Just when is an airplane too old?
Most fliers probably don’t think about it much during air travel, although it can be quite unsettling upon easing yourself into your economy class seat to discover the armrest is still equipped with an ashtray.
However, the recent story of a five foot hole tearing open in the roof of a 15 year old Southwest Airlines plane was enough for some people to start raising concerns about aircraft age. Southwest were quick to respond, grounding 79 of their oldest Boeing’s for safety checks.
Supposedly, a well-looked after plane can carry on flying for years. They might need more repairs, but according to the experts at least, the age of an aircraft has never caused one to crash. Instead, the frequency of maintenance or pilot errors are what we should be worrying about.
The average U.S. jet is 11 years old, just above the world’s average, 10 years, but a long way from the 28 years of the Venezuelan fleet – said to be the world’s oldest.
According to Bill Voss, CEO of the Flight Safety Foundation, airplanes can actually keep going indefinitely, so long as it is kept well maintained. In the long run of course, costs eventually become too prohibitive.
With more inspections needed and more costly maintenance work required, eventually they all get scrapped.
As Voss explains though, age isn’t the biggest factor involved in air safety. Stress counts for a lot more. Whenever a flight takes off, the stress of pressurizing and then depressurizing causes wear and tear on the plane. And so aircrafts that fly shorter routes, but more frequently, can actually become un-airworthy in a much faster time than older jets flying continental routes twice a week.
Take the example of our Southwest Boeing 737-300 on April 1st, which suddenly depressurized and suffered a five foot tear in the roof when its fuselage ruptured. Luckily no one was seriously injured, and the plane managed to land safely.
While the incident is still under investigation, it’s though that metal fatigue is responsible for the damage. The jet had been pressurized and depressurized more than 40,000 times during its 15 year life. Five other jets that had also surpassed 30,000 cycles were also found to have substantial cracks too.
This came as a huge shock to engineers, who previously thought metal fatigue wasn’t an issue for at least 60,000 cycles.
“It just reminds us that we still have a lot to learn about the structure of metals. We haven’t got it all worked out yet,” says Voss. “But it’s nothing to do with the age of the aircraft.”
Voss’s statements aren’t much comfort to some passengers though. One, Emily Kahn from Portland, Oregon, always researches the type of plane before she books a flight, and she is willing to pay more to make sure the plane is a newer model.
“When you see the magazine rack on the seat in front is falling apart, it doesn’t do much to inspire confidence,” she says. “I just think, how much time are they really spending looking at this plane?”
In response to passengers concerns over aircraft age, the Airfare Watchdog.com website is now providing its customers with tools to help them identify the kind of planes used on their route. “After all, if you have the option to do so, why not choose a safer, newer model?” says the site’s founder George Hobica.
However, just because a plane is newer doesn’t make it safer, says Andy Golub of Ascend Aviation.
“Okay, so you can check the make, model and age of a plane, but can you check its maintenance history?” he asked.
He may have a point. While Virgin America, one of the country’s newest airlines operates planes that are just 3.4 years on average, Allegiant Air runs planes with an average age of 21.5 years.
Golub tells us that Allegiant typically buy up used jets at bargain basement prices. That doesn’t sound so good…
“But,” he adds, “What that means is that they have lots of money lying around, and the make sure those planes are superbly well maintained.”
And of course, lest we forget, remember that just because a plane is brand new doesn’t mean it is indestructible. The last two fatal air crashes in the states – a Delta flight out from Kentucky and a Continental Express to Buffalo, were both very new planes by average standards, just five years and one year old respectively.
Maybe that will give you something to think about the next time you find yourself strapped in and ready for takeoff.