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 new planes allow the airlines to save on fuel, now their biggest cost, while offering passengers more amenities – some for a fee. 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.
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; eventually it will be chopped up for scrap metal.
It’s a fate many U.S. planes are facing. On Monday, Delta Air Lines retired the last of its DC-9s, a 35-year-old jet that had been the workhorse of U.S. airlines for decades. Over the past five years U.S. airlines have retired nearly 1,300 other planes – more than 20 a month – to various desert facilities in the last five years, according to Flightglobal’s Ascend Online Fleets, which sells and tracks information about aircraft.
Southwest Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Spirit Airlines and just about every other U.S. carrier has 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 also on order with other manufacturers.
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.
The 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. The decision to buy new planes is being driven by high fuel prices, low interest rates and Wall Street financing mechanisms that allow airlines with junk bond ratings to borrow money at favorable terms. American was even able to borrow $2.7 billion for new planes while it was still in bankruptcy restructuring.
U.S. airlines burn through 16 billion gallons of jet fuel a year. A decade ago, they were paying 84 cents a gallon. Last year, paying more than $3 a gallon, U.S. airlines spent $50 billion on fuel.