40 Years Old But No Virgin

Northwest Airlines has begun touting its international fleet as “the youngest” of any North American airline, after taking delivery of its 32nd Airbus A330 aircraft. The self-promotion certainly makes sense. Travelers like flying in brand spanking new aircraft because they’re seen as safer, more comfortable and friendlier to the environment. Is there anything less reassuring than stepping onto an old, paint-peeled aircraft that looks like it is being held together with masking tape?

Why then does Northwest continue to push back a decision on replacing the over 100, aged McDonnell Douglas DC-9 aircraft in its domestic fleet? Some of these jets are 40 years old, boasting build dates from 1967 – the same year that Lyndon B Johnson was President; Elvis and Priscilla were married; the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band; and Pamela Anderson was born. Unlike Anderson, however, Northwest’s DC-9s haven’t received much plastic surgery of late. Some of them look downright decrepit.

Northwest says it expects to make a decision about DC-9 replacement next year. The company claims it is holding off to see if a manufacturer makes a new 100-seater that has the same carbon composites as the 787, of which Northwest is the North American launch customer with an order for 18.

The airline remains one of the leading candidates to launch Bombardier’s proposed 110-to 130-seat CSeries (it is also evaluating the Embraer E-Jet, and the Sukhoi Superjet 100). But Bombardier isn’t expected to make a CSeries launch decision until calendar 2008 with a targeted entry into service in 2013. If Northwest opts to replace it’s DC-9s with CSeries aircraft, will travellers be flying on near 45-year old DC-9s by the time CSeries deliveries take place?

That’s a question only Northwest can answer. For now, however, the carrier’s decision to advertise the newness of its international fleet only serves to highlight the fact that it’s domestic DC-9s are anything but.