McDonell Douglas’ MD-12 To Rival The Boeing 747

Daniel Fowkes
15 Dec 2023
· Aircraft 
McDonnell Douglas studied a quad-engined double decker superjumbo in the 1990s to better compete with the Boeing 747 and fend of emerging competition from the upcoming Airbus A380. However, the plane was never released for several crucial reasons.

The McDonnell Douglas was a quad-engined high-capacity aircraft studied in the 1990s.

The aircraft manufacturer viewed the launch of the MD-12 as a direct response to Beoing’s long-standing stronghold on the long-haul market.

Additionally, McDonnell Douglas would face competition from Airbus and their A3XX program, which would soon be adjusted to the A380.

Despite the success enjoyed by the 747 in the long-haul space, McDonnell Douglas’ MD-12 endeavour would ultimately fail for several reasons.

Introducing The McDonnell Douglas MD-12 Study

The MD-12 from McDonnell Douglas was slated to be a high-capacity widebody, focusing on long-haul operations with prospective customers.

Additionally, the premise was for it to be a 430-passenger capacity airliner in a three-class configuration; however, if an airline opted for a one-class layout, that total capacity would bump upwards of 500.

The MD-12 would’ve had a height of 74 feet and a wingspan of 213 feet with a length of 208 feet. At the same time, its maximum takeoff weight would be 949,000 pounds. The maximum speed for the aircraft was calculated to be 1,050km/h. McDonnell Douglas further noted that it believed the MD-12 would’ve had a top range of 9,200 miles or 14,825 km.

McDonnell Douglas studied a quad-engined double decker superjumbo in the 1990s to better compete with the Boeing 747 and fend of emerging competition from the upcoming Airbus A380. However, the plane was never released for several crucial reasons.
McDonnell Douglas’ MD-12 Concept Aircraft

These specifications were an indication of what McDonnell Douglas was hoping to be able to provide to prospective customers. Elements such as capacity and range were subject to change thanks to several factors related to how customers would’ve configured the aircraft.

The Background Of The McDonnell Douglas MD-12

Boeing primarily led the line for quad-engined and long-haul jets during the mid to late 1900s. As a result, other aircraft manufacturers utilised the 1990s to study Boeing’s success and find ways to perform well in the market with their endeavour.

Over at Airbus, studies centred around the possibilities of an A3XX program. This would eventually become the A380 and the world’s largest passenger plane. Airbus believed their A380 would answer the 747 and capture more market share while solidifying their spot in the long-haul space among customers.

Airbus studied its A3XX program in the 1990s. The plane would turn into the A380.

Meanwhile, McDonnell Douglas was pitching and studying their alternative, the MD-12. The plane maker threw this proposed plane to airlines as early as 1991. However, with incredibly high development costs, concerns around such a variant were brought up.

Throughout the 1990s, focus was placed on finding ways to improve the MD-11. As a result, this led to discussions around an MD-12 being a larger version of the MD-11. If McDonnell Douglas had moved ahead with their interaction, the -12 would’ve been a TriJet, too, but with a larger capacity.

However, a substantial study determined that the best possible way to executive a high-capacity airliner at the time was with four engines spread across two decks.

What Happened To The Proposed MD-12?

On the surface, the MD-12 had substantial promise, but what happened to the type? The design progressed, and it was understood that the jet would be a quad-engine double-decker.

McDonnell Douglas pitched the MD-12 once more to carriers globally, and despite a heavy push and a significant investment, it really couldn’t turn interest into firm orders.

The MD-12, from the beginning, was never going to be an easy feat to complete with high production costs, high development costs and much more. With little interest, it didn’t make commercial sense for McDonnell Douglas to pursue.

Customers were more sceptical than interested, which didn’t put the plane maker in the best light at the time either. It was deemed as an investment that could’ve been made.

Despite the lack of interest in their proposed MD-12, new ideas continued to flow throughout the company until it was eventually taken over by Boeing closer to 2000.

Did The McDonnell Douglas MD-12 Promise Anything Good?

McDonnell Douglas could not garner substantial interest for the type, and costs were too high. In some instances, analysts would say the aircraft did have some positives around it.

Its smaller wingspan meant it would fit into gate spaces without airports needing to adjust taxiways and gates. When Airbus introduced its A380, the sheer size would see millions of dollars invested globally to bring facilities up to speed for the superjumbo. This would be a costly endeavour and be another reason why so many airlines wouldn’t commit to the A380.

If the MD-12 had proceeded, analysts argue that all these works wouldn’t have had to take place; as a result, saving money in some instances. McDonnell Douglas went as far as building a consortium of Taiwanese companies to build the MD-12. While this never eventuated, it showed the plane makers’ faith in the product, which some may, in hindsight, call blind faith.

Would The MD-12, If Released, Have A Fate Like The A380?

By the late 1990s, trends were already beginning to turn as airlines sought more fuel-efficient widebody aircraft. For most, quad-engined planes weren’t the answer, as the 777 and A330 emerged.

However, some questioned if the MD-12 would have had a similar fate to the A380 if it had garnered some interest and proceeded. While hypothetical, it presents many thought-provoking questions, especially if the MD-12 had begun flights with the Boeing takeover and the A380.

Ultimately, many would say the MD-12 would’ve experienced potentially an even worse fate. Analysts say there was in the 1990s from some companies a general lack of understanding over the direction the industry was headed.

While the 747 was still prominent, Boeing struggled to hit the ground running on several of their concepts for a reason similar to that of McDonnell Douglas. This is all related to interest in a quad-engined high-capacity aircraft type.

Summarising The MD-12

The McDonnell Douglas MD-12 was a concept plane that never made it into the skies despite many years of studies, revisions and more. The plane makers studied the aircraft in a period where companies attempted to predict what was next, and this saw all three major manufacturers eyeing new quad-engined planes.

For McDonnell Douglas, though, the MD-12 wouldn’t work for reasons such as a lack of interest, high development costs, an eventual acquisition by Boeing and the ever-changing industry landscape.

Despite all this, the question will always be, what could’ve been…

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