Timeworn aircraft, poor quality of MRO services and the shortage of experienced pilots are among the most frequent reasons for the biggest accidents in the aviation history. The last year’s crashes of the Russian aircraft have drawn the attention to the age of aircraft and how it might affect flight safety. A number of recent airworthiness directives for the general aviation fleet seem to be directly related to aircraft age and flight time. On the other hand, analysts say that human error has accounted for 70 per cent of all aircraft accidents over the last decade. Many aviation experts believe that as concerns aircraft there is no such word as ‘old’, stressing that airplanes can fly for many years as long as all maintenance procedures are followed. So how old is too old?
Many of large airlines operate a significant number of older-technology-based aircraft an average age of which is 18 years. The most common reason why carriers decide to replace their old generation aircraft is the disproportionate cost of maintaining them rather than the inherent lack of safety and airworthiness.
“The Asian-Pacific region airlines are taking the opportunity to monopolize on the travelling public's apprehension of older technology airplanes by overtly advertising the newness of their fleets. Their message states that new aircraft are safer and more comfortable while older aircraft are less reliable and lack the amenities offered by newer technology. We can even notice, that some airlines intentionally indicate the up to date usage time of their aircraft – just for the image. For example, Singapore Airlines states, that it is using the newest types of aircraft, while in reality the Quantas aircraft fleet is newer than Singapore Airlines.” - says the Deputy Head of FL Technics Training Dainius Sakalauskas.
In Africa, the age of aircraft has become an issue since the crash on May 4, 2002 that killed 64 passengers and seven crewmembers. To prevent other accidents the Nigerian government decided to ban aircraft of more than 22 years’ old from entering the country’s airspace.
‘I believe, that the main question should be ’How regularly are these aircraft maintained?’ Operating a younger fleet is not a guarantee to safe operations in itself, as other parameters are just as important. A new aircraft in the hands of an incompetent operator is as dangerous as and even more dangerous than a 20-year-old aircraft that have been well-maintained.’ – says D. Sakalauskas.
While talking about the age of aircraft, we need to take into account hours and conditions, as well as the material a particular aircraft is manufactured from - aluminium, steel, wood or composite. In theory, any aircraft can be flown so much that it becomes worn out, but that’s seldom the case. Most aircraft develop problems from the lack of use, not overuse.
‘Aircraft are, after all, machines, so it’s not the years; it’s the miles that count. Years are nothing but a number. The age of an aircraft becomes relevant only when it becomes uneconomical to continue maintaining the aircraft. Actually, the fuselage of an aircraft, the APU and the engines are the three primary components. ‘If an airline owner decides to replace the 10 years’ old engines with the new ones he can add another 15 years to the fleet,’ explained D. Sakalauskas.