Would you feel uncomfortable flying on a plane built in 1974? Harold Wilson was enjoying his second stint at number 10, the band Queen was in the glitz of him, the man’s first little step on the surface of the moon was still relatively fresh in his memory. And 1974 was also the year that a Boeing 737-200, with serial number 20836, made its first flight for Transavia Airlines, based in the Netherlands.
Forty-eight years later, Harold Wilson reshuffled this deadly spiral, as did Freddie, as NASA hopes to found a colony on Mars. But 20836 is still going strong in the services of Nolinor Aviation, a Canadian charter airline, with the registration C-GNLK.
His journey from Holland to Quebec was a tortuous one, spanning five continents. After leaving the Dutch low-cost airline in 1977, he switched to Saudia, later Aerolineas Argentinas. Next was the now defunct Australian Airlines, followed by Air Florida, another former carrier. Alaska-based MarkAir (also deceased), came later, before a stint as a cargo plane. In 2004 he went to Peru. In 2006 it was acquired by the short-lived Italian airline Voliamo. In 2008, CityLine Hungary – which went out of business in 2015 – purchased well 737.
Since 2014, however, it has served the small Nolinor Aviation, based in Mirabel, a suburb of Montreal, which serves a handful of domestic destinations using a fleet of 18 aircraft. At 48, according to the Airfleets.net database, it is the world’s oldest passenger plane still in service.
So would you feel safe on board? The reliability of older aircraft has occasionally increased, as in 2017 when a 31-year-old Jet2 aircraft, also a 737, made two emergency landings in as many weeks.
Passengers were never at risk, Jet2 said, but commentators were quick to point out the plane’s age. Registered as G-CELI, it was produced in 1986 for Lufthansa, making it almost as old as this reporter. And those problems marked the end of its many years of service: two months after the incidents, G-CELI was put into storage and then scrapped in 2020 “due to aircraft breakdowns” and “failed” repairs.
The oldest aircraft in the Jet2 fleet is currently the G-LSAI, a 35-year-old 757. On 10 April 2017, with 238 people on board, it rebounded upon landing at Alicante airport, suffering a tail swipe and extensive damage to what was the co-pilot’s last training flight, but was back in the sky in the June of the same year.
So are older planes more likely to suffer from problems? Not according to Patrick Smith, US pilot and author of Cockpit Confidential.
“Commercial aircraft are built to last more or less indefinitely, which is why they are so expensive,” he told Telegraph Travel. “It is common for a jet to remain in service for 25 years or more.”
Smith added that as planes age, they are subjected to more and more scrutiny. “The inspection criteria are becoming more and more stringent,” she said.
However, it is rare to maintain and operate a venerable aircraft like Nolinor’s 737. According to Airfleets.net, which has records for 43 models, the only older jets still active are in the hands of cargo companies and air forces. Caspian Airlines, for example, has a 52-year-old 747 (registration: EP-CQB) that once belonged to the TWA, but is used to transport goods, not people.
Conviasa, Venezuelan airline, has a 737 (registration: YV3434) that dates back to 1976, Air Inuit, based in Canada, has one that was born in 1978, RUTACA, another Venezuelan carrier, has one from 1981.
Tehran-based Mahan Air has a 1984 A300, for example, and has the oldest 747s still used for passenger services (EP-MNB, born 1989), while Zagros Airlines, also based in Iran , has a McDonnell Douglas MD-80 produced in 1985. Miami-based Little Eastern Airlines (formerly Dynamic Airways) has a 38-year-old 767, license plate N605KW.
In all likelihood you haven’t flown with any of these minnows, but get a little closer to the present day and soon the big boys will start popping up.
As a major player, Delta has some of the oldest jets. Its fleet of 841 has an average age of 14.8 years and includes a 33-year-old 757 and a 32-year-old group of 767s.
The average age of the BA fleet is 12.9 years, down from 13.7 before the Covid pandemic, and its oldest aircraft is a 777, registration G-VIID, which it received in 1997.
So have you flown on any of these esteemed birds? It’s easy to find out, thanks to the FlightRadar24 flight tracking website.
Jet2’s 35-year-old 757, G-LSAI, has spent the last week ferrying sunseekers from Manchester to Ibiza, Gran Canaria and Antalya. Delta’s oldest aircraft, license plate N658DL, is currently flying in and out of Atlanta. G-VIID, BA’s most majestic Boeing, recently flew to New York, Riyadh, Bermuda and Tel Aviv.
There is another option for older aircraft enthusiasts, however. The Airfleets.net database is not exhaustive, with the smallest rental and tour clothing not included. Like the Netherlands-based DDA Classic Airlines, which offers pleasure flights for aviation enthusiasts on a DC-3, a model that has been out of service since 1950.
Or, closer to home, there is Classic Wings, which will take you from IWM Duxford to the skies in the seat of a Spitfire, concluding with the aircraft’s signature maneuver, the victory roll. Now that will probably leave you uncomfortable.