(recently published in the Telegraph)
A Boeing 737 belonging to Jet2 has made two emergency landings in as many weeks, leading some commentators to question whether the advanced age of the aircraft is affecting its reliability.
The plane was forced to land at Barcelona on July 16, as it flew from Ibiza to Leeds/Bradford. Twelve days later, on July 28, it made another forced landing at Frankfurt en route from Newcastle to Prague.
The airline is investigating both incidents but claims passenger safety was not compromised on either flight.
Nevertheless, commentators have been quick to point out the age of the aircraft – registered as G-CELI. It was manufactured in 1986, making it almost as old as this reporter. But are older planes really more likely to go wrong?
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 claims that as planes get older they come under ever greater scrutiny. “Inspection criteria grow increasingly strict,” he said.
So if planes are built to last more or less indefinitely, why are they retired after just 30-odd years – or in many cases sooner?
“Planes are sold, traded or mothballed not because they’ve grown old and are falling apart, but because they’ve become uneconomical to operate,” said Smith.
“Aircraft are tailored to particular roles and markets, and there’s a fragile balance between whether it makes or loses money. Poor performance means quick exit to the sales block. To another carrier with different costs, routes and needs, that same aircraft might be profitable.”
An aircraft’s dwindling economic value tends to be related to its age – and with a slew of new fuel-efficient aircraft coming onto the market, maintaining older jets often makes less financial sense.
Modern jets also tend to be quieter, more comfortable and equipped to a higher specification than their predecessors, which usually means a better experience for passengers.
So which carriers have the oldest planes? According to airfleets.net – a website which monitors most major airlines – of the world’s 30 largest carriers (based on passenger numbers), Delta Airlines has the most mature planes with an average age of 17 years.
Air Canada and United Airlines are reckoned to have the second and third oldest fleets, with an average age of 14.2 and 14.1 years respectively.
Data is approximate and is not available for all carriers, including Turkish Airlines, which is considered one of the world’s largest airlines.
At the other end of the spectrum is Aeroflot, which has the youngest planes with an average age of just 4.2 years; Hainan Airlines and China Eastern Airlines have the second and third freshest fleets with an average age of 4.9 and 5.3 years respectively.
With a few exceptions – including Ryanair and EasyJet – European and North American airlines tend to have the oldest jets, while Asian and Middle Eastern carriers generally boast the youngest.
Incidentally, Jet2 – which was involved in the aforementioned forced landings but is not considered one of the world’s 30 largest airlines – has a fleet age of 16.8 years, which is at the older end of the spectrum.