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Observation Deck

Three-Holer Disappearing Act

Commentary about FedEx's final scheduled 727 service including historical context

On June 21, 2013, FedEx flew its last scheduled 727 operation, with N481FE flying from Indianapolis to the carrier's main facility in Memphis.  Built originally for Braniff, this 1978 -200 model  was delivered in May of that year, which was only 4 months later than  FedEx's acquisition of its first 727-100 (likewise a former passenger aircraft) in January 1978.   Now this is making me (and, I suspect, a few others) feel old.  The entire life span of the 727 thus far (beginning with initial airline service by Eastern in 1964) has occurred within my notice.  And now they're going away?  Not entirely, but not that many years ago FedEx was one of their major bastions, and it seemed like they would continue in this role, well, almost forever.   

Once, they were essentially the universal short and medium-haul aircraft, with a "high-tech" wing that enabled the 727 to use airports that had runways too short for the early jet airliners, such as the 707, DC-8 and Convair 880.  This brought the speed and comfort of jet travel to many more locations, and was a major factor in airline industry growth during the 1960s.  The advent of the 'stretched' version, the 727-200, only increased the type's popularity, and during its heyday, the 727 was the best-selling jet airliner to date, although that title has now passed to the Boeing 737.

The 727 provided a number of new opportunities for both its maker and the airlines that used it.  During the 1960s, essentially the only large airline market in Asia was in Japan (hard to believe today, but true then).  Japan Air Lines had acquired Douglas DC-8s in lieu of Boeing 707s, but sales of 727s to JAL, All Nippon and JDA certainly enhanced Boeing's market position in Japan; JAL eventually became the largest operator of 747s.

The 727 also extended jet cargo service down to smaller locations via the application of the QC, or "Quick-Change" version.  The 707 had been available in a "Convertible" model that could be switched between passenger and all-cargo service, since it had a main-deck cargo door, and strengthened structure.   However, this was not meant to occur on short notice.  The 727QC, however, was designed to be converted back and forth between the two missions on a daily basis, if required.  A number of airlines, including Eastern, TWA and United made extensive use of this feature during the 1960s; Braniff was still operating a few aircraft in this mode in the early 1980s. 

Following cargo deregulation in 1977, many of the QCs served as feedstock for both FedEx and later, its competitor UPS, as they began service with 'full-size' jets now that there were no longer restrictions concerning aircraft size in the cargo business.  Interestingly, the original aircraft operated on a contract basis for UPS were ex-Braniff QCs;  UPS would eventually even operate some of these aircraft in charter passenger service, following a re-engining program in the 1990s.   And while not a significant customer for new-from-the-factory 727s, FedEx had the honor of closing out the production of the type, acquiring the last group of 727-200s built; they were freighters, of course.

While no longer flying for FedEx, the 727 has not disappeared entirely, yet.   According to The Airline Monitor, in its annual airliner forecast contained in the June 2013 issue, 462 727s (79 -100s, and 383 -200s) remained in the global fleet as of December 31, 2012, of 1831 total delivered, of which 571 were -100s and 1260 were -200s.  The majority of those still present and accounted for were, not surprisingly, freighters, including 33 -100s and 228 -200s.

While FedEx certainly was not one of the early customers for the type, as we have seen, their relative ubiquity, at least in the U.S., combined with longevity to produce the impression that they were a given, in terms of being a part of commercial aviation landscape.  Now, we'll have to face the fact that an airport visit won't produce a view of a purple and white three-holer, and seeing the type in any operator's livery will become an increasingly rare sight.  In a visceral sense, that strikes me as strange, although in fairness, I can remember a time when the same feeling was engendered by FedEx (or, to be accurate, Federal Express, as it was known then) Falcons...  Of course, it's still easily possible for residents of the Washington, D.C. metro area to re-live this experience at the Udvar-Hazy Center of the National Air and Space Museum, at Dulles Airport, where a nicely-restored purple Falcon can be viewed seven days a week.

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