Flying Old Metal

The husband drove a Dodge Aries for nearly 300,000 miles, until it was rear-ended in what could only be considered a mercy killing. But Northwest Airlines could teach him a thing or two.

Northwest is flying 109 DC-9’s that are, on average, 34 years old. And while this is the most remarkable case, all the domestic airlines have been letting their fleets age as their economic recovery gets a foothold.

To some extent, older planes once tended to offer a roomier ride. But many of the biggest – the L-1011s and the 747s – have largely faded out of airline fleets. So riding on an older plane is less likely to be the equivalent of riding in Grandpa’s grand old Cadillac and more like riding in Uncle Louis’ beat-up Taurus.

Beat-up, but well-maintained. These older planes are considered safe, according to the New York Times, but not necessarily comfortable:

… the industry‚Äôs aging jets contribute to the general unpleasantness of air travel these days. They are often noisier and less comfortable than newer models.

They are delayed by mechanical problems more frequently than new planes and often have built-up grime in passenger spaces.

In a story last month, the Associated Press pointed out that Northwest has upgraded its international fleet and says it will start replacing its elderly DC-9’s in the next couple of years.

But the Times article also points out that very few of theheralded Boeing 787s and Airbus A380s on order will go to domestic airlines. While Boeing is having its second record-breaking year for orders, most of those planes will be flown by airlines outside the United States. To the extent that domestic airlines are replacing planes, the trend has been toward smaller regional jets.

The exception? Some of the newer airlines are flying newer planes – JetBlue, AirTran and Skybus among them. Among the majors, Southwest has the youngest domestic fleet. Continental’s fleet is only slightly older, but its newer planes are the bigger ones flying more international routes. Northwest has the youngest international fleet among domestic carriers.


5 thoughts on “Flying Old Metal

  1. Hugh Jampton

    I appreciate your comments about lack of comfort. I recently travelled from London to Miami and returned, in the rear of an American Airlines 777. It was, without doubt, the most uncomfortable flight I have had in the last 40 years. I find it regrettable that more and more airlines are ordering 777’s for cost saving. Never again for me.

  2. Barry Alpern

    Let me get this straight. Northwest flies 109 DC 9s that are on average of 34 years old. They eliminated the majority of their maintenance, and were scrutinized by the FAA for having untrained personel working on their aircraft. How is this supposed to make me feel safe, flying in and aluminum tube at 30,000 feet at 500 miles an hour?

  3. Isaac Lang

    You are correct about the DC9. It has been one of the safest designs ever built. There have been a few issues,but very few.
    The DC9s and MD series are all the same design. The MD series improved on a very good design.
    I have told numerous folks this: If a DC9 crashes, pull the cockpit voice recorder. The pilots are the weakest link in this aircraft. It has served the traveling public well since the first flight.
    I flew it for almost twenty years. It is a very honest airplane.

  4. Capt Bill

    The basic structure of NWA’s DC9s is rather old; however, they have gone through extensive maintenance programs to keep them in good shape, have new interiors, and are some of the airlines’ most reliable aircraft. Perhaps partially due to thier relative simplicity.
    BTW, Northwest is the North American launch customer to for the 787, and has the world’s largest fleet of Airbus A-330’s, (comfortable, quiet, and fuel efficient) used for international travel throughout Asia, Europe, and to India.

  5. Don

    If I must fly vintage metal, let it be an L1011 or at least a DC-10. We can salute these Nixon-era DC-9s for durability, but they were never anything special as a ride.
    As for K-cars: They were genuine tanks. Affordable to buy, economical to run, fairly comfortable and spacious, surprisingly rugged … and reasonably ‘spirited’ with the 2.5 engine. Naturally, the Chrysler braintrust discontinued ’em. Modern Mopars are miserable: Rent a Stratus or a Sebring to experience Yugo quality with a U.S. nameplate.


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