Ask the pilot

The pilot takes issue with his publisher: Older planes are not "dangerously old."


Patrick Smith
May 20, 2005 11:30PM (UTC)

On April 16, Salon ran an Op-Ed penned by Alex Marshall, transportation columnist for Governing Magazine and author of the acclaimed book "How Cities Work." Caustically titled "Crash and Burn," the piece starts out as a pouty tirade lamenting the usual woes and grievances of domestic U.S. air travel, which Marshall lays at the foot of the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978. "The impending demise of nearly every major airline," he begins, "should fill travelers with joy, given the way airlines have treated us."

That's a pretty pugnacious intro, guaranteed to offend a million or so active and furloughed airline workers, yours truly included. Just the same, we're inclined to feel Marshall's pain, and even casual fans of this column know I rarely pull punches with regard to the pitiful service standards of the largest U.S. carriers. Take my recent, well-deserved filleting of US Airways, for example. So, I was willing to accept all the tough talk and found myself generally sympathetic to Marshall's cause. Until I got to this part:

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"Under regulation, the big airlines regularly bought newer and more fuel-efficient airplanes, which translated into lower ticket prices for passengers. But under deregulation, financially troubled airlines could seldom risk spending billions for new planes that would be delivered years later. That's why many planes in the sky today are dangerously old."

Emphasis mine. The comment was incidental to the author's overarching concerns, and probably not meant to be unduly provocative. Nonetheless it reflects and perpetuates the commonly held notion that older aircraft are notably less safe than newer ones. As a group, U.S. air fleets already rank among the eldest in the world, and with the largest carriers continuing to hemorrhage cash, there are few plans for any wide-scale replenishments. Should passengers be worried?

No, not really.

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It's reasonable to suggest that an older airframe is, on an abstract level, less safe than, say, a factory-fresh 737-900. But that's a truth revealed through the fractions and decimal places of statistical minutiae. In other words, it's an academic distinction. A geriatric jet may not be the most fuel-efficient machine in the sky, but the leap to "dangerously old" is both inflammatory and categorically misleading.

We've gone over this before, but it merits repeating: Commercial aircraft are built to last more or less indefinitely. FAA inspection guidelines grow increasingly strict as time passes, while cockpit modifications and systems upgrades provide a level of operational flexibility on a par with the latest models. Thus it's not uncommon to discover yourself onboard a 20-, 25- or even 35-year-old jetliner. That sucks if you're looking for a cutting-edge onboard video system or oversize luggage bins, but your chances of crashing aren't measurably increased.

Consider the fleet at Northwest Airlines. With an average age topping 18 years, it ranks oldest of the planet's 60 largest airlines. Undaunted, Northwest has invested millions to upgrade and refurbish its Summer of Love-era McDonnell Douglas DC-9s, and cites retention of older planes as a chief contributor to its relative financial stability. Monthly payments on a new Boeing or Airbus can top half a million dollars. (The DC-9 shown here, in NW's latest soda can livery, was delivered to Alitalia in 1967.)

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Airlines will occasionally play the age card as a marketing tool, but they do so slyly and noncommittally. In advertisements, JetBlue entices passengers with "new planes." In essence they're talking about comfort, but should you take it a slightly different way, I'm sure the airline won't mind. It's a tad disingenuous, yes, but you can't really blame JetBlue. Newness has that exploitable cachet -- a certain intangible that any smart airline is apt to boast about. Everyone likes new.

Just don't tell me it's safer. Or, more accurate, don't turn it around and claim that an older plane is, by definition, an unsafe one.

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To be fair, airframe age has played a role in a handful of past accidents. Perhaps most notorious was the 1988 fuselage rupture of an Aloha Airlines 737-200. Cracking along lap joints in the 19-year-old plane's outer skin caused an 18-foot section of the cabin to peel away during flight, resulting in the death of a flight attendant and the most heart-stopping emergency landing of all time. Eight years later, the infamous TWA 800 explosion, involving a 747-100 that had reached the quarter-century mark, was traced to aged and faulty wiring. Then, in 2002, came the in-flight breakup of a China Airlines 747-200. En route from Taipei to Hong Kong, undetected stress cracks in the lower aft fuselage caused a catastrophic rupture that killed all 225 passengers and crew. The aircraft had been in service for 22 years, and was only a month from scheduled retirement.

Each of these airplanes was elderly, yes, but age, strictly speaking, was only part of the story. At 19 the Aloha 737-200 was not particularly ancient, but had spent its entire career in Hawaii, having performed nearly 90,000 inter-island hops. In terms of takeoffs and landings -- or "cycles" as they're known -- this was one of the most overworked 737s in existence. All that banging, bumping, pressurizing and depressurizing, combined with the salt-air environment of Hawaii, helped weaken the structure.

After the China Airlines tragedy, investigators determined the fuselage cracks had in fact originated from improper repairs to the 747's aft belly. The repairs had been made two decades earlier, following a tail-strike incident.

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For what it's worth -- and bearing in mind Northwest's fondness for those venerable Douglases -- classic model 737s and 747s like those above are today quite rare in U.S. passenger fleets. Delta Air Lines, one of the last holdouts, has begun phasing out its 737-200s. Ironically, Delta made its decision in part because the FAA denied a waiver that would have allowed implementation of life-prolonging inspections. For the time being, they continue to fly. These 737s are not, and never would be, unsafe in any meaningful sense, and the FAA is simply making sure of it.

Basically it works like this: Particular aircraft that exceed certain design limits -- that means any combination of birthdays, cycles or flight hours -- are subject to stringent oversight regimens. Meanwhile, the National Transportation Safety Board investigates accidents, determines probable cause(s), and passes recommendations along to the Federal Aviation Administration. In turn, the FAA mandates improved inspections or preventive care in the form of what it calls Airworthiness Directives (ADs). Also in recent years, the FAA, NASA and the U.S. military have joined forces in a slew of studies and R&D programs to address aging aircraft issues. A rundown of all the conferences, papers and official conclusions is enough to fill several pages. The system works, and accident statistics bear this out:

For starters, there hasn't been a passenger jetliner crash of any kind in the United States in three and a half years. The last one, that of American Airlines flight 587 near JFK airport in late 2001, involved a 13-year-old Airbus A300. Thirteen birthdays for an A300 puts it somewhere in young middle age. The following is a 10-year lookback at fatal mishaps involving U.S. jetliners (or foreign jetliners operating from U.S. airports), and the ages of aircraft involved. Acts of terror and mishaps involving commuter/regional/cargo craft are excluded.

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2001: American Airlines, Belle Harbor, N.Y. Airbus A300 (13)
2000: Alaska Airlines, near Los Angeles. McDonnell Douglas MD-80 series (8)
1999: American Airlines, at Little Rock, Ark. McDonnell Douglas MD-80 series (16)
1999: EgyptAir, off Nantucket, Mass. Boeing 767 (10)
1998: Swissair, near Halifax, Nova Scotia. McDonnell Douglas MD-11 (7)
1996: ValuJet, near Miami. McDonnell Douglas DC-9 (27)
1996: TWA, off Long Island, N.Y. Boeing 747-100 (25)
1995: American Airlines near Cali, Colombia. Boeing 757 (4)

Exactly what constitutes "old" is amply subjective, but 20 years is an acceptable reference. From the above sample, a period of time during which approximately 5 billion passengers took to American skies, we see exactly two mishaps involving older planes -- the TWA 800 explosion, and the ValuJet incident. The latter was the result of a fire brought on by leaking oxygen canisters packaged as freight in the underfloor hold. The former, on the other hand, may serve as the rare example of a crash traceable directly to age. But a single catastrophe is not a sufficient enough pathology to begin throwing around terms like "dangerously old."

Neither is there evidence of any gathering threat. It was somewhat unwise for Marshall to drag deregulation into the fray, implying that up until that point we were zipping around in jets fresh off the assembly lines. Say what you will of the competitive blood bath that ensued once Carter pulled out the stops in 1978, but median aircraft age really hasn't changed that much. "Before deregulation," Marshall writes, "U.S. airlines bought a new fleet of Boeing planes every few years." This simply isn't true -- and Boeing was not the only plane maker in town. Through the late 1970s, it was common to catch a ride on an early '60s vintage DC-8, or 707, just as today you're prone to step aboard an '80s-era 757 or MD-80. (Marshall's remarks on the downside of the hub-and-spoke concept are even more inaccurate, but I'll save that for another time).

Contrary to Marshall's assertion, airlines have spent billions revamping their fleets, after deregulation -- during stretches of both extreme profitability and crushing loss. Hundreds of 757s, 767s and advanced 737s are found on the rosters of our biggest carriers. These airplanes were still on the drawing pad in 1978. The first 757, just to pick one, wasn't delivered until 1983.

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Still, yes, these planes are older than what you'll find at the airlines of Asia or Europe (and, in plenty of cases, South America and Africa too), but the reasons for this are substantially more complicated than a simple correlation between youthful equipment and a healthy bottom line. The comparatively smaller sizes of foreign airlines, for one, allow for faster and easier turnover. Measured by number of aircraft, the largest non-U.S. carrier is Air France, with about 250 ships. Contrast to American Airlines, with three times that total. With those 750 planes comes an immense infrastructure -- maintenance supplies, support vehicles, training facilities, etc. -- that's difficult and expensive to uproot. The costs of acquiring replacement models must be carefully weighed against the costs of running and maintaining existing ones.

Average Fleet Ages [Disclaimer: this data changes quickly as aircraft are delivered, retired, or sold.]

U.S. MAJOR AIRLINES

1. Northwest Airlines, 18.3
2. Delta Air Lines, 12.4
3. American Airlines, 12.1
4.America West Airlines, 10.8
5. US Airways, 10.8
6. United Airlines, 10.2
7. Alaska Airlines, 9.3
8. Southwest Airlines, 9.1
9. Continental Airlines, 7.9
10. AirTran, 3.0

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FOREIGN OLDIES

1. Japan Airlines, 12.6
2. Alitalia, 10.5
3. Lufthansa, 9.8
4. All Nippon Airways, 9.7
5. Qantas, 9.6
6. Air France, 8.8
7. Air Canada, 8.7
8. SAS, 8.5
9. China Southern, 8.2
10. British Airways, 7.9

Take those DC-9s away from Northwest, by the way, and its average drops to a modest 10 years. Plans are in place to mothball the ships at a rate of about 10 per year. Northwest is also one of two U.S. airlines to have opted for Boeing's recently unveiled 787, with orders and options for up to 68 examples.

The other airline is Continental, which already owns the distinction of scoring second youngest overall on the list above, bettered only by the much smaller AirTran.

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Continental seems to be at the leading edge of everything these days, and is a further rarity among stateside airlines by continuing to garner acclaim for, of all things, outstanding service. The Official Airline Guide (OAG) even gave the Houston-based carrier its prestigious Airline of the Year award for 2004. But, alas, some disappointing news: Continental's anticipated new route between Newark, N.J., and Lagos, Nigeria, celebrated in this column a few months ago and set to begin in June, has been postponed indefinitely.

"Due to circumstances beyond the company's control," read a Continental statement, "it has been unable to secure all the necessary authorizations to operate in Nigeria."

Those flights to Lagos would have made Continental the only U.S. major serving six continents, and the only one offering scheduled passenger service to Africa. The last to fly to Africa was Delta, whose short-lived Cairo experiment was abandoned in 2001.

Rumor has it that the problem began when Continental's CEO, Larry Kellner, ignored an e-mail sent his way by a Nigerian official:

"Dear Kind Stranger," the dispatch began: "My name is Mr. Uba Quashiga, and I am the manager of the International Commercial Bank in Lagos, Nigeria. I am writing to solicit your assistance in the noble transfer of currency notes totaling US $4,000.000. As an officer of the bank, I cannot be directly connected to this money thus I am compelled to request for your personal assistance ...

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Send them to AskThePilot and look for answers in a future column.


Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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