high-capacity routes, such as Alaska Airlines services down the highly lucrative West Coast of America.
Order was restored though when in 2007 Boeing finally gave the 737-900 the range it needed in the form of the -900ER (Extended Range). Now the aircraft could easily match the A321 and would also go on to be a suitable replacement for the outgoing Boeing 757. Today, the 737-900ER is one of the hottest selling aircraft in Boeing’s lineup, having sold 510 in its first twelve years of production.
10. Boeing 747-8I (47 units as of April 2018)
The latest generation of the classic Boeing 747, but at the rate it’s going it’ll most likely be the last.
The 747-8I is the long awaited replacement for the Boeing 747-400, which left production in 2005 for passenger and 2009 for freight. The 747-8 comes in two versions, a freight version which made its debut in 2011 and a passenger version known as the Intercontinental (hence the -8I) in 2012.
However, while the 747-8F is selling reasonably well, the 747-8I has been absolutely trounced in the sales department. When compared to the first five years of production for the 747-400, this model sold 257 passenger units between its launch in 1989 to 1994. The 747-8I on the other hand, between its launch in 2012 and 2017, had only sold 47. Such was the lack of demand for the 747-8I that production has been slowed to only half-an-aircraft per month, while many completed units have been placed in protective storage waiting for a buyer.
The main issue for the 747-8I is that nowadays a slew of highly efficient, wide-body twinjets, such as the Boeing 777, 787 and Airbus A330 and A350XWB, have largely replaced the concept of Jumbo Jets as high-capacity passenger airliners, meaning the likes of the 747 and its rival Airbus A380 have been left out in the cold. While the A380 just about gets by as a status symbol for airlines like Emirates and Singapore Airlines, the 747-8I appears to be destined for failure, simply ticking over on the back of freighter sales alone.
9. Vickers Vanguard (44 units)
The legendary and pioneering Viscount, only a little bigger.
That’s basically all the Vanguard was. However, the main issue that saw this aircraft trounced in terms of sales was a matter of bad timing. When the Vanguard first took to the skies in 1959, large propeller planes were quickly being replaced by the then new Boeing 707 jet airliner. While the preceding Viscount was able to rake in domestic services prior to the construction of short-to-medium range jets, the Vanguard was far too big for these operations, while attempts at being a viable competitor to the Boeing 707 for high capacity operations was like trying to pit a Snail against a Cheetah in a 1,000 metre sprint.
The result was the Vanguard being crushed ‘neath the 707’s mighty tread, with the only sales being largely restricted to British European Airways and Air Canada.
8. Boeing 767-400ER (38 units)
Another Boeing product which one could consider pointless before it even left the drawing board. The 767-400ER was the last new variant of the Boeing 767 family, being launched in 2000 as the largest member of the type.
However, Boeing failed to notice that they’d already released this aircraft only 5 years before, that being the Boeing 777. Essentially, that’s what the 767-400 is, just another variant of the Boeing 777. It even had avionics, design and cockpit features carried over from it.
The result was absolutely abysmal sales, the aircraft being sold to only two carriers before it was removed from the product list in 2014.
7. Convair 990 Coronado (37 units)
In an attempt to address the range and capacity issues which had seen the Convair 880 fail abysmally in the sales department, the company created a modified version of the airliner which was larger in size but still maintained the speed of its predecessor. The result was the Convair 990 Coronado, which differed from the 880 in that it had a slightly larger fuselage (though still far smaller than the 707) and the fitting of overwing pods which served to increase the size of the fuel tanks.
However, it was very much a catch 22 with this design as the pods increased drag and thus required more power to maintain speed, compromising the range of the aircraft. The end product was essentially the same aircraft as before, a comparatively small airliner which had the speed but not the range to make it competitive.
What resulted was the 990 being utterly slaughtered in terms of sales, and by the end of the 1960’s both of Convair’s follies had been quickly forgotten.
6. Airbus A340-500 (34 units)
Take it from me, there’s nothing wrong with appealing to niche audiences. While you most likely won’t make any money back, there have been many great achievements that have been garnered through endearment to small groups of either people or services.
However, not making one’s money back can be vitally important, especially when it involves a £160 million jet airliner!
The Airbus A340-500 was the third variant of the A340 family, but the line of thought Airbus took was definitely niche. The aircraft differed from the preceding A340-300 in the following ways; being 14ft longer to carry an extra 18 passengers, fitted with a larger wing area for added lift, taking on massive Rolls-Royce Trent 553 turbofan engines, and given the longest range of any jet airliner to that point.
The A340-500 and its 9,000 mile range was built to appeal to the growing trend in ultra-long haul flights that many airlines were starting to introduce during the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. While the concept was promising and the aircraft was a technological marvel in terms of aeronautical ability, the aircraft was compromised by the stagnation of the aviation industry in the post-9/11 market.
Ultra-long haul flights often didn’t fly at full capacity and would regularly make losses, but were useful for the purposes of publicity in the relaxed pre-9/11 airline world. However, by the time the aircraft was launched in 2003 most airlines had rationalised their routes in order to maximise profits. The result was the A340-500 being seen as a highly expensive version of the A340-300 which provided only 18 extra seats at a comparatively massive loss. This was further compounded by the launch of the A340-600, the largest member of the A340 family and, at the time, the world’s longest aircraft.
While the A340-500 was put to work on the few remaining ultra-long haul routes, including the world’s single longest flight from Singapore to Newark, New Jersey, many of these routes had dried up by the mid-2010’s due to low passenger numbers, leaving the A340-500 surplus to requirement.
Today, most -500’s are in store or have been scrapped after only 10 years of working life while only 3 are left in service; 2 with Azerbaijan Airlines and 1 with Hi Fly.
5. Boeing 737-100 (30 units)
It’s a good thing Boeing decided to launch the 737-200 simultaneously with the -100, otherwise the legendary Boeing 737 family could’ve been but a footnote in aviation history rather than one of the best selling aircraft ever.
However, much of the 737-100’s failure to sell can be attributed to the -200, which was much larger and possessed the performance capabilities airlines of the late 1960’s were looking for in an efficient twinjet. But even if the 737-200 hadn’t been built, it’s doubtful that the -100 would’ve sold in any great numbers against the preceding Boeing 727, due largely to the fact that it was just way too small.
At just 94ft and carrying only 103 passengers, the 737-100 was the smallest variant of the 737 family by far, which made it unappealing to the airline market. Airlines that wanted a small regional jet would’ve taken on the likes of the Fokker F.28, which carried a similar number of passengers but at twice the efficiency.
The -200 on the other hand, at 100ft in length and carrying 130 passengers, took the world by storm by combining its comparatively efficient nature with the capacity it deserved. The result was the 737-100 being removed from sales after only two years in production while the -200 continued to be sold as late as 1988.
4. Airbus A340-200 (28 units)
One of the two initial versions of the Airbus A340 made available for sale, the A340-200 was designed to be an equivalent to the A310 in that it was a shorter aircraft with a longer range. In fact, compared to its counterpart, the A340-300, the -200 is 14 feet shorter, carries 16 less passengers, but has a range improvement of around 500nmi.
However, unlike the A310, the A340-200 was still a four-engined jet airliner, and thus could only truly make its money back with higher amounts of capacity in order to cover its operating costs. The A340-300 fit the bill perfectly, and went on to become a huge success that rivalled the likes of the Boeing 777. The -200 on the other hand failed to hit it off with anyone, being only operated commercially by Lufthansa and Air France while all other examples were used by the French Air Force. The last A340-200 was retired from commercial service in 2017 by Egyptian airline Air Leisure, while the remainder have either been scrapped or are in the service of Middle Eastern governments as VIP transports.
3. VFW-Fokker 614 (19 units)
There are many theories as to why this endearing regional jet airliner became one of the biggest sales calamities in history. Conspiracy theorists suggest that the Dutch manufacturer, Fokker, deliberately bought VFW in order to control its marketing, thereby assuring its failure against the rival Fokker F.28 by refusing to promote the 614.
However, the main problem with the 614 was the fact that VFW was a completely unrecognised company, its main engine provider, Rolls-Royce, went bankrupt in 1971 and the crash of the aircraft’s second prototype left customer confidence waning.
The result was the 614 failing to find a buyer until two years after it entered sales, with only four airlines taking it on before VFW was disbanded in 1981. The collapse of VFW meant that parts assistance would no longer be upheld, thus most of these aircraft were retired after only 5 to 6 years of work.
2. Aérospatiale/BAC Concorde (14 units)
One of the most technologically advanced aircraft in history and the world’s only successful supersonic jet airliner (Concordski may have come first but was not a success no matter which way you look at it!). However, Concorde’s specialist nature and incredibly expensive running costs were just some of the many reasons why this Anglo-French design was apparently doomed to abysmal sales from the start.
Initially, confidence was high in the Concorde project with many large carriers across the world stating their intentions to buy them. However, issues with Sonic Booms and other noise complaints, high running costs, incredible inefficiency, low capacity and an injunction by the U.S. Government to have the aircraft banned in America meant that by the time the first production units were unveiled in the early 1970’s the number of interested parties had been halved.
However, the crippling blow to Concorde’s sales came when its Soviet rival (though the term knock-off would be more appropriate) the Tupolev Tu-144 crashed at the 1973 Paris Air Show before the eyes of the world. The ensuing stigma meant that the remaining orders were withdrawn, with only British Airways and Air France taking on these aircraft through obligation to their respective governments.
Concorde, while a technological marvel, never truly turned a profit, being only a plaything of the rich. In the end time caught up with the aircraft and in 2003 all units were grounded as aviation costs began to soar following 9/11.
1. Dassault Mercure (12 units)
Behold, the worst selling commercial airliner in history!
It was a common joke among aviation fans that the Dassault Mercure had so little range that it probably couldn’t even make it out of its native France, and that was precisely the problem.
While the design of the Mercure was endearing, though many noted its similarities to the Boeing 737, the thing that compromised it the most was its disappointingly short flying distance of 1,295 miles; a smidgen compared to the 737’s 2,900 miles and the Douglas DC-9’s 1,800 miles . Though this made it ideal for short-hops on high demand routes such as London to Paris, the general consensus was that it fell into a hole in the market between smaller but more efficient regional jets and larger short-to-medium haul jets like the Boeing 737 and Douglas DC-9; thereby appealing to no one.
Attempts to partner with American manufacturers such as Lockheed to help market the aircraft abroad failed and eventually all 12 units were solely used by French domestic carrier Air Inter. Though these planes were incredibly reliable and had a clean safety record, by 1995 they had all disappeared from service, resigned to the quiet life of museum pieces.