This post may come across as self-serving, semi-advertorial, promotional, or just plain crappy (or all of the above).  I don’t apologise, it’s my blog and I’ll write what I want to.  However, because it’s the Internet and it’s almost guaranteed that someone reading this will think I should have warned them… consider yourself warned, fair reader.

My recent post about experiencing things for the last time started me off on a somewhat interesting train of thought.  There I was, sitting on an aircraft that was being retired, which must happen fairly often around the world–after all we don’t see too many 707s or TriStars in the skies any more.  Qantas used to have a lot of 767s, and I picked up the inflight magazine to see the numbers today.

As at September 2014, Qantas had 6 Boeing 767s in their fleet (down from 13 at 30 June 2014, further down from 20 as at July 2013, according to the Qantas Data Book 2014).  Then I looked at the total fleet size: just over 200 aircraft in total (again, looking at the Data Book 2014, 203 as at 30 June 2014).  The numbers started wandering around in my head, and soon put me in mind of another piece of hardware requiring large investment, and just as close to my heart as jet aircraft — mainframe computers.

I started to do some research into the numbers I looked at in the flight magazine.  According to the registration data available from CASA, there is only one 767 in Australia (a 767-381F freighter) not registered to Qantas.  Therefore, during 2014, Qantas was the operator of the only dozen-odd Boeing 767 aircraft in Australia.  Thousands of people every day, travelling on an aircraft of which there was only a dozen working examples in the country–in fact, by the time I had my last 767 flight, I wonder how many of the September Six were left?  Maybe VH-OGO was the last in service by then…?

Okay, you might say, the B767 doesn’t count as it’s old and Qantas was retiring them.  Righto, point taken.  Lets look at what is the mainstay of domestic inter-capital air travel in Australia then–the B737.  Qantas lists 70 as at June 30 (57 owned and 13 leased) while Virgin Australia shows 74.  CASA lists some freighters and a half-dozen registered to “Nauru Air Corporation”, but lets stick to QF and VA (apart from a couple of B787s Jetstar’s fleet is all Airbus and much smaller than Qantas or Virgin).  The most widely-used commercial jet aircraft in the country, and there’s only 140-ish of them?  So what, you might say: they’re jet planes, of course there won’t be many.

The numbers continue: again as at 30 June 2014 the total number of Boeing 747s and Airbus A380s and A330s in the Qantas fleet was 36 aircraft, and by now some of the B747s have been retired.  Think about that for a moment: Qantas is able to service all of its international routes, including covering maintenance intervals, using less than forty aircraft?  It’s not like Qantas has a small network… yes they extend their reach through alliances and codeshare just like all airlines do, but Qantas services Los Angeles direct from Brisbane, Sydney, and Melbourne, daily (you’d have to think that’s at least six planes by itself) as well as daily flights into cities across Asia and the few routes into Europe that haven’t been taken over by Emirates.  Three-dozen planes seems light…

A popular criticism of mainframes (once you get past the “old, room-sized, punch card” nonsense) is that there aren’t many of them.  Apparently if it was such a good system everyone would use it, and the fact that not many companies do is proof that it isn’t.  Also, apparently it’s risky to use a system that comparatively few other businesses use.

Imagine for a moment if airlines around the world started subscribing to the same kind of thinking that seems to have taken hold in IT:

Operations Manager: It’s too risky for us to use these large, expensive aircraft.  We don’t have enough of them to justify training pilots to operate them, and it costs a fortune when we have to service one.  Plus, did you know each one costs $100million?

C-suite: The last OM said these aircraft are the best fit for our operations, that we get value in return for the cost.  Are you saying there’s an alternative?

OM: You bet!  Did you know we can buy hundreds of light aircraft for what it costs to buy one jet?

C-suite: Really?  Sounds complicated…

OM: No way!  It’s simple, light aircraft are much less complicated to operate and maintain, and it’s much cheaper and easier to get pilots that know how to fly them.

C-suite: I’ve seen a light aircraft, they’re… small.  Won’t we need more of them to carry the load of our jets?

OM:  Maybe… ah but it won’t be that bad: how often are we running those big jets half-empty anyway?

C-suite: Hmm…  I assume you’ve done some projections?

OM: Yes, the acquisition cost of a fleet of light aircraft is a fraction of that of a fleet of jets!

C-suite: Acquisition cost…  I seem to recall that we should be worried about more than cost of acquisition…

OM:  Did I mention the acquisition cost of a fleet of light aircraft is a fraction of that of a fleet of jets?

C-suite: I guess that was all!  Okay, sounds like a great plan!

It seems ludicrous, and would never happen in real life.  Outside aviation, imagine a similar scenario with a transport company replacing B-doubles with postie bikes, or an energy company replacing wired electricity distribution with boxes of AA batteries sent to homes.  For some reason though it’s not farfetched in IT, and yet over the years conversations like that have happened in too many companies.

There aren’t many Boeing 737s in Australia, but that isn’t stopping Qantas and Virgin (and airlines around the world) from using equipment that is fit for purpose.  Why should mainframes be different?