Older planes safe, but maybe less convenient

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.

“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.

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.