Share This Page

Airlines go on jet buying spree

| Friday, Jan. 10, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

ROSWELL, N.M. — Capt. Paul Wann­berg glides an old Boeing 757 over the New Mexico desert, lining up with the runway. A computerized voice squawks elevation warnings. Forty feet. Thirty. Twenty. Ten. Touchdown.

Outside the cockpit window sit nearly a hundred airplane carcasses, perfectly lined up. They are jets that nobody wants anymore. And — after 26,057 takeoffs and landings — this 24-year-old American Airlines plane is about to join them.

“This is my first time here, and it's a sad place,” First Officer Robert Popp tells the control tower. Airlines used to store planes in the desert during slow travel months. Sometimes, unwanted jets would be sold to carriers in Russia or Africa. Today, a man on the other end of the radio responds, “they're chopping them up.”

Airlines are on the largest jet-buying spree in the history of aviation, ordering more than 8,200 new planes with manufacturers Airbus SAS and The Boeing Co. in the past five years. There are now a combined 24 planes rolling off assembly lines each week, up from 11 a decade ago. And that rate is expected to keep climbing.

The planes allow the airlines to save on fuel, now their biggest cost, while offering passengers more amenities — some for a fee. Passengers can plug in to work or be entertained by a seat-back TV and fly some international routes nonstop for the first time. And the commercial divisions of Boeing and Airbus get a steady stream of cash for years, which is a key reason investors have doubled the companies' stock price in the past year.

The bulk of the planes are going to new or quickly growing airlines that serve an expanding middle class in India and the rest of Asia. The International Air Transport Association expects the number of passengers worldwide to grow 31 percent to 3.9 billion in the next four years.

U.S. airlines are buying as well. After suffering through the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, bankruptcies and recessions, they're now strong enough financially to buy new jets. Domestic carriers spent $11.6 billion last year on capital improvements — including new planes — up from $5.2 billion in 2010.

With the price of fuel nearly 4 times what it was 10 years ago, airlines need to replace aging gas-guzzlers — like the American 757 that Capt. Wannberg parked in the desert in Ros­well.

The plane showed its age. Many armrests originally came with ashtrays. The seatback pocket on 27D was hanging by its last thread. And the window shade at 1F wouldn't close. American would have had to spend $6 million to $10 million for heavy maintenance checks on the airframe, overhauls of the engines and other part replacements to keep the plane flying.

Instead, it went to Ros­well. There, the dry air prevents the aluminum airframe from corroding. Spare parts will be harvested from the jet.

American's old 757 will be replaced by one of 460 new single-aisle jets that the airline ordered in July 2011 — the largest single airplane order in history. The first one entered service on Sept. 16, and American is taking delivery of an additional plane every week — models like the A321 from Airbus or the Boeing 737.

Southwest Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Spirit Airlines and just about every other U.S. carrier have a large order in place.

Nearly 1,500 new planes will be delivered to U.S. airlines by Airbus and Boeing over the next decade. Several hundred smaller regional jets are on order with other manufacturers.

“We are producing twice as many airplanes today as we were 10 years ago,” said Mary Prettyman, Airbus' vice president of strategic marketing for the Americas. It will take Airbus eight years to fill all its orders. “It's unprecedented.”

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.