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Flashback Friday: Why The Convair 880 Wasn’t A Hit (Except For Elvis)

Back in the 1960s, as commercial aviation was expanding thanks to jet aircraft, it turned out that airlines realized they didn’t need to go “Top Gun.” There wasn’t a need for speed.

Convair, a division of General Dynamics, got in the game by designing the Convair 880, which was developed to compete with the Boeing 707 and the Douglas DC-8. Here are five reasons why the 880 couldn’t compete and didn’t last.

Economy trumps speed

The 880 could zip along at 600-plus mph, which was great when you considered passengers who wanted to get from Point A to Point B as fast as possible. But that speed came with a cost in terms of fuel consumption. That cost had to be passed along to passengers who realized that getting to their destination 15 to 30 minutes later wasn’t worth the higher cost of the ticket.

Bad Timing, Part One

Convair was a distant third in the commercial aviation market. Boeing and Douglas were well-established with the airlines. General Dynamics, which eventually switched to producing military aircraft.

Bad Timing, Part Two

In the 1960s when commercial air travel was growing in popularity, most airlines served major cities/large airports and flew longer routes. The 880 lacked the range for a coast-to-coast trip. It would have served as a regional carrier, but at that time the airlines weren’t serving mid-size cities and airports.
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What’s inside that counts

While the 880 looked great on the outside, its interior design didn’t thrill airlines. A narrow body airplane, it’s 2-3 seat alignment wasn’t popular and it limited passenger capacity to just 110. Again, that limited amount of butts in seats didn’t equate to making money.

Good looks not enough

The Convair was a good-looking plane, it flew well and it was whisper quiet. Its four engines were slung below swept-back wings and nose-to-tail the 880 was sleek. But airlines were – and still are – more interested in the bottom line than the design lines of their aircraft.
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Epilogue

Only 65 Convair 880s were produced before General Dynamics ceased production in 1962. A total of 65 were built and most in the United States were operated by Delta and TWA.

The last aircraft was withdrawn from commercial service by major operators in 1975. There are few of the airframes still in existence and the only one properly preserved has a musical history. On display at Graceland in Memphis is the Convair 880 owned by Elvis Presley and named after his daughter, Lisa Marie.

Written by Wendell Barnhouse

Wendell Barnhouse is a veteran journalist with over 40 years of experience as a writer and an editor. For the last 30 years, he wrote about college sports but he has had an interest and curiosity about aviation since he was in grade school.