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In late August, Alaska Airlines announced with great fanfare that it was retiring the last of its MD-80 aircraft; a father-daughter team of pilots ushering one of those on its last flight into Seattle, the airline's home base. The main reason Alaska is giving up on the MD-80 -- once known as the MacDonnell-Douglas DC-9 -- was economy, not safety or even age. (The MD-80 was first flown in 1980 and is no longer produced.) The airline said it could save about 20% or more in fuel costs by switching to the B-737, which, in addition to saving on gas, carries about 20 more passengers.

The MD-80 is the same plane that gave so much trouble to American Airlines back in April of 2008, causing it to ground thousand of its flights, with other airlines grounding hundreds of theirs. That problem was caused by sloppy wiring jobs in the landing gear wheel wheel area, in fact.

US Fleets

The question remains, however, are some planes just too old to be safe? It's well known that repeated takeoffs and landings put stress on the plane's frame and everything else. But is a newer plane essentially safer than an older one? You can't tell by the average age of airline fleets, I discovered.

Comparing the list of average ages of the fleets of US carriers with the fatality rate of our airlines, I could find no correlation, to my surprise. Of the four US airlines I could find with no fatal events since 1970, one fleet averaged 14.4 years (ATA), two (Hawaiian and Southwest) had fleets averaging nearly ten years old and one (JetBlue) was only 3.2 years on average. Geriatric Northwest Airlines had the oldest fleet, averaging 18.5 years, American was next oldest with 14.4 years, followed closely by Delta at 13.8 years, United at 12.7, US Air at 12.2 and Continental at 10.1. (Most of the figures used here are taken from the valuable websites of Air Safe.Com, namely www.airsafe.com and Airfleets, at www.airfleets.net, both of which say their data is primarily that provided by the US Federal Aviation Administration.

Foreign Fleets

Foreign airlines tend to have younger fleets, partly because many are subsidized heavily by their governments, and also for a variety of reasons stemming from the awful state of the US dollar to the foreign lines having more long hauls (profitable) and fewer short hauls (less profitable). Among the youngest: Emirates at 5.9 years, China Airlines (Taiwan) at 5.8, Singapore Airlines at 6, Air China (Beijing) at 7.9 and Air France at 9 years. Comparable to the US airlines with about the same ages are Egyptair at 10.4 years, British Airways at 11.4 and Japan Airlines at 11.7.

New Planes & Profitability

The Airbus A380 is in operation nearly a year now, with flights into the US by Emirates to New York, Houston and Los Angeles, and by Qantas into Los Angeles from October 2008. Like the Boeing 787, it is much more fuel efficient than older planes.

Boeing's new 787 is already a year late, thanks to using a new system of building the plane in parts in widely-separated plants around the world, then shipping all the pieces to near Seattle to zip them together in an entirely new process. Advance publicity about the plane indicates it should be safer and healthier for its passengers to fly in.

The majority of US airline flights are within the USA, while the reverse is true for foreign airlines, with the majority of flights being long haul trips, for companies like Emirates (Dubai), Singapore, and Cathay Pacific (Hong Kong). (These three, in fact, have no domestic flights, being based in tiny domains.) Airlines frequently charge much more for foreign flights than for their domestic routes.

A Side Note on Medical Tourism

Although I wrote about medical tourism a few columns back (column No. 10), I want to pass on information about a new book that has just come to my a attention:

The Medical Tourism Travel Guide, by Dr. Paul Gahlinger, covers 46 nations where you can go for surgery, therapy or other medical procedures at costs much lower than you will find in the United States. And while you are in the foreign country, you can combine a vacation with your recovery time. Gahlinger is publisher of the website www.medicaltourism.com, where you can find more information on the book and the subject. The publisher of the printed paperback is Sunrise River Press in Minnesota, www.sunriseriverpress.com.

Note: The author is the Vice president (pro bono) of IAMAT, the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travellers, a registered charity, tel. 716/754-4883; www.iamat.org.