After decades as a mainstay of Northwest Airlines' fleet, the DC9 will be phased out beginning this year.
In a note to pilots this week, the Eagan-based carrier said it will operate 68 DC9s by the end of 2008, which means parking about a third of the 103 it was flying as recently as last summer.
The decision comes as global oil prices remain near record highs and airlines continue to look for ways to trim costs. Northwest's DC9s are, on average, about 35 years old. Their interiors were overhauled in the 1990s, but the planes are less fuel efficient than newer models.
In a release Friday, Northwest said that even with the DC9 reduction, it would continue to increase pilot staffing.
On its Web site, the Air Line Pilots Association at Northwest said the reduction in DC9 flying "will be more than covered by the increased utilization of all the remaining aircraft."
The nation's largest airlines have been trimming the number of seats available as they try to operate more efficiently and compete with low-cost carriers. The rumors of consolidation among airlines also are fueled by a desire to eliminate overlapping routes and expenses.
Delta Air Lines reportedly has been in talks with Northwest and United Airlines about a potential merger, with the goal of picking one as a partner. That possibility continues to draw concern from politicians. On Friday, US Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. called for hearings on how potential airline mergers would affect travelers. In Memphis, Tenn., where Northwest also has a hub, US Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., also has called for hearings on a potential merger.
The composition of Northwest's fleet is one factor in any merger with another airline. It's 103 DC9s account for 20 percent of its 515-plane fleet.
Delta's oldest planes are its Boeing 737s, with the oldest models averaging about 21 years. Another group of 737s, which are newer models and average closer to five years old, number 71. And Delta's oldest 737s still account for a smaller portion of its total fleet, which numbers 649 aircraft.
Northwest hasn't laid out its plans for airline capacity in 2008. But in its last quarterly earnings release, the airline said it planned to reduce available seat miles, which is a measurement of capacity, or how many seats the airline flies. That means planes regularly would fly more fully loaded.
Three of Northwest's 747-200s, which are used to carry freight, also will be retired in 2008.
Last fall, Northwest CEO Doug Steenland said the decision on when to start retiring the single-aisle DC9s would hinge in part on whether technological advancements in narrow-body, 100-seat planes would be worth the wait.
Manufacturers have been considering the use of composite materials and new engine technology in planes that size. Composite aircraft are lighter and more fuel efficient than comparable aluminum-steel planes.
The wide-body Boeing 787 "Dreamliner" uses composite materials and has seen its production schedule delayed. But the new plane soon will occupy a key piece of the market for big commercial jets, and business-sized jets made from composites already are on the market, said R. Byron Pipes, a professor at Purdue University's School of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
The question is when will mid-sized, 100-seat planes comparable to DC9s be made of composites and start to find their way into the US commercial fleet.
"The process will complete itself" and those mid-size commercial jets eventually will roll off assembly lines, Pipes said. "This is just an evolutionary period we're in."
But even if an aircraft manufacturer announced tomorrow that it was going to start developing a mid-sized commercial jet with composites, experts say, delivery wouldn't be expected until 2013 or 2014 at the earliest.
As aircraft age, replacements may be hard to come by
NewCo would be a Northwest Airlink partner, as Mesaba and Pinnacle airlines are today, not a low-cost "airline within an airline."
Northwest said Compass would fly 36 Embraers, and that a partner to be determined later will operate the 36 Bombardiers.
Arguing for a smaller fleet to reach small and midsize markets, NWA meets resistance on its NewCo Airline plan.