This is an article that came up on the news service at work this morning...My apologies if it has been posted already:
Column: Planes of a Certain Age
Northwest's Fleet Is the Most Elderly, But Old 767s Abound at Its Rivals
The Wall Street Journal 03/09/04
author: Scott McCartney
(Copyright (c) 2004, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)
Passengers can't be there when mechanics turn wrenches, and you have to trust airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration to make sure that aircraft repairs and maintenance are done correctly.
Still, there are many questions, especially about how closely maintenance operations are being checked. Last week's column looked at how effective the FAA currently is at checking up on outsourced maintenance, and the answer was "not very." Airlines are increasingly contracting maintenance work out, but the bulk of the FAA's inspection work is still aimed at in-house maintenance. Both the National Transportation Safety Board and the Department of Transportation's inspector general have criticized the FAA's oversight of outsourced maintenance. And the FAA says it is hard at work to make improvements.
That's little comfort to some readers, who had many questions about airline maintenance.
Michael Murdock asked: "What major airline has the oldest aggregate fleet, and what airline is flying the oldest aircraft?"
An interesting question, and one that does have bearing on maintenance, since aircraft age is one way travelers can hedge their bets a bit if concerned about running into mechanical problems.
I tallied up average aircraft age from the latest financial filings of the 10 major airlines. Here's a list:
OLDEST AIRCRAFT TYPE
DC-9s average 33 years
767-200s average 20.6 years
767-200s average 17 years
737-200s average 22.1 years
767-200s average 21 years
737-300s average 16.7 years
737-200s average 21.2 years
-80s average 13 years
-80s average 17.8 years
757-200s average 6 years
Northwest has stretched the life of its DC-9s with an extensive maintenance program. What surprised me about the list was that the 767-200 has really grown long in the tooth. That's why Boeing Co. is pushing hard for its 7E7 program, which will replace the 767. The 767 was essentially designed with 1970s technology -- it took its first flight in 1981. But as you can see from the fleets of Delta, American and United, that plane is looking quite dated. * * *
Donna Suddeth was on an America West flight last month that blew a tire on takeoff. After noticing in last week's column that America West had the highest percentage of outsourced maintenance, she asked about the incident: "This would appear to me to be a maintenance oversight. Is it the case that maintenance oversight only surfaces when there is a crash with fatalities or is there something that measures the incidents of maintenance oversights by airline? ... Does the FAA or any organization certify companies that do maintenance for airlines?"
I doubt very much that one blown tire is an indicator of sloppy work or result of a maintenance oversight. Like your car, airplane tires can blow from debris. It could be the tire was well-worn and in need of replacing. It could have been a defective tire. The FAA does track incident reports and "service difficulty" reports -- they're available to the public, and I've used them in researching stories. And inspectors at the FAA are supposed to use them to spot trends. Airlines and manufacturers, too, keep track of incidents and look for trends. It's not just crashes that get attention. And yes, the FAA does license companies that do maintenance for airlines, and the mechanics themselves.
Donna Corbett wrote "I noticed that you left out one of the most-valuable safety enhancements provided by in-house airline maintenance. It's called the 'airline employee pass privilege.' Don't laugh. When an airline mechanic knows that he, or his spouse, or his child is very likely to be aboard that same aircraft at any time, it provides an added motivation to do the job carefully."
I don't doubt for a minute that such a connection comes into play. But there's a lot on the line for mechanics, whether in-house or outside contractors, even without flying aboard the plane. Mechanics have to sign off work, and with each repair, they essentially put their career on the line. They know there's a lot at stake.
Reader Don Winfield offered up an even better check for his airplane, a Cessna 172: "Simple solution. ... After maintenance of any kind, have the mechanic fly the plane on a check ride."
That might not be a bad idea for airline work.