Airlines go on jet shopping spree

At an American Airlines  facility in Grapevine, Texas, the interior of a new aircraft was on display. <span>Airlines worldwide have been purchasing new planes, in part to save on fuel costs.</span>
At an American Airlines facility in Grapevine, Texas, the interior of a new aircraft was on display. <span>Airlines worldwide have been purchasing new planes, in part to save on fuel costs.</span> LM Otero/Associated Press

ROSWELL, N.M. — Captain 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 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 new planes let airlines to save on fuel, now their biggest cost, while giving passengers more amenities, some for a fee. Passengers can plug in to work or be entertained by a seatback TV and fly some international routes nonstop for the first time. 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.


But US airlines are buying too. After suffering the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, bankruptcies, and recessions, they are now strong enough financially to buy 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, carriers must replace old gas-guzzlers.

On Monday, Delta Air Lines retired the last of its DC-9s, a 35-year-old jet that had been the workhorse of US airlines for decades. During the past five years US airlines have retired nearly 1,300 other planes — more than 20 a month — to various desert facilities, according to Flightglobal’s Ascend Online Fleets, which sells and tracks aircraft data.

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

Southwest Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Spirit Airlines and just about every other US carrier has a large order. Nearly 1,500 new planes will be delivered to US airlines by Airbus and Boeing during the next decade.

The new planes cater to passengers’ changing habits. Instead of reading a paperback book or magazine from the airport gift shop, travelers today are surfing the Internet or reading on their Kindle or iPads.


So this new generation of planes provide passengers with larger overhead bins, power outlets and USB ports, better lighting and a less-claustrophobic feel. There’s also less noise and — in many cases — individual TVs.

‘‘We want to give you a sense of as much space as possible,’’ says Mike Henny, Delta’s director of customer experience. ‘‘A darker space doesn’t feel as spacious as a lighter one.’’