Last updated: 11:48 AM ET, Tue March 24 2015

How Old Is Too Old For A Commercial Airplane?

Impacting Travel | Rich Thomaselli | March 24, 2015

How Old Is Too Old For A Commercial Airplane?

Photo Illustration By Barry Kaufman

How old is too old for a commercial airplane to still be flying?

That’s a question many are asking this morning in the wake of a crash of a Germanwings Airbus A320 in the French Alps. The flight was en route from Barcelona to Dusseldorf. All 150 on board are believed to have been killed.

The aircraft in question was 24 years old and originally flown by Germanwings’ parent company, Lufthansa. Germanwings is a low-budget subsidiary of Lufthansa. While the average age of a U.S. domestic commercial airliner is 11 years old, it is not uncommon for aircraft to still be in service at 24, 25, even 30 years old.

“Twenty-four is not terribly old for an aircraft,” Bill de Decker, chairman of Texas-based Conklin & de Decker Aviation, told TravelPulse this morning. “You look at various airlines, and although American is phasing out its MD-80s, those planes are well into their 20s. Between the manufacturer and the FAA, there is specific set of instructions on inspection and repair. The whole focus is to detect problems before it becomes catastrophic.”

de Decker, who previously worked for Boeing and has degrees in engineering, economics and aerospace engineering, said he is quite familiar with the Airbus 320 and with Germanwings.

“I have absolutely no doubt,” he told TravelPulse, “that this plane was maintained the proper way. Lufthansa is focused on observing all the rules to the letter.”

The age of 24, however, is still pushing the edge of an airplane’s lifespan.

"Aircraft lifespan is established by the manufacturer and is usually based on takeoff and landing cycles,” former Federal Aviation Administration official John Petrakis told Smithsonian’s Air & Space magazine. “The fuselage is most susceptible to fatigue, but the wings are too, especially on short hauls where an aircraft goes through pressurization cycles every day."

Just like a car, the older an airplane gets the more maintenance it requires.

Just like a car, however, given the proper care and maintenance an older plane can be just as safe and operable as a new version, albeit without some of the fuel efficient designs of new models.

In fact, de Decker said airplanes are taken out of service less for mechanical problems than for economic reasons.

“It’s like having a 15-, 20-year old car,” he said. “Maybe the car is worth $750 but you blow an engine and the repair is going to be $3,000. You could repair it, but at some point you have to think about the cost efficiencies of getting a new one.”


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