Alison
By Allison Linn Senior writer
msnbc.com
updated 4/7/2011 3:48:31 PM ET 2011-04-07T19:48:31

The recent news that a hole tore open in an older model Boeing 737 shouldn’t cause fliers to worry about the safety of older planes — but experts say they may want to think about the convenience.

A newer airplane is more likely to have a host of amenities that will make flying more comfortable. Depending on the airline and aircraft, that can mean everything from leather seats with personal entertainment systems to quieter rides and on-board Internet access for frequent business travelers.

Experts say a newer plane's advanced technology and diagnostics also may make it less likely that you will experience long delays or even cancellations because something needs to be fixed.

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“Should passengers start paying attention to those aging aircraft? Well, yes they should, because not so much that there is fundamentally an immediate and serious safety aspect. It’s more to do with the likelihood that the aircraft will be delayed due to mechanical delays,” said Michel Merluzeau, managing partner with the aviation consulting firm G2 Solutions.

There’s no reason to think an older model airplane would be unsafe, as long as it has had proper maintenance.

“Aircraft are incredibly safe vehicles. The aircraft safety rates make getting in a car an act of suicide by comparison,” said Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst with the Teal Group.

What’s more, Aboulafia said, the typical flier cannot tell from an airplane’s age whether it has had the type of wear and tear that could lead to the kind of problem the Southwest jet had. That has more to do with how many times the plane has taken off and landed than how old it is.

“There are a lot of intercontinental jets (that are) 25 to 30 years old that are in great shape because they do pretty much one takeoff and one landing each day,” he said.

In the April 1, incident, a hole tore open in a Southwest Airlines 737-300, which was carrying 118 people, soon after takeoff. The plane landed safely and no serious injuries were reported.

The incident raised concerns about whether cracks caused by multiple takeoffs and landings could cause major damage to certain areas on the airliners' fuselages.

Story: Southwest: Repaired planes set to fly again Saturday

The problem prompted the Federal Aviation Administration to issue an emergency directive to inspect certain older model 737 jets that have accumulated a significant amount of flying time. The directive affects about 175 airplanes worldwide, including 80 in the United States.

The Southwest jet involved in the incident was 15 years old and had logged 39,000 pressurization cycles, a measurement of the number of takeoffs and landings, according to The Associated Press. The nature of Southwest's short-haul business means its airplanes take off and land very frequently.

Southwest has canceled hundreds of flights as it inspects some of its own planes for the problem that caused the plane to tear open.

The incident alone probably won’t be enough to derail Southwest’s long-term plans to appeal more to business travelers who may care about what kind of airplane they fly, said Tim Winship, publisher of frequentflyer.com. But in the short-term, the delays associated with inspecting the airline’s planes could cause business travelers to shy away from booking flights.

“When you see an airline canceling a significant number of its flights as Southwest had to do when they took some of those 737s out of circulation, that’s a real issue for people who live and die on the basis of having a meeting at 3 p.m. in Dallas that they have to get to,” Winship said.

For those who are taking a sudden interest in what aircraft they will be flying, the Internet age has made it possible for fliers to get more data about airplanes than ever before.

Many airlines will now tell you what type of airplane you are flying when you make a reservation online, although not its age. The major commercial jet makers, Airbus and Boeing, also offer detailed information on their websites about the various models of airplanes and when they were produced.

The average age of all Boeing commercial airplanes currently flying is 14.7 years, and the average age of all active Airbus commercial planes is 8.44 years, according to aviation market research firm Forecast International. There are currently 9,225 Boeing and 5,817 Airbus commercial airplanes in service, the company said.

Despite the availability of such information, Aboulafia said most fliers worry about just one thing when making airplane reservations: Finding the lowest price.

He suspects that only the most frequent fliers look at what airplane they will be flying, and that’s likely more because they want a comfortable ride, a good seat and perhaps amenities such as the ability to lie flat on long flights. Some people may also choose to avoid regional jets for long flights, because they are smaller and more cramped.

In the past, Aboulafia said, even there have been safety concerns about specific airplanes, it hasn’t appeared to affect consumer preferences.

© 2013 msnbc.com Reprints

Video: Southwest struggling to recover from air scare

  1. Closed captioning of: Southwest struggling to recover from air scare

    >>> good evening. while they are fortunate to have avoided a disaster in the air tonight southwest airlines has a big problem. so does the maker of the 737. so do thousands of people with plans to fly. the issue is cracks in the fuselage of some boeing 737s. most of the cracks too small to see, but one of them grew large enough to open up a hole in the roof of a southwest jet a few days back. that incident has now triggered the inspection of more 737s across the country. this is going to bring new attention to our short-haul aircraft in this country. in the air for multiple flights per day and carrying a lot of the passenger load. nbc's tom costello who covers aviation for us, starts us off from washington tonight. good evening.

    >> reporter: hi, brian. the f.a.a. is talking about more frequent inspections while southwest says of the 79 planes grounded over the weekend three were found to have small cracks and 64 have been returned to service already. nearly 72 hours after southwest flight 812 made the emergency landing in arizona the f.a.a. is ordering checks on specific groups of the 737 300s, 400s and 500s with at least 30,000 cycles. the plane involved in friday's emergency had nearly 40,000 cycles on it. investigators were surprised to find signs of pre-existinging cracking under a lap joint and along a rivet line. a large chunk of the fuselage will undergo metal fatigue tests at the lab in washington .

    >> it was not believed that this was an area that could fail until we see it now.

    >> reporter: today's f.a.a. inspection order affects 175 planes worldwide. 80 in the u.s. the vast majority at southwest . investigators are wondering whether planes used on short haul flights with multiple takeoffs and landings like southwest routes incur greater metal fatigue as the skin of the plane expands and contracts.

    >> i think part of this is not only inspecting the plane but looking at how often the planes are used, how often they take off, how often they land.

    >> reporter: the 737 involved had a 14-year maintenance overhaul in march of 2010 . those overhauls involve stripping the plane to its frame and going over every centimeter looking for corrosion or cracks but inspectors rarely look under the lap joints where this was found. a former chief for the f.a.a. says it's stunning how quickly this crack turned into an emergency.

    >> this is the worst decompression pilots plan for. getting down as quickly as you can.

    >> reporter: after cancelling several hundred flights over the weekend southwest cancelled another 70 today as it continued inspecting its planes. southwest says it hopes to be back to normal service by tomorrow and says the planes the f.a.a. today ordered to be inspected are the planes it has been inspecting, no more. brian?

    >> tom costello in washington tonight.

Photos: Made in America: Boeing 737

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  1. A Boeing 737 fuselage rolls into Renton, Wash., on Monday, April 5, 2010. The fuselages are manufactured by Spirit Aerosystems in Wichita, Kansas. (Jim Seida / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. 737s move along the rolling production line. The rudder is the only part of the airplane that is painted before the plane makes its first test-flight as the balance of the rudder is critical to proper flight, and even the weight of a paint job is enough to put it out of balance. (Jim Seida / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Brightly-colored tennis balls protect employees from sharp objects attached to the fuselage frame. (Jim Seida / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Using a flashlight and a small mirror, a worker closely inspects the the fuselage of the aircraft before insulation and wiring is installed. Boeing employees inspect the fuselage this way three times. (Jim Seida / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. An employee installs some of the 36 miles of wires into a 737. A 737 contains 367,000 parts. (Jim Seida / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. A 737 cockpit sits empty, awaiting seats and instruments. (Jim Seida / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Equipment sits outside a 737 in production. The green color is a protective coating that keeps the aluminum from oxidizing. It is washed off with pressure washers before the aircraft is painted. (Jim Seida / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Ready to be installed, bathrooms sit on the factory floor. (Jim Seida / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Hundreds of seats sit in front of the assembly line of aircraft that crawl along behind them at the rate of two inches per minute on their rolling production line. The production time of a 737 was cut in half in part by Boeing switching from building the planes in stationary positions to the assembly line in 2000. (Jim Seida / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. In the engine shop the exhaust ducts are installed and the engines go through final inspection before being hung beneath the aircraft's wings. (Jim Seida / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Machinists prepare an engine for installation. The engines make up one-third of the cost of the 60 million dollar aircraft. (Jim Seida / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Only 11 days after entering the other end of the factory as a bare fuselage, a finished 737 is readied to head to the flight line. Boeing produces 737s at the rate of 1.5 planes each workday. (John Brecher / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Before being painted, a brand-new 737 goes on a test-flight just outside the Renton 737 plant. There are so many 737s in service that, according to Boeing, one is taking off or landing every 2.2 seconds. (Jim Seida / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
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