Northwest Airlines ( NWACQ) is planning to retire the last dozen DC10 airplanes in the U.S. that fly passengers, replacing them on prized long-haul routes with newer, more efficient jets that have far more amenities. The airplanes' retirement could also force out several dozen pilots who are over 60. Federal regulations prohibit pilots who are over 60 from flying as captains or first officers, but allow them to fly as second officers. The DC10 is one of the few aircraft that requires what was once common -- three-man crews that include a second officer, also known as a flight engineer. "The DC10 is a reliable airplane, fun to fly, roomy and quiet, kind of like flying an old Cadillac Fleetwood," says Wade Blaufuss, spokesman for the Northwest chapter of the Air Line Pilots Association. "We're sad to see an old friend go." Most of Northwest's roughly 100 DC10 flight engineers are older pilots who chose to extend their careers, "in order to delay retirement or to make up for pensions that were lost" in airline bankruptcies, says Blaufuss, who flew for five years as a DC10 flight engineer. Northwest also flies the 747-200 made by Boeing ( BA), and it, too, requires flight engineers, some of whom could be bumped by DC10 pilots with more seniority. Northwest first flew the DC10 in 1972 after placing an order four years earlier. Its DC10 fleet peaked in 2001 with 45 aircraft, including 24 DC10-30s with 273 seats and 21 DC10-40s with 236 seats. By that year, though, the airplane's time was already passing. "When we landed them in Europe, guys from other airlines would come over and look at them," Blaufuss says. "You don't see them much anymore. They're kind of antiques." Northwest's remaining 12 DC10 aircraft in service are all from the 30 series, including five of the last six to be built at the old McDonnell Douglas Long Beach, Calif., production facility. The last scheduled DC10 passenger flight in the U.S. will be Northwest Flight 98, currently scheduled to depart Honolulu on Jan. 7, 2007, and arrive in Minneapolis the morning of Jan. 8.
Despite the history, "It's tough to be sentimental about replacing a DC10 with an A330," says Richard Aboulafia, an analyst at the Teal Group. During the next seven months, Northwest will replace the DC10s with new Airbus A330s, as they are delivered, and with Boeing 747-400s being returned to service. Northwest began taking delivery of A330s in 2003 and now flies 20 of them in trans-Atlantic, trans-Pacific and intra-Asia service. Another 12 will arrive by the end of 2007. By the end of October, all Northwest trans-Atlantic flights will be on A330s. The planes are equipped with lie-flat seats in upper classes, new coach seats and interactive, large-screen entertainment systems. Additionally, the plane costs up to 30% less than a DC10-30 to operate because of lower expenses for maintenance and fuel. On the Minneapolis-Amsterdam route, for example, the A330 carries 25 more passengers, yet consumes 6,100 fewer gallons of fuel each way than the DC10. On routes from Honolulu to Tokyo and Osaka, Northwest plans to replace DC10s with three Boeing 747-400s by Oct. 1. The three-engine DC10 was the first widebody aircraft to be introduced after the Boeing 747, says consultant Scott Hamilton, who publishes an online newsletter about Airbus and Boeing. It competed with the first middle-market airplane, the Lockheed 1011. The L1011 was flown by Delta Air Lines ( DALRQ), Eastern Airlines and TWA, while most others flew the DC10. Boeing wasn't really in the middle market until it introduced the 767 in 1982, Hamilton says. Today, the largest DC-10 operator is FedEx ( FDX) which has a fleet of 89. "The DC10 is going to be remembered as a better cargo plane than passenger plane," Aboulafia says. The plane's retirement was inevitable given the rapid rise of fuel costs, Aboulafia says. Following a 1989 leveraged buyout, Northwest carried a high debt load, which encouraged a decision to retain older airplanes. As long as fuel prices remained low, "Northwest looked great because they weren't burdened with capital spending," he says. "But right now, it's not such a great bet." The real question regarding Northwest's fleet, of course, regards the future of its 160 DC-9s. "The DC-9 fleet has an average age of 40 years," Hamilton says. "It needs to go away, and when it does, that will be a highly sought aircraft order for Airbus and Boeing, and perhaps for Embraer as well."