Is Delta’s Average Fleet Age About To Get Much Older?

Airlines seem to loveĀ advertising how young their fleets are, which I’ll never understand:

  • From a safety perspective, as long as a plane is well maintained, it doesn’t matter whether it’s 40 days or 40 years old; one could even argue older planes are safer than brand new models, as they’ve been tested longer (we saw the issue 787s had a while back, whereby they were grounded globally)
  • From a passenger comfort perspective, planes go through “checks” every few years whereby everything is taken out and then put back in; if old planes have old interiors, that’s simply because the airline is being cheap

Along similar lines (in terms of advertising things which are entirely insignificant), Virgin Atlantic used to write “4 Engines 4 Long Haul” on the side of all their planes, inferring that planes with four engines are better than planes with two engines. That was convenient when their fleet had just A340s and 747s, but as not surprisingly they changed their mind and removed that after they started taking delivery of A330s and 787s, realizing that these planes had lower operating costs.

Virgin-Atlantic-Upper-Class - 18
Virgin Atlantic 787

Speaking of aircraft age, there’s an interesting story quoting Delta’s CEO, Richard Anderson, regarding the future of the second-hand jet market. While US carriers have mostly been purchasing new planes, Anderson sees value in buying used jets, and thinks the prices will fall even further over the next 12 to 36 months.

Via Bloomberg:

Anderson, whose airline has recently ordered both second-hand and new planes, told a conference call on Wednesday that the used wide-body market was a “bubble” and “ripe” for purchases by Delta over the next 12 to 36 months.

Old planes from the likes of Singapore Airlines Ltd are expected to be available soon, Anderson said.

“We get calls all the time,” Anderson said about used widebody planes, adding that no deal is in the works. “Prices are going to get lower. You wouldn’t strike a deal now.”

“We think that weakness in that aircraft bubble in widebodies is going to spread to narrowbodies, and that there will be some huge buying opportunities,” he said.

Just how much cheaper are these jets used? Anderson thinks decade-old 777s will go for just $10 million, while the sticker price for new ones is 30x that:

Anderson said leases of used Airbus A330-200 aircraft would be five times cheaper than new ones and that decade-old 777-200 aircraft from Boeing would cost $10 million, versus around $300 million at list prices for new ones.

Bottom line

As much as I criticize the SkyMiles program and think Richard Anderson says some ridiculous things, they’re the world’s most profitable airline for a reason. Assuming fuel prices stay fairly low, there’s a lot more value for the airlines in getting amazing deals on used planes rather than buying new ones which are slightly more fuel efficient, like the A350 or 787.

Delta is pretty good about refreshing the interiors even on their older planes, not that a 777 would by any means be considered an outdated plane.

Do you care about the age of the plane you’re flying on, or just that it’s well maintained?

Comments

  1. As much as i like to try and get new padmut when i fly, i do admit its just a placebo. I just care about having ife and getting to my dest.

  2. We could argue what exactly “slightly” means, but never mind. Slightly, or a bit more than that fuel efficient airplanes make a difference in terms of ecology for sure. With many more planes in the sky today there is for sure a significant impact on the environment. That being said, it is interesting to see how US airlines usually have older fleet (in average) than EU carriers, and not to even mention Asian and Gulf.

    Long term I believe, except for (maybe) a profit for the airlines, there is nothing good in this way of thinking.

  3. I second W. From a passenger perspective, I’d be fine with personal IFE and getting to my destination safely and preferably on-time. I’m definitely not a fan of longhaul flights that still have 80s/90s style inflight entertainment with the large screen in the middle on older planes.
    As for Delta, the airline ordered new A350s to be delivered in 2017 (now that’s an inaugural I hope to fly on) —- so perhaps the average fleet age of Delta will remain roughly the same even if DL buys older secondhand SQ planes in the future.

  4. Does anyone publish estimates of the cost to update the interior to the newest formats? I haven’t seen anything on the lifespan of an interior or its costs. I’d love to see something on business class upgrades compared to economy upgrades as well!

  5. I’m much more concerned with the passenger experience/interior. I generally don’t have much of an idea how old a plane I’m on is, so it doesn’t bother me too much. However, if there’s a 10 year-old interior, I certainly will notice, and that’s annoying! I agree Delta does a good job refurbishing their older planes!

  6. I would much prefer to fly on an “old” 777 rather than the lame Smithsonian 767’s DL fly’s. Sorry but if I am flying international and have a choice and I do DL is not my first, second or third choice for two reasons, one old metal ( really old) and two service.

    Having said that I can see buying the 777 retro fitting the interior.

  7. @Thomas

    Whatever the fuel savings from the somewhat more efficient new planes, there is no way it makes up for the environmental cost of building a new airplane. Building a new airplane requires power, raw material, water, transport of parts across vast distances. In most situations reusing a plane already built is going to be better on whole than building a new airplane.

  8. Dan is right. The same thing with cars. I think most cars use about 50% of their lifetime carbon in the manufacturing process. The remaining 50% is in the fuel during the life of the car. If you trade in your BMW that is a few years old for a Prius or a Tesla, you are probably making a net negative environmental impact. I’m sure the balance for airplanes are different because they are in service so much and use so much fuel, but there is definitely a carbon cost embodied in the manufacturing.

  9. I hate to see things wasted . Airplane boneyards are a sad , sad place for me . If the planes can be refurbished and continue in service I’m in favor . It seems operating an older , less efficient plane will impose a much lesser toll on the environment than building planes from scratch .
    In the 50 years I’ve been driving I’ve bought used cars . A few disappointments but , mostly good . Hard to calculate how much I have saved paying cash and buying used but , it is considerable .
    Watch the market and make good deals on used planes ? I approve !
    Maybe if Delta saves a lot of money this way they’ll carve a few cents off the ticket price .
    OK , I’m dreaming .
    Keep Smiling

  10. Tom & Dan,

    I’m afraid you’re wrong, To get some perspective, It takes 550kWh of energy to melt one ton of aluminum. At 150 tons, it would require the energy in 5,975 gallons of Jet A to melt an entire 777. Mealting down a scrapped 777 consumes 12% of the energy consumed in one long haul flight. Given a 20 year service life a 1% fuel savings would represent the energy required to melt 1,214 777s. Given that a 787 can be 20% more efficient that a 767 it totally makes sense to just recycle the 777.

    Note: I should have used a 767 in the example but I’m not running the numbers again.

  11. John,
    Melting the aluminum in a plane is not the same as manufacturing a new plane. I don’t have the numbers, but you have to count all of the embodied energy that goes into manufacturing a plane.

  12. I’m starting to wonder what’s happened to Lucky… He’s suddenly writing all these pro-Delta posts!

    There are lots of reasons to like the new aircraft better. Fuel economy increases steadily with each new generation of engines, while noise pollution has steadily decreased. The only reason Anderson (who I simply to don’t trust to “have my back” as he claims every time from that safety video) would float this strategy (keeping in mind that the only audience he’s ever been truly focused upon is the Wall Street analysts) is that he’s gotten a reprieve on the cost of JP4 jet fuel.

    As soon as West Texas Crude starts to inch up in price this is going to look dumber and dumber. An aircraft consumes many orders of magnitude more energy in it’s lifetime than the cost to produce the plane. Most long-haul AC will travel hundreds of millions of miles in their lives… so a few percentage points in fuel economy makes a huge difference. Which is why SWA was so happy to pawn off those old DC9s on Delta after the AirTran deal closed. (and, for those that want to argue that they were MD80/MD90, keep in mind that those airplanes were all built against the early 60s type certificate… of the DC9). A five-abreast configuration, with older engines simply isn’t as quiet or as efficient as a modern 737 or A3xxneo.

    Of course, I think Anderson assumes he can make up the difference in fuel costs with more fees for Economy Select, Economy Comfort, Comfort Plus or whatever they are calling it this quarter…
    with Delta you know the rules will always be changed on you over time.

  13. @ Tom and Dan

    John is wrong in only one thing, new planes use much composites, so therefore, even less energy is needed. As a person that is in aluminium bussines, I am aware of the fact that aluminium is not considered “green” material since a lot of energy is needed to get raw aluminium.

    @ Chuck

    If Delta buys 10 year old planes, it would actually improve their fleet age since now it is 17.2 years on average, which for me is very dissapointing for such a big carrier. And when you combine this with the poor serivce they have, I really wonder why is anybody even flying Delta…..

  14. I’m always going to assume a plane is safe regardless of it being 1 year or 31 years old. If the interior hasnt been cleaned or updated since the Reagan administration however, i’d find that frustrating. But if Delta can buy planes from Singapore on the cheap and redesign the interior in the Delta format (which is usually pretty nice) then more power to them.

    I fly them as they have by far the biggest presence in NYC and their customer service is top notch.

  15. @Alex

    Ultimately, the fuel savings of running a modern fleet ‘should’ reflect themselves into lower fares. Delta’s taking a contrarian strategy here of taking lower CapX investments now in the hope that crude oil prices stay low on a 10-15 year time horizon. Although there are a lot of operational costs in running an airline, JP4 jet fuel is usually on the top of the list. It’s no secret that Spirit Airlines, the poster child for low-cost air carriers, also has one of the most modern fleets of Airbuses flying today. I’m not promoting Spirit here, just pointing out the correlation between modern aircraft, better fuel economy and lower fares.

    The WSJ’s Middle Seat Column ran some interesting graphic a few years ago in here:

    http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748704901104575423261677748380

    Delta’s consistently liked to run the oldest fleet, with the worst fuel economy. They’ve also proven themselves adept at “making up for the losses” in fuel costs with other hidden and not-so-hidden fees.
    Most of the majors run a fleet that’s 10-14 years old on average, with a tight cluster on age. The last time I looked Delta was close to 19 years… substantially off the standard deviation of the rest. They run a MUCH older set of aircraft than the others.

    I don’t have access to actual dispatch rates (and Delta’s making a big deal out of their “we never cancel flights” thing), but I know for a fact that, since I use DC’s airports weekly, I’m forever seeing Delta MD8x maintenance-delayed aircraft over on the GA side of the field. It looks like they are taking a strategy of not canceling flights in such cases, but imposing maintenance delays in cases where the MD-88s are out of service or rotating alternate aircraft in on those routes where they have high frequency to ATL. Delta doesn’t have maintenance facilities at those DC airports, so they are clearly IRROP-delayed aircraft on the routes.

  16. Would u drive your car for 30 years even if the service center said it could run as good as new if properly maintained?
    Even through a storm?
    Airlines don’t always buy new replacent parts and cut corners where possible
    When your old pile of bolts goes into a stall you can probably recover
    When your plane stalls or a part fails in the sky from fatigue I suppose you can reach for your parachute šŸ˜‰

  17. I fly to the Philippines with my wife to visit family every year. Living in Cincinnati and flying out of CVG on Delta has become commonplace. Connecting through DTW or MSP we would fly on Delta’s old B747-400s to NRT, we always arrived exhausted, fatigued, and dehydrated. Our first day in Manila was spent recovering from the flights. Last year we used our Skymiles to book our trip. Delta routed us through ATL and put us on Korean Airlines for the long hop to Asia. Our outbound was on a B777-300ER to ICN, then a B777-300 to MNL. We could not believe the difference in how we felt once we arrived in Manila. While tired from the nearly 24 hours of travel, we did not feel nearly as bad as on our previous flights. We slept well that evening and awoke the next morning fully refreshed and ready to go. I could not believe how good we felt. We felt good enough to spend the day out in Manila instead resting in the hotel as before. We experienced the same on our inbound on a B777-200 out of MNL to ICN and a A380-800 from ICN to ATL. The new planes and their advanced cabins’ seats and environmental controls made the difference. It was like gaining an extra day! We have booked this year on Korean Air and their modern fleet, including the new B787-8. Because of the old fleet Delta flies, we are no longer booking on Delta.

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