Max Kingsley-Jones/LONDON

THIS YEAR's Flight International census of ageing airliners shows a growth of 6% (to some 8,200) in the number of jet-powered and turboprop aircraft more than 15 years old in active service at 1 January, 1996.

The number of jet-airliners in existence, which qualify for the census this year totals 6,114, some 443 more than in 1995. Of these, around 4,600 are Western-manufactured models. The oldest jet-airliner still being operated commercially is a 1959-build Boeing 707: while some 1958-build examples remain in existence, they are in storage.

This year, the Boeing 767 has become the first of the newer-generation airliners to join the census, with the early build -200s now 15 years old. From 1997, several other newer-generation types will qualify for the census, including the Airbus A310, Boeing 757, and British Aerospace 146.

The stored jet-airliner fleet is now almost half that of a few years ago, when the world's inactive fleet was well over the 1,000 mark for some time. As of mid-1996, the Airclaims Jet Storage Update (JSU) publication recorded some 640 inactive aircraft, which is about 5% of the total fleet (12,600 units). JSU shows that, 12 months ago, some 740 jet-airliners were parked, and this total has gradually decreased in peaks and troughs to the mid-1996 tally.

The glut of Stage 2 airliners such as the McDonnell Douglas (MDC) DC-9 and the Boeing 727 and 737 had a corresponding effect on the types' market value and attainable lease rates. The USA, therefore, saw a massive rebirth of new airlines starting operations, most using these old narrow-bodies. The higher operating costs associated with these noisy, less-efficient aircraft are offset by the much lower acquisition costs.



In recent months, the safety standards of these old airliners have received much media coverage on both sides of the Atlantic, caused mostly by the ValuJet DC-9 accident near Miami, Florida, in May. There have been incidents in the past, which could be attributed to the age or high utilisation of the aircraft, such as the Aloha 737-200 cabin-roof structural failure in April 1988. That particular incident was the catalyst for the implementation of the US Federal Aviation Administration-led ageing-airliner programme, which imposed more stringent inspection and maintenance schedules on the older airliners. Now that the integrity of older airliners is under such close scrutiny, it is perhaps the public's perception of these aircraft, rather than their safety levels, which needs to be attended to.

The fall in the overall number of stored aircraft results from several factors. Firstly, improving traffic growth has seen many of the newer-generation aircraft (the Airbus A320, CFM-powered 737 and 757 and the MDC MD-80) being recalled for service, while some older non-Stage 3 aircraft have been permanently withdrawn. There are, however, many older widebodies still in store, such as Airbus A300s, Boeing 747s, Lockheed TriStars and MDC DC-10s. The upward pressure on the stored fleet was also relieved by the cutback in production rates of new aircraft, and carriers are now able to align the delivery of new equipment to the traffic levels.

At the depth of the recent recession, a roll-over policy adopted by some airlines saw old Stage 2 aircraft (for example, 727s) which were approaching major checks being swapped for similar parked examples with "fresher" maintenance status. This saved money on apparently unnecessary downtime and maintenance costs, but resulted in many stored aircraft being "run-out" (ie, many components require overhaul), and requiring expensive overhauls to be fit for service again.

This factor has resulted in many of these older aircraft being sold for spares, or simply broken up. Over the past few years, Western-built jet-airliner retirements have been at around 130 aircraft, with a significant number of widebodies being sold for spares.


According to London, UK-based aviation consultancy Airclaims, more than 70 widebodies have now been permanently withdrawn, the largest number of which are 747s. The Boeing machine was the first widebodied jet-airliner built, and remains the largest airliner to enter service. The oldest examples are now more than 25 years old, and the oldest have now reached 100,000 flight hours. The low market value of these older aircraft, combined with their associated high maintenance costs (there are mandatory requirements for certain expensive structural inspections/repairs and the retrofit of new engine pylons), means that the only economic solution is to break the aircraft.

The fleet of 747-100s and, to a lesser extent, the -200s, was made redundant by the "knock-on effect" as airlines took new 747-400s. While some of the older 747s have moved on to second- and third-tier operators, or for use as freighters, almost 40 have now been broken for spares, including seven early-build 747-200s.

The oldest 747SPs are now more than 20 years old, and the long-term future of this aircraft is expected to be in the executive role. A total of 45 examples of this long-range, short-fuselage, derivative was produced, but most have now been removed from the fleets of first-tier carriers. At least eight 747SPs are now flown in the executive role (most operated by the governments of the Arabian Gulf states) and more are expected to follow. Five of United Airlines' early-build examples have already been sold for spares, however.

The first of the widebodied tri-jets are also now approaching the 25-year-old mark and some have been sold for spares, while others are beginning new lives as freighters. These first-generation widebodies are seen by many as the natural successors to the 707 and MDC DC-8 freighters now in operation.

The variants of the DC-10 were produced for two distinct markets, with the initial short-range -10 variant, aimed at the US domestic networks (the majority sold to American Airlines and United Airlines), and the longer range -30/40 designed for intercontinental operations. While the passenger market for the latter remains strong, it is likely that the future for the -10 will be in the freight role, with FedEx expected to acquire the majority of the fleet. Seven DC-10s have been sold for spares, and around 60 of the 360 units in existence (excluding military KC-10A tankers) are inactive at the moment.

The Lockheed TriStar has always played second fiddle to the DC-10, and at least 20 of the 250 aircraft built have now been permanently withdrawn. The stored fleet (43 units) is also proportionally higher. As cargo conversions are available, and more than a dozen aircraft have been subjected to, or earmarked for, conversion. The ultimate size of the TriStar freighter market remains to be seen.

The A300B2/B4 fleet suffered, as frequency and competition, combined with the recession, caused traffic levels to fall on the traditional short-range, high-capacity, routes for which they were designed, to a level, which favours higher-frequency operations using smaller narrowbodied aircraft.

This factor, combined with the failures of large operators such as Pan American Airways and Eastern Airlines, has resulted in around 50 aircraft - over 20% of the A300B fleet (237 units) - being in storage. A freighter modification for this aircraft is also offered, and Airbus sees a market for over 100 A300/A310 conversions through to 2005.


While the ageing-jet-airliner fleet has seen significant gains, the ageing-turboprop fleet as reflected in this year's survey has increased only slightly, to 2,099. The oldest turboprops still in operation are examples of the converted Convair piston twins (the CV-580 and 600/640). Although re-engined with turboprop engines in the 1960s, the airframes date back more than 40 years. Some Vickers Viscounts and Fokker F27s still in operation are 38 years old.

Many older turboprops are now being operated in the cargo role, having been succeeded by the new-generation types on passenger-carrying routes.

The Western-built-turboprop stored fleet now exceeds the jet tally, with almost 700 aircraft recorded as inactive in the latest edition of Airclaims Turboprop Storage Update. This represents around 9% of the world turboprop fleet, almost double that of the jet-airliner stored/total-fleet ratio.

Unlike the jet airliners, the stored turboprop fleet has not declined significantly as the industry moves out of recession, suggesting that over capacity is still a problem in this market. Annual turboprop retirements have been more than 50 in recent years.

Of the types included in this census, the Fokker/Fairchild F27/FH227 fleet has the largest in storage with almost 100 recorded as inactive. At 514 aircraft, however, the total F27/FH227 fleet remains the largest of any single type.

Source: Flight International