With another two stories today about in-flight component failures (Southwest, Sichuan), we are being reminded that airplanes are vulnerable. There is nothing quite like an airline/airplane scary story to catch people’s attention.
The industry safety statistics are too good to be easily comprehended. Here is a great resource for those who want to get into the data. The reality is we are approaching zero accidents. We may never get to zero, but air travel is the safest form of travel.
There is also a perception that, somehow, older planes are less reliable. This is not necessarily true. Around the world, airlines have their aircraft inspected by government authorities which have safety oversight. It is true that not all of these agencies are equal. But if an airline flies into any developing or developed economy, that airline and its aircraft must meet the safety standards of the place they are flying to.
Let’s take a look at the global fleet of active aircraft. Over 80% of the fleet is under 15 years old. By airline standards, this is not old. Commercial aircraft are exceptionally well-made pieces of equipment. They are designed for a service life of over 30-40 years, and they are very well maintained to remain safe and functional.
When we focus on passenger aircraft only, the numbers are even better.
The chances of flying on an aircraft older than 15 years is much lower than people expect. Where are the older aircraft to be found? Turns out that the chances of flying an “older” aircraft are highest in the USA. The USA has some of the world’s strictest safety rules courtesy of the FAA, which is used as a guideline by many other nations. Even so, 92% of the world’s airline fleet is under 20 years old. The world’s youngest fleet is in the Asia/Pacific region, fueled by higher traffic growth rates.
Looking at each of the world regions, this is the airline fleet age profile as of year-end 2017. We list the top 15 airlines in each region in descending order by fleet size.
The chances of flying a 20-year-old aircraft in Africa are, relatively, quite high among the top 15 airlines.
The Asia/Pacific region has been a high growth area for several years. As we can see, it is the older airline brands that have the older aircraft. Fortunately, these older brands are well-established companies with excellent reputations.
While Canada has several airlines, we can see the market really consist of three big companies. You have to hunt pretty hard to fly an older airliner in Canada.
The CIS was a region that saw significant disruption to its airlines in the post-Soviet era. The giant Aeroflot was broken up and its fleet distributed across the region. The industry has been rebuilding ever since. Today’s Aeroflot has a young fleet.
Europe is the oldest airline travel market. BA and Lufthansa are big brands with several aircraft at 20 years old. Along with Air France, these big brands have excellent MRO capabilities keeping these aircraft in compliance.
Latin America is home to one of the world’s oldest airlines (Avianca). Yet we can see the region’s fleet tends to be young. It is only in Bolivia that you stand a good chance to fly an older aircraft.
This region has been at the forefront of airline growth in the last decade. The Iranian fleet is aged and this is a special case. The ME3 all have large fleets with young aircraft.
Finally in the USA, the world’s biggest air travel market. It is clear that in this market Delta and United offer a good chance to fly a 20-year old aircraft. While Allegiant is much smaller, it too offers such an opportunity.
If you want to fly young airplanes, whom should you fly? The answer is an Asian carrier, one based in Latin America, or one of the Middle East 3, who have young and modern fleets.
If you want to avoid older aircraft, you should carefully choose your aircraft in North America, the CIS or Africa, where it is quite likely you will ride on an aircraft over 15 years old.
The Bottom Line
Airliners are designed to fly safely for decades when maintained in accordance with manufacturer requirements. Aircraft are typically retired for economic rather than technical reasons, as many aircraft in the desert are still capable of flying. But older aircraft tended to burn more fuel, produce more noise and emissions, and cost more to maintain than today’s modern aircraft. If your car were maintained like an aircraft, the engine and transmission would be rebuilt every 5 years, it would have a weekly check-up with the mechanic, and every little thing that went wrong would be noted and corrected. As the economics of aircraft continue to improve, especially with fuel burn and new technology engines that are 15% less thirsty, economic rather than technical obsolescence occurs.
While the economic equation can differ slightly with the cost of capital assumptions, variations in fuel cost and growth are driving fleet renewal. Those changing market dynamics are resulting in younger fleets as the airframe OEMs produce record volumes of new aircraft.