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Airlines Splurge on New, Fuel-Efficient Jets

A world traveller cabin is seen in the British Airways Airbus A380 at Heathrow airport in London

A world traveller cabin is seen in the British Airways Airbus A380 at Heathrow airport in London Paul Hackett / Reuters

With many airlines flying aircraft built a decade or two ago, it's been a while since most fliers have experienced that new plane smell or the latest in creature comforts and aviation design. But an "unprecedented" spending spree by carriers promises to change that in the years to come.

Both Boeing and Airbus reported a spectacularly successful 2013, delivering hundreds of new planes to commercial carriers and preparing to build thousands more.

"The number of orders is unprecedented. The rate at which new aircraft are being produced is really phenomenal."

For travelers, those shiny new aircraft may mean more nonstop flights, fewer delays, seats with handy accessories such as power outlets and better cabin air, but little difference in legroom if you're flying coach, industry observers said.

"Newer aircraft are generally more people pleasing," said Henry Harteveldt, an airline and travel industry analyst at Hudson Crossing. "They're more likely to have the amenities we like and will pay for, they're more likely to be reliable and help the airline keep on time, so it's a good thing all around for the traveler."

Airlines are eager to buy new planes so they can save money, Harteveldt noted. New models are more fuel-efficient, which means carriers can cut down on fuel bills — their biggest expense — and operate routes that were previously unprofitable.

But the last decade was so terrible from a financial perspective that U.S. carriers have just recently become more comfortable about renewing their fleets, said airline analyst Robert Mann of R.W. Mann & Company.

"The number of orders is unprecedented," Mann said. "The rate at which new aircraft are being produced is really phenomenal."

Last week, Airbus announced it received 1,619 commercial orders in 2013, which it called a new industry record. Boeing's figure, released earlier this month, stood at 1,531 — a company record.

Boeing delivered 648 planes in 2013 — another company "best ever" — while Airbus delivered 626 planes.

Each company also reported an impressive list of planes to be built in the near future, with Airbus' backlog climbing to 5,559 aircraft last year and Boeing's figure finishing at 5,080.

Much of the investment is being driven by non-U.S. airlines, especially carriers in developing areas such as the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and Central and South America, Harteveldt said.

U.S. carriers are opening their wallets as well. American Airlines has begun to take delivery of some of the 460 narrow-body, single-aisle jets it ordered from Boeing and Airbus in 2011 — the largest aircraft order in aviation history. United, Delta and Southwest also have orders in place, Harteveldt said.

Those new planes will feature better lighting, improved cabin air and enhanced entertainment systems, Mann noted. Passengers will also see roomier overhead bins.

"Every new airplane that's come into service has had more overhead bin cubic volume per passenger than the last generation," Mann said. "(But) simply providing more space induces more people to try to use it, so you'll never have enough."

Don't expect roomier seats, however, unless you're splurging on business or first class. As always, airlines are seeking to squeeze the most revenue they can get from each plane, which means fitting in more seats, Harteveldt said.

However, more fuel-efficient planes mean travelers can expect more nonstop flights. The Boeing 787 Dreamliner, for example, can fly nonstop between almost any two airports in the world, Harteveldt said.

New planes require less maintenance and break down less frequently, resulting in fewer mechanical delays – at least in theory. Boeing's new Dreamliner disappointed with its well-publicized problems.

"But once the teething problems of an airplane are worked out, generally newer aircraft are more reliable," Harteveldt said.

And if you're worried the airline shopping spree might result in higher airfares, that's not likely to happen. If anything, new planes allow carriers to help keep their costs under control, Harteveldt said.