How often (and under what conditions) are airliners resold to another organization with...less stringent qualifications? Is there a certain number of hours after which an airliner has to be retired or something? Or is it just that airlines like to buy new and shinier airplanes on occasion?

Further, when an aircraft is being resold, are there any particular procedures that have to be followed? And are there different levels of airworthiness involved (ie., you have a lower litmus test if you are just selling it off to be used as a cargo plane or private plane?)


5 Answers 5


Some reasons for an airline to sell some of its fleet:

  • they need quick cash (as ratchet freak points out). This usually means the company is in serious trouble
  • they're changing their route network and there's no more need for it (e.g. KLM dropped a lot of very short flights in the 1990s and early 2000s, and got rid of the aircraft that were operating them as they were inappropriate for the longer routes that replaced them)
  • they bought out another airline and have no need for (all) its aircraft, or want to replace them with other types to keep their fleet homogenous (operating many similar types is less economical than operating a smaller number of types)
  • they're splitting part of their operations to a new company set up for the purpose (the new company becoming the new owner of the aircraft, usually for a symbolic fee), for example a regional affiliate or a charter operation
  • it may be more economical to replace the aircraft then to keep them. When NWA decided to replace their DC9 fleet with A320s this was for economic reasons (lower maintenance and fuel cost for example), not because the aircraft had run out of fatigue life. The aircraft were old so most probably were scrapped, but some may well have ended up with airlines in other countries, replacing even older aircraft or expanding existing DC9 fleets there.
  • and some airlines just want to portray a public image of always flying shiny new aircraft. I believe Singapore Airlines used to have a policy like that and replace everything it bought relatively quickly (more so than most other airlines at least). PanAm was like that as well. If you have a reputation of exclusivity, this may add to customers' willingness to pay premium to fly with you
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ +1 Lots of good points, including the fact that there are many good reasons to do it. Another one you could add is keeping maintenance simple. Many low cost carrier deliberately choose to fly only new aircrafts, all of the same type, replacing them quickly and occasionally switching from one type to the next. They are therefore constantly selling perfectly good aircrafts as part of their strategy. $\endgroup$
    – Relaxed
    Commented Aug 21, 2014 at 9:10
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @Relaxed yes, good point. And of course many of them will just take relatively short dry lease contracts on their aircraft, returning them to the lease company for the newest latest and greatest after 5 years or so $\endgroup$
    – jwenting
    Commented Aug 21, 2014 at 9:27

Answer to this question can be very conditional. Different airlines have different policies and depends on economic status of country its operating.

  1. Some airlines have policy to retire aircraft after a fixed number of hours of operations irrespective of the condition of aircraft. They either sell it to other company our lease it out. This model of aircraft retirement prevails in company having robust operation and good flow of finances. Under these conditions retired aircraft are not UN-airworthy or unfit for flying,however they are used by small airlines and also in less developed countries.

  2. Second Consideration on retirement of aircraft, also depends on pressurization cycles that an aircraft underwent. In big transport airlines aircraft there is pressurization system , which involves cycle of pressurization. Each cycle has impact on air- frame of aircraft. After certain number of pressurization cycles aircraft may be assume to be unfit for flying and can be retired.

  3. Third scenario is aircraft met an serious accident and its beyond repair , hence declared un-airworthy, therefore retired.
  4. Aircraft must meet certain parameters in terms of performance, if aircraft does not meet that criterion of performance set by civil aviation regulation authority, in this situation an aircraft has to be repaired to achieve required standard of airworthiness. In case if it cannot achieve that hence again it is retired aircraft.
  5. Time to time aircraft is inspected by civil aviation regulatory authority for the health of its components, including air frame , engines etc. In situation aircraft is declared to crossed it age to be airworthy , can also be treated as retired aircraft.
  6. Most common criterion of aircraft retirement is fixed by air regulation authority , if they declare aircraft un-airworthy and deny to issue certificate of airworthiness. This is ultimate situation of aircraft retirement

To answer your second question, when aircraft are being sold it is common practice to perform a check ride in which the plane is put through a series of less-than-normal flight maneuvers that would reveal possible signs of impending maintenance and/or damage. This (AFAIK) is not a requirement, but rather a good business practice.

To answer your first question (poorly), it most likely depends on airline policies. Aircraft that are not fit for flight are simply not fit for flight, however airline policies, and/or the economics of retaining specific aircraft may contribute to the sale of airliners. An additional factor may be fluctuations in demand for certain routes, in which cases certain types of aircraft may become less feasible to own (turboprops are more economical for shorter routes, jets are better for longer routes).

Airlines also engage in the practice of loaning aircraft to other airlines.

Source: http://airinsight.com/2011/08/19/jet-vs-turboprop-a-debate-that-dates-from-the-early-1950s/#.U_WMD7xdUkU

  • $\begingroup$ turbofans are better for long routes only specialist applications use turbojets anymore $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 21, 2014 at 0:41
  • $\begingroup$ @BrianWheeler it's quite possible for an aircraft to be unfit for service in one country but legal in another. Especially in Africa and parts of Asia the maintenance and safety requirements are rather more lax than in say Europe or north America. $\endgroup$
    – jwenting
    Commented Aug 21, 2014 at 6:46
  • $\begingroup$ @jwenting Are you sure requirements are generally more lax in Africa? I would suspect that it's mostly enforcement which is lax or even completely lacking in some countries… $\endgroup$
    – Relaxed
    Commented Aug 21, 2014 at 9:12
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Relaxed a rule that doesn't get enforced is a rule that might as well not exist... So whether it's de-facto or de-jure, the rules are more lax there (and for sure that's the case for emission and noise requirements, which is a big reason for European and North American airlines to retire aircraft before they run out of fatigue life). $\endgroup$
    – jwenting
    Commented Aug 21, 2014 at 9:25

There is a maximum number of flights/flight hours after which the plane needs to retire (aka scrapped for parts). The main reason for this is the metal fatigue by the pressurization cycles. If you ignore that then you have the same issue as Aloha flight 243 meaning the fuselage will simply rip itself apart.

One reason an airline sells a plane is if it is strapped for money. And no company is going to buy a used plane when they won't get their investment back.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Airlines have many reasons to sell aircraft, needing the cash is just one of them. $\endgroup$
    – jwenting
    Commented Aug 21, 2014 at 6:48
  • $\begingroup$ Money is a common factor, but cash demand is just one concern. A company which retired 9 out of 10 planes of a given model may sell the last one so they don't need to stock spare parts anymore, keep pilots proficient on the model etc. $\endgroup$
    – MSalters
    Commented Aug 21, 2014 at 7:32
  • $\begingroup$ “The only reason” is inaccurate. $\endgroup$
    – Relaxed
    Commented Aug 21, 2014 at 9:13

There are few reasons an airline would sell an airworthy aircraft. As long as the aircraft can fly, it can make money. It typically comes down to pure cost-benefits and risk analysis:

  • First off, if the FAA says the plane's flying days are over, then there's no decision to make; it makes one last run with a flight crew only to a boneyard like Arizona, where it will eventually be stripped for usable parts and the rest scrapped to recycle the metal. Even if the FAA will let the plane fly, the airline's insurer may take a look at the maintenance history and the problems found and say "uh-uh", figuring more problems are just around the corner.

  • Second, even if the frame's still airworthy and insurable, it might cost more in replacement parts and maintenance to keep it that way than it's worth carrying passengers. AA finally came to that conclusion with its MD-80 fleet; the Super-80 has been out of production for over 15 years now, parts only get scarcer, and its relatively narrow fuselage increases load-in/load-out times and reduces passenger comfort compared to its replacements like the A319 and 737 (which carry about the same passenger count in a shorter, fatter fuselage that feels roomier), meaning people were less and less likely to choose American if the plane for the flight would be a Super-80.

  • Third, an airline's basic strategy may change. An airline may spin off a regional subsidiary (and its Embraer puddle-hoppers), or reduce international flights (thus retiring some older 747s without replacing them). Southwest is making a more subtle change, opting for the larger 737-800 over the 300s and then 700s it had previously favored, using the larger size to get more passengers into fewer gates at the smaller or older airports it tends to service, like its primary hub at DAL which is limited to 20 total gates by the agreement that repealed the Wright Amendment.


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