The oldest passenger airplanes still in the sky

By TravelWiseFeb 27, 2024 22:35 PMNews
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The oldest passenger airplanes still in the sky
Nolinor Aviation is distinguished by its venerable fleet, including this 40-year-old 737. Source: Quintin Soloviev

Would you feel uncomfortable flying on an airplane built in 1974? That's when the Boeing 737-200 with serial number 20836 made its first flight for Transavia, an airline based in the Netherlands.

This aircraft is still in service today, operated by the Canadian charter airline Nolinor Aviation under the registration number C-GNLK. According to the Airfleets.net database, it is the world's oldest passenger aircraft still in operation, at 49.7 years old, the Telegraph reports.

The reliability of older aircraft occasionally improves, as in 2017, when a 31-year-old Jet2, also a 737, made two emergency landings in a few weeks. The passengers were not in danger, Jet2 said, but commentators were quick to point out the age of the plane. Registered as a G-CELI, it was manufactured in 1986 for Lufthansa. And these problems spelled the end of its long service - two months after the incidents, the G-CELI was placed in storage and then scrapped in 2020 "due to malfunctions on board the aircraft" and "unsuccessful" repairs.

The oldest passenger airplanes still in the sky
In 2017, a 31-year-old Jet2 aircraft, also a 737, made two emergency landings in a few weeks. Source: Jet2

The oldest aircraft in Jet2's fleet is currently the G-LSAI, a 36.3-year-old 757. On April 10, 2017, with 238 people on board, it bounced back on landing at Alicante Airport, suffering a tail strike and significant damage during the co-pilot's last training flight, but took to the skies again in June of that year.

So are older aircraft more prone to problems? Airlines and aviation experts have a definite answer: "No" - as long as they are well maintained.

"It's not the age of the aircraft that matters, but its maintenance," says Henry Harteveldt, an aviation analyst with the US-based Atmosphere Research Group. "There are DC3s built in the 1930s and 1940s that are still flying safely in different parts of the world. Delta still operates Boeing 767s that were built 30 or more years ago. Sure, the cabins may be a bit outdated, but the planes themselves operate reliably and safely."

Airlines will, of course, regularly renew their fleets, but the motivating factor is economics, not safety. "Age alone does not force aircraft to retire," Harteveldt said. "Two other things do: poor fuel efficiency and low availability of spare parts."

John Strickland, aviation consultant, added: "As aircraft age, the need for maintenance increases, requiring more time on the ground and increasing costs for operators. This can become economically unprofitable, and the airline may simply decide to decommission the aircraft and scrap it. Another problem is that older aircraft also make more noise, and some airports may impose financial penalties for this."

So it is certainly a rare thing to maintain and operate a venerable aircraft like Nolinor's 737. According to the Airfleets.net website, which has 43 models registered, the only older aircraft still in operation are in the hands of cargo companies and the air force. Caspian Airlines, for example, has a 54-year-old 747 (registration: EP-CQB) that once belonged to TWA - but it is used to transport cargo, not people.

Nolinor Aviation is notable for its venerable fleet, including this 40-year-old 737, Quintin Solovyov

Slightly younger than Nolinor's C-GNLK is the C-GMAI, a 737 built in 1978 and operated by Air Inuit, also based in Canada. The Venezuelan airline RUTACA has one aircraft (YV380T), which first took off in 1981.

Tehran-based Mahan Air has a 1987 A300, as well as the oldest 747 still in use for passenger transportation (EP-MNR, 1987), while Zagros Airlines, also based in Iran, has a 1985 McDonnell Douglas MD-80. Little Eastern Airlines (formerly Dynamic Airways), based in Miami, has a 40-year-old 767, registration number N605KW.

How old is the airplane that is taking you on vacation? It's easy to find out thanks to FlightRadar24, a flight tracking website.

"Airlines brag about having the youngest fleets because they think it gives them a marketing advantage," says Harteveldt. - "They believe - perhaps correctly - that passengers will feel more confident choosing a carrier with younger aircraft because newer aircraft are perceived to be safer. Of course, there are also environmental benefits. But, as the Boeing 737 Max has shown, just because an aircraft is new doesn't mean it's perfect."

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