Introducing the oldest passenger plane still in the sky

·5-min read
plane talk old aircraft jet2 airports travel holidays flights - Getty
plane talk old aircraft jet2 airports travel holidays flights - Getty

Would you feel uneasy flying on a plane built in 1974? Harold Wilson was enjoying his second stint in Number 10, the band Queen was in its pomp, man’s first small step on the surface of the moon was still relatively fresh in the memory. And 1974 was also the year that a Boeing 737-200, with the serial number 20836, made its maiden flight for Transavia Airlines, based in the Netherlands.

Forty-eight years on, Harold Wilson has shuffled off this mortal coil, as has Freddie, while Nasa is hoping to start a colony on Mars. But 20836 is still going strong in the services of Nolinor Aviation, a Canadian charter airline, under the registration C-GNLK.

Its journey from Holland to Quebec has been a circuitous one, covering five continents. After leaving the low-cost Dutch airline in 1977 it went to Saudia, then Aerolineas Argentinas. Next up was the now-defunct Australian Airlines, followed by Air Florida, another former carrier. MarkAir, based in Alaska (also deceased), came next, before a stint as a cargo plane. In 2004, it went to Peru. In 2006, it was bought by the short-lived Italian airline Voliamo. In 2008, CityLine Hungary – which ceased trading in 2015 – snapped up the well travelled 737.

Since 2014, however, it has been in the services of little Nolinor Aviation, based in Mirabel, a suburb of Montreal, which serves a handful of domestic destinations using a fleet of 18 aircraft. At 48 years, it is, according to the database of Airfleets.net, the world’s oldest passenger plane still in service.

So would you feel safe on board? The reliability of elderly aircraft is occasionally raised, such as in 2017 when a 31-year-old Jet2 plane, 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 age of the aircraft. Registered as G-CELI, it was manufactured in 1986 for Lufthansa, making it almost as old as this reporter. And those problems signalled the end of its many years of service – two months after the incidents, G-CELI was placed in storage and then scrapped in 2020 “due to failures on board the aircraft” and “failed” repairs.

The oldest plane in the Jet2 fleet is currently G-LSAI, a 35-year-old 757. On April 10, 2017, with 238 people on board, it bounced on landing at Alicante Airport, suffering a tail strike and extensive damage on what was the co-pilot’s final training flight, but was back in the sky in June of that year.

So are older planes any more likely to suffer problems? Not according to Patrick Smith, a US pilot and author of Cockpit Confidential.

“Commercial aircraft are built to last more or less indefinitely, which is one of the reasons why they’re so expensive,” he told Telegraph Travel. “It’s common for a jet to remain in service for 25 years or more.”

Smith added that as planes get older they come under ever greater scrutiny. “Inspection criteria grow increasingly strict,” he said.

Even still, it’s rare to maintain and operate an aircraft as venerable as Nolinor’s 737. According to Airfleets.net, which carries records for 43 models, the only older jets still active are in the hands of cargo firms and air forces. Caspian Airlines, for example, has a 52-year-old 747 (registration: EP-CQB) that once belonged to TWA – but it is used for transporting goods, not people.

Conviasa, a Venezuelan passenger 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 carrier from Venezuela, has one from 1981.

Tehran-based Mahan Air has an A300 from 1984, for example, and has the oldest 747s still being used for passenger services (EP-MNB, born in 1989), while Zagros Airlines, also based in Iran, has a McDonnell Douglas MD-80 made in 1985. Little Eastern Airlines (formerly Dynamic Airways), based in Miami, has a 38-year-old 767, registration N605KW

In all likelihood you haven’t flown with any of these minnows, but step a little closer to the modern day and the big boys soon start cropping up.

Of the major players, 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 clutch of 32-year-old 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 flight tracking website FlightRadar24.

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, registration N658DL, is currently flying in and out of Atlanta. G-VIID, BA’s most stately Boeing, has recently been flying to New York, Riyadh, Bermuda and Tel Aviv.

There is another option for fans of elderly aircraft, however. The Airfleets.net database is not exhaustive, with the smallest charter and sightseeing outfits not included. Such as DDA Classic Airlines, based in the Netherlands, 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’s Classic Wings, which will take you from IWM Duxford to the heavens in the seat of a Spitfire, concluding with the aircraft’s signature manoeuvre, the victory roll. Now that probably will leave you feeling uneasy.