Sunday 19 November 2017

SyrianAir’s Boeing 747SPs - A Rare Beast Disappears

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

As SyrianAir continues its operations out of the war-thorn country of Syria, the airline's venerable Boeing 747SP aircraft have been notable absentees on the few remaining routes and destinations SyrianAir continues to serve. While the airline had originally operated two Boeing 747SPs (a shorter variant of the Boeing 747-100 designed for ultra-long ranges) delivered in 1976, both aircraft were effectively grounded in 2008 as U.S. sanctions prevented the aircraft from receiving their extensive D-checks, forcing SyrianAir to retire the Boeing 747SP after 32 years of service.

A short-lived thaw in the relationship between the United States and Syria saw the former giving green light for the delivery of the spare parts required for the D-checks of both Boeing 747SPs (YK-AHA 'November 16' and YK-AHB 'Arab Solidarity'), and Syria subsequently struck a deal with the Saudi Alsalam Aircraft Company to perform the D-Checks as well as overhauling the aircraft's Pratt & Whitney JT9D-7 engines and landing gear. Under the contract signed on the 16th of December 2010 in Damascus, both aircraft were slated to re-enter service in late 2011.

In April 2011, SyrianAir's Managing Director & CEO visited the Alsalam Aircraft Company, which had previously conducted maintenance on SyrianAir's now retired fleet of Boeing 727s, to check on the status of the overhaul, where she expressed ''her appreciation to Alsalam team and their efforts to meet the target completions date''. Although it appears that the project was still on schedule at that time, neither aircraft would return to Syria, and remain at the Alsalam Aircraft Company facilities in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia to this day.

Although the exact reason behind the cessation of work on the Boeing 747SPs remains unknown, it is likely that the outbreak of hostilities in Syria that led the United States to reconsider its stance against the Syrian government was the primary factor that forced Alsalam to halt all further work on the aircraft.

As part of the new U.S. stance signed into effect by former President Obama in August 2011 with Executive Order 13582, which amongst others included a ban on ''the exportation, reexportation, sale, or supply, directly or indirectly, from the United States, or by a United States person, wherever located, of any services to Syria.''. As the overhaul of SyrianAir's Boeing 747SPs required U.S.-made components, Order 13582 would have prevented Alsalam from continuing work on the aircraft.

With the D-checks unfinished, most of its paint removed and with components taken away from both aircraft, the Boeing 747SPs were now stuck in Saudi Arabia with no prospect of returning to Syria. Collecting dust on the tarmac of Alsalam, both aircraft were moved to a remote corner of the Alsalam facilities in 2013. While the loss of the Boeings was partly compensated by the fact that most of SyrianAir's routes were now terminated anyway due to the implementation of sanctions, their absence was to be felt in the years that followed.

With only 45 Boeing 747SPs produced over a time span of fourteen years, this rare aircraft was renowned for maintaining the classic 747 characteristics despite its shortened fuselage, which allowed for a greater range than any other aircraft at that time. As a result of its impressive range and appearance, the aircraft became popular as the transport of choice of several Arab heads of state. South African Airways exploited the range of its six examples to circumvent countries thad had banned the airline from using its airspace during the times of Apartheid.

SyrianAir had acquired its two examples in anticipation of launching a direct service to New York in the late seventies. When this failed to materialise however, SyrianAir was left with the longest-range airliner in the world on a network almost exclusively featuring short-haul destinations. The lack of any appropriate ultra-long range routes, the aircraft's high maintenance costs and high fuel consumption gave the Boeing 747SP the status of a white elephant within SyrianAir's fleet of smaller aircraft. Whenever they weren't employed alongside their much smaller brethren on regular flights, the Boeing 747SPs in service with SyrianAir saw irregular use on routes to Europe and the Middle East.

As the aircraft could only be sold at a huge loss, the Boeing 747SPs eventually soldiered on until 2008 and after their last D-checks would have operated for several more years, at least until their replacement by more modern aircraft. Yet fate demanded these impressive machines would find their untimely end abandoned on the smouldering tarmac of in Saudia Arabia. 
Third image by Aviafan.
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