Airlines Flying Old Planes, Not Buying New Ones

According to Reuters, the “legacy” airlines are flying old planes and not ordering any new ones. The youngest fleet belongs to Continental—their planes have an average age of 10 years. So why aren’t airlines buying any new, more fuel efficient planes?

Apparently, its just not worth the money to most carriers, because the next wave of better airplanes might make ones purchased today obsolete. Sort of like an iPod. Only bigger.

The lack of orders puzzles some experts. They note that U.S. airlines lag European airlines whose aircraft are more fuel-efficient and meet higher noise and emissions standards.

“The average age of the fleet is amazing, and it’s time to start serious renewal,” said airline consultant Michael Roach.

Roach said some carriers may be delaying orders in hopes of catching the next wave of narrow-body technology that is not due for several years.

“I think there’s a lot of reluctance on the part of the carriers to go out and buy a lot of an already obsolete aircraft,” he said.

Of the six so-called “legacy carriers” in the United States — those with a hub-and-spoke network and fly internationally — Continental Airlines has the youngest fleet with an average age of 10 years old, according to Fitch Ratings data.

In the last 10 years, Continental has replaced its aging, gas-guzzling DC-9s, DC-10s and MD-80s. As of Dec. 31, Continental had firm commitments for 82 aircraft from Boeing.

“We’re been very disciplined over the last 10 years,” said John Greenlee, Continental’s managing director of fleet planning. “It does pay to have that advantage as a younger fleet.”

Northwest, which just emerged from bankruptcy this year, has the oldest fleet, with an average age of 18 years. They’re looking to replace their DC-9 aircraft, which are at least 25 years old. This is good because we get freaked out when we’re in a plane that has ashtrays with cigarette butts still in them, ya know? That’s just us.—MEGHANN MARCO

U.S. airlines bide their time as fleet needs grow [USAToday]
(Photo: aaronx)

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  1. ReverseCarpetbagging says:

    I know they’re budget, but Spirit has nice and shiny new planes.

    You have to love an airline that has sales mentioning mullets.

  2. badgeman46 says:

    This is common, especially with Northwest still flying a fleet of old DC9’s. It makes perfect sense, considering they are all paid for. Most of the newer equipment on airlines is actually leased, making Steven Udvar-Hazy rich enough to build an Air and Space museum for the smithsonian.

  3. iMike says:

    NW’s DC-9s are kind of scary. Particularly when you consider that it’s a 50 plus year old design, and the last one was delivered 25 years ago.

  4. robbie says:

    @badgeman46: exactly… why aren’t US carriers leasing new planes instead?

  5. badgeman46 says:

    @iMike: At work, (air traffic control) the DC9’s are so old, we can’t give them the same routings that GPS equipped planes can fly. They still have to fly them via airways.

  6. badgeman46 says:

    Some do, for the same reason people lease cars, you can get something newer and better for less of a payment. But it also affects assets, because ultimately you do not own the aircraft.

  7. Islingtonian says:

    Salon’s ‘Ask the Pilot’ column always has an interesting take on these sorts of things:

    http://dir.salon.com/story/tech/col/smith/2005/05/20/askth

    I know the Reuters article doesn’t exactly deal with old planes = dangerous planes, but this column’s still an interesting read.

  8. nucleotide says:

    I wonder how much business US carriers are losing for international travel because of having decrepit planes. Whenever I fly to Asia I usually spring for SQ even though I earn double miles on UA. There’s something nice about having a 11″ screen in a coach seat with VoD, 3d games, a power port, and a usb port for charging your mp3 player.

  9. evilrobot says:

    with all the advertised features that are supposed to be out there (in-seat entertainment, more legroom, etc.) i always end up on the flight with the projector tv featuring a broken green lamp and ashtrays in the armrest.

  10. orielbean says:

    Planes and heavy construction equipment usually have bonds backing them. This is why your carrier goes bankrupt but still has planes to fly around, whereas when I go bankrupt, they might take my house. The airlines can secure their debt by issuing bonds against the equipment. They are more than just paid for – the airlines are making revenue off of the security being sold as well as tickets and advertising rights, etc.

  11. rosiepie says:

    Isn’t it the law that planes must be retired after 30 years anyway?

  12. Major-General says:

    Well, another reason US airlines haven’t replaced planes is that they can’t afford them. They know they need to, but if they are paid for, and you are trying to not go bankrupt, you don’t have the cash to spare for that new plane smell.

    AA is finally starting to replace it MD-80s, NWA has a plan to replace the DC-9s and has replaced the DC-10s (Airbus A330s). United would like to, but their unions want pay raises now that they have showed a profit. Delta hasn’t said anything; USAirways is waiting on Airbus.

    That about covers the American carriers. No comment on the foriegn carriers, I have only flown KLM once, and it was so bad an experience I won’t fly them again.

  13. filker0 says:

    The lead time from order to delivery of a new passenger jet can be quite long, and if the economy tanks between the order and delivery, the airline may be unable to meet its commitments. This is part of why some airlines lease aircraft (the risk is with the owner, not the leasor.)

    If an airline has a fleet of, say, MD80s, for mid-range flights, they generally have the maintenance equipment and trained personell (flight and ground-crew) to run MD80s. To switch to something newer requires new infrastructure on the ground and new training for the flight crews.

    Though it is possible to upgrade an existing aircraft (better avionics, etc.), it’s costly and takes the plane out of service, and for a large fleet, may require different training for those crews that fly the updated planes, and may also require some FAA recertification. This creates new legistics problems, just as adding new types of aircraft to the fleet. The passenger cabin can be updated more easily, but it’s still costly and takes the plane out of service while it’s being done.

    Eventually, the airlines have to jump to new planes, or their fleets will become so antiquated that they’ll not be fit to fly. Both Airbus and Boeing depend on this, and have specific models targeted at the largest segments of the fleet (that is, the sizes and ranges that are used most) on the drawing boards or in production. The sharp rise in the price of fuel has made the domestic carriers more interested in the more efficient aircraft, so it’s likely that you’ll see a lot of the DC9s, MD80s, 737s, and other “mid-range” planes being replaced by fancy new planes with nifty new features in Business and First Class, though those of us in steerage may still be sitting on orange crates.

  14. TXinDC says:

    The oldest DC-9 in Northwest’s fleet (if I recall correctly) is tail number N752NW. Manufactured in 1968 and began service SAS Scandanavian Airlines. Do the math……how’s that for old?

  15. mathew says:

    I’m flying overseas in a few months. And yeah, I’m going for an overseas airline because of the decrepit planes and lousy service from US airlines. I’ll pay the extra few percent.

    Northwest and American still use planes with propellers on some short-haul journeys. I kid you not.

  16. Optimistic Prime says:

    Old aircraft is a very common thing. However I wouldn’t worry about it. For one, they are much more well maintained than your car. When you pay millions of dollars for something, you take care of it. That’s why you will find a 20 year old Jaguar on the road without rust, but my 20 year old Buick is Bondo colored and needs a load of work. It also takes a lot more time to realize any profit from an investment that large. Sure airlines could buy a bunch of new a/c, but your ticket prices would definitely surge as a result.

  17. jamesdenver says:

    No one should freak out over safety. It’s not an issue regarding old or new planes. ALL planes have regular service and inspections, or they’re grounded.

    Of course I’d pick a 777 over a DC-10 anyday, but for comfort (and lack of a puke yellow interior), not safety.

  18. jamesdenver says:

    p.s. on short routes it really doesn’t matter to me. To small towns from hubs, (like Mpls or Chicago to Grand Rapids), you don’t need gleaming new planes – save those for the long routes.

    I’ve never had a problem with a prop plane or DC-9 for a flight of less than an hour.

  19. Crazytree says:

    I fly in a lot of third-world countries… and some of the planes still have ANALOG sound gear from the 60’s/70’s… the kind with the needle that bounces up and down when the flight attendant talks.

  20. “Isn’t it the law that planes must be retired after 30 years anyway?”

    No.

    Jamesdenver is right; all aircraft have regular maintenance (in small, medium, and large detail called A, B, and C checks) that keep them airworthy as long as no major structural defects or wear are found in the airframe. Jets are designed with serviceability and part interchangeability in mind – moreso for commercial airliners. This means these jet can keep flying for decades with proper maintenance.

    The B-52, a United States strategic bomber first designed in 1947 and flown in 1952, is planned to remain in service until the 2040s.

    The biggest problem with flying old jets is fuel economy – and for airlines like Northwest, their route structure may be such as to minimize the effects of the 20-40% per seat fuel economy penalty over flying a similar, but newer jet.

    Continental has an eye on longer-term fuel economy and has built it’s fleet with expensive jet fuel in mind. Equipping it’s short/small routes with new, fuel-efficient 50-seat regional jets while adding wingtips to it’s medium range fleet of 737s will help them soften the effects of an oil shock, but doesn’t necessarily make the fleet safer.

    Newer jets are arguably less tiring to fly due to GPS, glass cockpit, and other aircrew automation features, but this hasn’t made newer jets demonstrably safer. There still is no magic design feature to keep 100,000 lb jets from hitting the ground very hard when they leave their flight envelope due to mechanical, weather, or aircrew problems.

  21. Falconfire says:

    @mathew: umm thats very common, and usually its not their planes but another company who operates as part of the whole.

    In terms of fuel efficiency, turboprops are actually more efficient that jets, they are just a bit slower and not as cool looking in our modern eyes.

    To put it simply, why spend the money on a expensive as hell jet for a short hop, when you can fly it on a much cheaper and more efficient propeller driven plane.

  22. specialed5000 says:

    Actually, although they are a little noisy, I find the seats on the Dash 8 and Saab 340 (2 common 32-40 seat turboprops) more comfortable than most Canadair or Embraer regional jets. The seats seem a little wider, softer and angled better (although they often don’t recline). The 19 seat Beechcraft 1900s really suck (no flight attendant, no overhead, no lavatory, no cockpit door even).

  23. gocards44 says:

    We, airline consumers, are going to be the ones who pay for new planes, through higher ticket prices.

  24. tonkyhonk says:

    Southwest’s fleet has an average age of about 9 years, better than Continental.

  25. TWinter says:

    @zirkus:
    Capacity on most international routes is constrained because of the way that international aviation is regulated. Most foreign carriers can’t just add extra flights even if they could sell the tickets for them. The US airlines would have much bigger problems if international travel was a free market.

    But a big change is coming soon in this regard, the US – EU open skies agreement takes effect next year and that should shift the international market around dramatically.

  26. nucleotide says:

    @TWinter: Maybe I’m missing something but I don’t know how that applies to my comment. I usually find as many flights with foreign carriers as US ones so “capacity” was not an issue when choosing to fly Singapore Air over US airlines. What I care about is who does a better job keeping me comfortable for 12-18 hours. On SQ, the plane is nicer, the food’s better, and so is the entertainment. And, for three of trips I made last year, Singapore Air was cheaper than any other airline. Plus I could make changes to the return portion of my flight without getting charged and this is on a discount ticket.

    Maybe living in the Bay Area gives me more choices when flying to Asia. Don’t really know what are the options for Europe. I’ve only flown Lufthansa there and not very often.

  27. orig_club_soda says:

    Some of you might not have heard of “planned obsolescence” (or are too young to have noticed.) Its a concept introduced into manufacturing in the 70s. Basically certain items are planned to fail in a certain number of years so you have to buy a new one. Thats why toasters and VCRs break and its chear to replace it than to fix it. Its kinda hard to plan a plane to fail. If you think of older autos, they are still running and newer autos usually fail in non-hazardous ways.

  28. mikecolione says:

    Spirit Airlines based in Florida has all nice new shiny Airbus planes and has the youngest fleet in both North & South America.

    Pretty good since it’s privately owned and flies 125 flights daily to 30+ destinations. (mostly vacation spots)

    I wanna lease a new plane and start my own airline… Then I can fly for free :)

  29. TWinter says:

    @zirkus:
    Singapore might have an open skies agreement with the US and that makes a huge difference.

    The regulation matters because it’s an issue of total seats available. Let’s say, just hypothetically, that an average of 1,000 people want to fly directly from San Francisco to Frankfurt every day. The government will have preallocated the flights so that there are maybe 1200 seats per day total, with Lufthansa getting 400, United getting 400, and American 400. Even if Lufthansa totally kicks the asses of United and American in terms of service, there are still going to be 600 passengers who have to fly United or American because the Lufthansa plane is full and the total number of flights is tightly regulated. But that’s the hypothetical, this stuff plays out in very complex ways in the real world because seats are sold at different times for different prices and because people can usually travel on different days, but in the end many people who might prefer a foreign carrier take the US carrier because it has a seat at their price, with the route they want, on the day they want to fly.