Major airlines with the oldest fleet: Are older planes less reliable to fly?

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A Boeing 737 belonging to British low-cost carrier Jet2 made two emergency landings in two weeks recently, leading some commentators to question whether the advanced age of the aircraft is affecting its reliability.

The plane was forced to land at Barcelona on July 16, as it flew from Ibiza to Leeds/Bradford. Twelve days later, on July 28, it made another forced landing at Frankfurt en route from Newcastle to Prague.

The airline is investigating both incidents but claims passenger safety was not compromised on either flight.

Nevertheless, commentators have been quick to point out the age of the aircraft – registered as G-CELI. It was manufactured in 1986, making it almost as old as this reporter. But are older planes really more likely to go wrong?

Not according to Patrick Smith, a US pilot and author of Cockpit Confidential.

"Commercial aircraft are built to last more or less indefinitely, which is one of the reasons why they're so expensive," he said. "It's common for a jet to remain in service for 25 years or more."

Smith claims that as planes get older they come under ever greater scrutiny. "Inspection criteria grow increasingly strict," he said.

See also: Top 10 air travel facts: Emergency equipment, safety and food

So if planes are built to last more or less indefinitely, why are they retired after just 30-odd years – or in many cases sooner?

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"Planes are sold, traded or mothballed not because they've grown old and are falling apart, but because they've become uneconomical to operate," said Smith.

"Aircraft are tailored to particular roles and markets, and there's a fragile balance between whether it makes or loses money. Poor performance means quick exit to the sales block. To another carrier with different costs, routes and needs, that same aircraft might be profitable."

An aircraft's dwindling economic value tends to be related to its age – and with a slew of new fuel-efficient aircraft coming onto the market, maintaining older jets often makes less financial sense.

Modern jets also tend to be quieter, more comfortable and equipped to a higher specification than their predecessors, which usually means a better experience for passengers.

So which carriers have the oldest planes? According to airfleets.net – a website which monitors most major airlines – of the world's 30 largest carriers (based on passenger numbers), Delta Airlines has the most mature planes with an average age of 17 years.

Air Canada and United Airlines are reckoned to have the second and third oldest fleets, with an average age of 14.2 and 14.1 years respectively.

Qantas has the 10th oldest fleet in the skies, with an average age of 9.7 years. That average will come down over the next 12 months as the airline begins taking delivering of new Boeing 787 Dreamliners, which will likely start replacing the airline's ageing 747 jumbo jets.

See also: Qantas reveals first route for its 787 Dreamliners

Data is approximate and is not available for all carriers, including Turkish Airlines, which is considered one of the world's largest airlines.

At the other end of the spectrum is Aeroflot, which has the youngest planes with an average age of just 4.2 years; Hainan Airlines and China Eastern Airlines have the second and third freshest fleets with an average age of 4.9 and 5.3 years respectively.

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With a few exceptions – including Ryanair and EasyJet – European and North American airlines tend to have the oldest jets, while Asian and Middle Eastern carriers generally boast the youngest.

Incidentally, Jet2 – which was involved in the aforementioned forced landings but is not considered one of the world's 30 largest airlines – has a fleet age of 16.8 years, which is at the older end of the spectrum.

Which major airline has the oldest fleet?

1  Delta Airlines 17 years
2  Air Canada  14.2 years
3  United Airlines 14.1 years
4  British Airways 13.2 years
5  Air France  12.6 years
6  Lufthansa  11.5 years
-  Southwest Airlines  11.5 years
8  KLM  10.7 years
9  American Airlines  10.3 years
10  Qantas  9.7 years
11  Thai Airways  9.6 years
12  All Nippon Airways  9.4 years
13  Jet Blue Airways  9.3 years
14  Korean Air  9.2 years
15  Japan Airlines  8.7 years
16  LATAM Brazil  8.1 years
-  Singapore Airlines  8.1 years
18  Cathay Pacific  7.7 years
19  EasyJet (UK)  7.2 years
20  China Southern Airlines  6.9 years
21  Ryanair  6.5 years
22  Air China  6.3 years
23  Etihad  6.1 years
-  Qatar Airways  6.1 years
25  Saudi Arabian Airlines  5.9 years
26  Emirates  5.4 years
27  China Eastern Airlines  5.3 years
28  Hainan Airlines  4.9 years
29  Aeroflot  4.2 years
30  Turkish Airlines  No data

*Ranking Airline Average age of fleet

The Telegraph, London

See also: Aircraft graveyards: What happens to old planes?

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