How Old Is Your Plane? These Airline Fleet Age Rankings May Surprise You

You'd be hard-pressed to find a sector that's as capital intensive and competitive as the airline industry. It literally takes billions of dollars these days to get an airline company off the ground. The costs of fueling, maintaining, and purchasing new aircraft, as well as paying unionized pilots and flight attendants, is enormous and often leaves only a very small profit margin left over.

There are a number of variables that ultimately determine the success or failure of an airline. These factors can include everything from the cooperation of external costs such as jet fuel prices and public perception of the airline industry, to internal factors like labor union cooperation, total debt levels, and the overall age of company's fleet.

Source: Josh Beasley, Wikimedia Commons.

Today, I want to focus on that last key point, airline fleet age, because I believe that it's a major component to an airline's success. We'll get into the mechanics of whether older or younger fleets are better, and what advantages and disadvantages each group offers in a minute, but let's first look at where each of the 15 U.S. airlines rank among fleet age.


The nation's airline fleets
For my research I used data compiled by AirFleets.net. By its own admission, AirFleets' calculations are limited to its current subset of what it refers to as "supported aircraft," which covers a number of Boeing and Airbus models. In other words, these figures should be fairly close to accurate and will give us a good idea of fleet age, but they may not be right on the money.

Without further ado, here are the fleet age rankings from newest to oldest for the nation's 15 largest airlines:

  1. Virgin America -- 5 years
  2. Spirit Airlines (NASDAQ: SAVE  ) -- 5.2 years
  3. Republic Airways -- 5.5 years
  4. JetBlue -- 7.4 years
  5. Frontier Airlines -- 8.2 years
  6. Alaska Air (NYSE: ALK  ) -- 9.6 years
  7. Hawaiian Airlines -- 10 years
  8. AirTran -- 10.9 years
  9. SkyWest -- 11 years
  10. Southwest Airlines (NYSE: LUV  ) -- 11.7 years
  11. US Airways -- 12.1 years
  12. American Airlines -- 13.6 years
  13. United Airlines -- 13.6 years
  14. Delta Air Lines -- 16.9 years
  15. Allegiant Travel (NASDAQ: ALGT  ) -- 22 years

As you can see, from top to bottom, the age of aircraft in service more than quadruples!

Advantages and disadvantages of a newer fleet
Generally speaking, newer aircraft certainly offer their share of advantages over older aircraft. For example, newer aircraft have better fuel efficiency which results in lower fuel costs. This is important since fuel is often an airlines' biggest expense, so reducing fuel costs can go a long way to boosting margins. This is one reason that Spirit Airlines, despite being a deep-discount national airline, decided to go the route of purchasing newer planes rather than cheaper secondhand planes.


Source: Virgin America

Secondly, newer planes tend to be more comfortable for passengers; they boast Wi-Fi technology, entertainment systems, and a number of updated features. These might seem like trivial technology additions, but they're the type of add-ons that can help drive loyalty in a very cost-conscious industry. I would contend that there's no coincidence that privately held Virgin America ranked highest in U.S. customer satisfaction and that it also has the youngest fleet of the group.

In addition, newer planes have little need for maintenance, meaning that airlines with younger fleets can focus on improving capacity and worry less about whether or not their planes are going to stay in service or require maintenance.

But don't think that new planes are the answer to everything. One factor that airlines and investors should consider is that new planes aren't cheap, and purchasing new planes to take advantage of the fuel and maintenance savings has the potential to put an airline deep into debt. American Airlines Group (NASDAQ: AAL  ) , which is comprised of AMR and US Airways, has hundreds of planes on order over the coming two decades, but it also boasts $20.6 billion in total debt. This debt doesn't give the company a lot of flexibility, even post-merger, when it comes to making any strategic moves.

The answer for many of the majors is to turn toward leasing companies which offer the best of both worlds -- the potential to lease a newer aircraft with better fuel efficiency over a fixed time period without a $200 million upfront charge for a new aircraft. For leasing companies such as FLY Leasing, high aircraft pricing provides a consistent stream of customers and steady cash flow which allows it to stay ahead of the curve with newer aircraft purchases. As long as oil prices remain high and plane prices continue to rise (both very feasible scenarios), leasing companies like FLY should benefit.

Advantages and disadvantages of an older fleet
With that being said, there are a number of clear disadvantages to an older fleet. Obviously, worse fuel efficiency is going to be a big extra cost for the bottom rung of airlines, such as Delta Air Lines and Allegiant, which are running, by far, the oldest fleets.

Source: Alaska Air

Passenger comfort and amenities could also be affected as a number of older airplanes simply don't have in-flight entertainment systems. Airlines like Alaska Air have done their best to counter this with its digEplayer, a small, portable, downloadable entertainment device which flight attendants pass out during the flight and collect toward the end of a flight for a nominal fee. Not surprisingly, though, a number of the worst performers in overall customer satisfaction also have some of the oldest fleets.

On the flip side, operating an older fleet can have its advantages -- just ask Allegiant. Although Allegiant pays more in fuel costs than its peers for an equivalent amount of miles flown, it also pays far less out of pocket to acquire used planes. This difference has allowed Allegiant to remain one of the few airlines that's net cash positive, and gives it the opportunity to focus on the deep-discount niche where consumers are looking for a no-frills flying experience as long as the flight is cheap.

Source: Southwest Airlines

One final thing worth noting
Lastly, I think it's worth noting that Southwest Airlines is slowly wiggling down the list when it comes to overall fleet age. Comparatively speaking, 11.7 years isn't horrible, nor is the 10.9 years from its subsidiary AirTran. However, we're seeing an interesting twist from Southwest -- it's taking a page out of Allegiant's book and purchasing used jets from WestJet in order to cut capital spending through 2018 by approximately $500 million. The move will certainly allow Southwest to remain competitive on pricing and likely allow it to continue its "bags fly free" program for many additional years.

This approach could set the airline up to feel more pain than the majors would if fuel prices rise dramatically. It also runs the risk of alienating its core customers if the older planes are less customer-friendly when it comes to Wi-Fi, entertainment, and so on. Needless to say, Southwest is certainly reaching an inflection point, and it's definitely worth keeping an eye on.

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Read/Post Comments (26) | Recommend This Article (16)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

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  • Report this Comment On April 12, 2014, at 2:35 PM, andcen wrote:

    you fail to mention that some of the airlines with older fleets have upgraded their fleets with new seats inflight entertainment and wifi making them as good if not better than the newer planes flown by other carriers

  • Report this Comment On April 12, 2014, at 3:03 PM, Pitchfish wrote:

    On December 13, 2011, Southwest Airlines announced they would be the launch customer for the 737 MAX with a firm order of 150 aircraft and 150 options. Boeing 737 MAX is a family of aircraft based on the Boeing 737 Next Generation. It will be the fourth generation of the 737 family. The primary change is the use of the larger and more efficient CFM International LEAP-1B engines. The 737 MAX is scheduled for first delivery in 2017

  • Report this Comment On April 12, 2014, at 3:34 PM, Pitchfish wrote:

    On December 13, 2011, Southwest Airlines announced they would be the launch customer for the 737 MAX with a firm order of 150 aircraft and 150 options. Boeing 737 MAX is a family of aircraft is based on theBoeing 737 Next Generation. It will be the fourth generation of the 737 family. The primary change is the use of the larger and more efficient CFM International LEAP-1B engines. The 737 MAX is scheduled for first delivery in 2017

  • Report this Comment On April 12, 2014, at 4:07 PM, aktundra wrote:

    "In addition, newer planes have little need for maintenance" Uhhh, really? Maintenance is chiefly mandated by the FAA at intervals that are identical for all aircraft, those checks come at operational hour points, it matters not whether the plane is 2 years old or 25 yrs old. As far as daily MX, it may be true that newer planes experience less daily issues than older planes do but this is a very plane by plane thing and as I have found, it makes little difference whether the plane is newer or not, planes have MX issues all the time, new and old.

    The age of the plane makes zero difference in the kind of in flight ammenities installed such as WiFi, AVOD and also seating comfort. Comfort has no relation to the age of the airplane either, none whatsoever. Most of the planes flying now with WiFi were not delivered with WiFi installed, these are almost always aftermarket installations as are AVOD upgrades and seating upgrades. The oldest MD-80s or 737-300/400/500s can just as easily have inflight WiFi, slimline seats and enhanced interiors. Planes get upgraded at periodic MX checks and that includes keeping up with in flight entertainment systems. Alaska Airlines, used as an example has no hard wired in flight entertainment but they do have WiFi and that includes their newest 737-900s.

    EFFICIENCY: The gains in efficiency have been very small over the last 15-20 years in the narrowbody segment. Boeing's 737-NGs were introduced over 15 years and are only recently offered with small increases in efficiency such as winglets and updated engines although the 737MAX, due in 5 or 6 years will be the first real update to the 737NG in terms of efficiency. The same can be said for Airbus products, until the A320 NEO line comes out, we are talking about 15-20 yr old designs.

    DELTA: Delta is widely known to be the most conservative in terms of fleet renewal, inheriting a lot of older jets from the NW merger as well as scaling its fleet in terms more slanted toward low acquisition costs and leases than overall fuel efficiency. Their latest purchase of about all the MD-90s in the world as well as their taking of all AirTran/Southwest's 717s show how buying a 10 or 15 yr old MD-90 for less than 6 million a piece and will, in the end invest about 10 million per MD-90 once they are in service. At that point they will be virtually brand new inside and out with operating economics similar to the 737-800 for which it was originally designed to compete. A new 737-800 costs around $90 million, Delta adds 49 MD-90s for the cost of about 5 new 737-800s.

    LAST: As most aviation professionals know, a well maintained older plane is as good as a well maintained new plane and better than a neglected plane of any age. Fleet age has nothing to do with safety or comfort and only marginally to efficiency. 15 yr old planes of the current generation (737NGs, A3XXs, MD-90s/717s) all compare to planes still coming off the assembly line at Boeing and Airbus. Once the MAX and NEO are in the air there may be a better argument for getting rid of current gen planes but until then, unless you have a small fleet of identical planes (like Virgin America), there is little reason to splurge on all new planes.

  • Report this Comment On April 12, 2014, at 4:31 PM, agentwebb wrote:

    20 year old plane is equivalent to a 2 year old computer. Your article doesn't really put that into perspective for the novice reader.

  • Report this Comment On April 12, 2014, at 4:54 PM, jfelano wrote:

    Age doesn't really matter, they are meticulously maintained. The older ones use more fuel, probably why the biggest airlines charge the most.

  • Report this Comment On April 12, 2014, at 6:43 PM, SunnyDee wrote:

    Get this...American Airlines has some brand new planes, so given that these are also factored into their fleet, the rest of their planes are absolutely ancient...AND IT SHOWS! I have yet to fly an AA plane where the bathroom doesn't smell like an outhouse, before even taking off!

  • Report this Comment On April 12, 2014, at 9:02 PM, bobaadavi22 wrote:

    These are airplanes, they are not cars. They do not wear out and 12,13 years. Yes maintenance does get higher as they get older, but the cost of replacing airplanes is so high that it's frequently worth.

    I'm glad to see some airline companies buying a lot of new airplanes is good for a lot of people. But again the fact remains that airplanes do not wear out in 12 years or so. They can keep on flying sometimes for 20 or 30 years.

    When you compare that to the price of new airplanes it is Frequently worthwhile. Of course they could go and buy all new planes in which case the price of flying would get even more expensive. The safety record until last year for the United States was a great record, we went for several years without a one fatal accident. So those old airplanes can't be too bad. If you fly a lot be thankful for those older planes they help keep the prices of flying down. Why do you think the airlines want to keep flying? Because they cost more?

  • Report this Comment On April 12, 2014, at 10:13 PM, Inspectigator wrote:

    The airline industry is shrinking, from the bottom, due to a lack of pilots. The smallest airlines are parking their smallest jets, have been doing this for over a year and the process is accelerating. These planes take far more fuel, maintenance, almost everything, compared to the average. This means demand for maintenance, fuel, slots, etc will be going down, along with prices for these resources, while ticket prices will be going up especially in small markets. Southwest is well positioned.

  • Report this Comment On April 12, 2014, at 10:26 PM, jhaidar wrote:

    The article is interesting but not factual. Buying used aircraft can prove a very effective method to stabilize the books, like Delta does. In fact, Delta operates and maintains one of the safest fleets of the world. They have highly regarded engine, body and avionics workshops.

  • Report this Comment On April 13, 2014, at 12:09 AM, AcuraT wrote:

    Others have said this but I agree, this article "convientently" ignores the fact that an "old" plane can be renovated and have all the interior comforts of a modern plane, if not the fuel efficency. Delta is a model of that in operation. Find yourself a Delta plan without wi-fi despite the fact it has about the oldest fleet - you will be hard pressed to fly such a plane.

  • Report this Comment On April 13, 2014, at 2:32 AM, anrbfan wrote:

    Many planes in many fleets are 20 to 30 years old, and literally falling apart. No plane in the Qantas fleet is more than 10 years old. Qantas has been in business since 1917, and not had a single fatality yet.

  • Report this Comment On April 13, 2014, at 2:34 AM, anrbfan wrote:

    Age does matter. There is a tremendous stress on the plane at takeoff, and landing. The older the plane, the more take offs, and landings it has had, and the more apt the top is to rip off, the wings are to fall off, etc, on the next flight.

  • Report this Comment On April 13, 2014, at 2:40 AM, anrbfan wrote:

    BTW - Delta has had 13 air crashes since it started business. Maybe buying old, used, worn out, planes is not such a good idea.

  • Report this Comment On April 13, 2014, at 4:51 AM, SuntanIronMan wrote:

    @anrbfan

    The stat is that Qantas has never had any jet fatalities. They have had aircraft (non-jet) fatalities in the past, but not since 1951.

    Although your statement is quite 100% accurate, Qantas' impressive safety record does make it the safest airline in the world.

  • Report this Comment On April 13, 2014, at 4:53 AM, SuntanIronMan wrote:

    Typo in my above reply:

    *Although your statement is -not- quite 100% accurate,

  • Report this Comment On April 13, 2014, at 7:46 AM, bombadair11 wrote:

    Gee i`m suprise at the so young ages of these Airline`s aircraft. I was kinda expecting age ranges in the mid 20s. our company operates biz jets that are more than 20yeasr old, and are very well mantained.

    only wish to say that this is nothing to worry about, a testement to good construction, and getting return on the investment. Remember you are talking about multi million`s in investments in this equipment, unlike your family car. This is the transport industry. so Please stop the Hype!!

  • Report this Comment On April 13, 2014, at 10:26 AM, waveonshore wrote:

    i know planes are meticulously maintained but age affects so many materials adversely that I wonder about brittle wires, metal fatigue, dry seals... all things that can fail without warning as they age. Also, the new composite plane structures bring whole new elements of the unknown into the age equation.

  • Report this Comment On April 13, 2014, at 10:44 AM, bsleblanc wrote:

    AA was criticized in the last few years for having "older gas guzzling" MD-80's. Now that they are refreshing their fleet, they are criticized for having debt. You can't have one without the other.

    Somehow Delta retaining their MD-80's was never criticized but praised as evidence of brilliant capex discipline. Funny.

  • Report this Comment On April 13, 2014, at 1:37 PM, cadbo wrote:

    Yes I have been in the aircraft maint business for over 60 years ,flew em fixed em. Many years in flight line trouble shooting for the u.s.air force. Flat statement.We hated to get a new aircraft, normally takes about 2 years to get all the really dangerous bugs out on a new plane. today with fly by wire in any extreme the pilot has no actual control over the aircraft he can only try to out smart the computer,and you cannot outsmart something that cant think.These people claiming better fuel economy blatant bauld face liars.They mean per passenger miles floown i/e bigger planes carrying more peaple per galloon of fuel,safety has been sacrificed for profit.Not acceptable in air travel,and jet aircraft with thier thousand of tons of toxins per hour in the upper level jet streams are the main cause of freaky weather. The upper level jet streams control earths weather patterns there is a huge future for aircraft, but only in many small planes of low cost staying below 10,000 feet,and burning less than 20 gallon of fuel per hour learn or die.

  • Report this Comment On April 13, 2014, at 5:06 PM, tweets wrote:

    The age of the plane really doesn`t matter. Even on new jets, parts of older aircraft are used if they have to be replaced. It`s all about maintenance and modernization. If an airline has a 25 year old Boeing 767 that is maintained well, all the airline has to do is refurbish the interiors with the new slimline seats that have AVOD, "privacy pods" in first class for long haul flights, replace carpeting and panels as well as overhead bins and most people would never guess the age of that plane because it looks new inside. If a company has an almost spotless reputation for maintenance, I would not hesitate to fly on a 25 year old plane.

  • Report this Comment On April 14, 2014, at 5:38 AM, seaguy wrote:

    AA must really be getting rid of it's MD-80's fast cause with the number of those it has I am surprised they did not rank lower.

    Delta inherited a bunch of DC-9's from NWA and the 747-400's it has from NWA are older but have been totally refurbished and Delta is the only airline other than United that is US based that fly's 747's so I think that is worth a lower ranking.

  • Report this Comment On April 14, 2014, at 7:59 AM, globeflyer wrote:

    First, if an airline gets a passenger from A-to-B safely (and relatively comfortably) at a competitive price, they have done what they intended. Most people have no clue how expensive it is to purchase a new aircraft (nor, necessarily, should they), but here's a news flash: Airlines are in business to make money! The consumer spoke years ago, deregulation happened, and competition is vigorous. If the flying public wants all-new airplanes, it can happen, but it will take re-regulating the industry to ensure everybody makes money. (Interestingly, airlines are probably the most "regulated" industry of any "de-regulated" industry in the Country.) Whether a plane burns more gas, or not, the consumer really has no concern as long as the ticket price remains about the same as the others. That's why airlines have management and marketing departments. Finally, what most U.S. passengers don't realize is that our Government is putting U.S. carriers at a competitive disadvantage by allowing Boeing to sell aircraft to foreign carriers for less, via Export-Import Bank subsidies.

  • Report this Comment On April 14, 2014, at 11:28 AM, peabus wrote:

    Honestly, 200,000 hrs on this baby is nothing. just broken in. Don't like that one? This one over here was flown by a little old lady from Florida to go to bingo games in California.

  • Report this Comment On April 14, 2014, at 1:16 PM, Frumby wrote:

    I'm not sure where the author researched his information for this article but many of his claims are wrong. Southwest takes a page from Allegiant? Seriously? Southwest has been buying quality used aircraft for years. Heck, they started with 3 used jets. 90,000 cycles is the life expectancy of a Boeing aircraft. 1 cycle=takeoff to touchdown. Southwest has a full time team of people who scour the globe for 737's. They know where every bird is located and when it becomes available and what condition it will be in for sale.

  • Report this Comment On April 18, 2014, at 7:05 PM, clubcollins wrote:

    Man do I hate it when somebody who has NO idea what they're talking about writes an article pontificating about things they clearly DON'T understand!

    I am an airline pilot. Airliners, especially Boeings, are made to fly for a long time if properly maintained. If an airline refurbishes the interiors, most pax will never know what plane they are on or how old it is. Wi-fi and entertainment systems have nothing to do with the age of an aircraft. They can be added or upgraded anytime. And the cost advantage for newer aircraft fuel burn has to be weighed against the huge cost of buying new planes, especially when adding winglets can provide similar fuel burn to new planes.

    Delta is the master and leads the industry in getting the most out of their planes. This guy talks about older planes not having newer tech. He obviously doesn't know Delta has more wi-fi enabled aircraft than ANY other carrier in the world. His thesis goes down in flames.

    How does such an inaccurate article get written and posted?

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