How Long Do Airplanes Last?–Factors Affecting Their Lifespan
Conventional wisdom says that, on average, airplanes are operable for 30 years before they lose their airworthiness. But the truth is, there are no clear-cut answers because their lifespan depends on a myriad of factors, including their maintenance, their intrinsic design, and how they are being used.
Are Older Planes Less Safe?
Contrary to popular belief, the aircraft’s chronological age is not the most important factor determining its lifespan. Instead, the airline industry uses “pressurization cycles” to establish its airworthiness.
Pressurization cycles refer to the amount of time that a plane is kept under pressure during flight, which over time causes wear and tear to its structure–i.e., its fuselage, wings, and engine components.
Some components are more susceptible to stress than others. For instance, fasteners, rivets, retractable landing gear, hoses, gaskets, and seals–anything that holds another section or rubs against something–will need more frequent inspections and maintenance.
Statistics show no strong correlation between increasing age and aircraft accidents caused by mechanical failure. In fact, engine-related problems only account for a small portion of the mishap as pilot error remains the biggest contributing factor to accidents.
The Importance of Maintenance
Just like humans who can generally expect a longer lifespan with a healthy lifestyle, good maintenance can also add years to the plane’s airworthiness.
One surefire way to extend the plane’s airworthiness is to replace certain parts regularly even if they haven’t shown visible signs of wear and tear. For example, batteries work perfectly fine for around three years, fuel tank cells last 10-15 years without issue if properly maintained, and vacuum pumps typically last about 500 hours.
By conducting frequent inspections and replacing small components regularly, aircraft owners can avoid or at least postpone bigger issues that can affect the airworthiness of their planes.
When to Retire a Plane
A machine shop can rejuvenate a mature aircraft by overhauling its engine. But if the repair gets to a point that buying a new plane makes more economic sense, this might indicate that it is ready to retire.
Anyone thinking of buying mature planes should also keep in mind that they will be subjected to a more rigorous safety inspection. For instance, the FAA requires older commercial aircraft to pass safety inspections every 100 hours of flying time.
Factors that Affect the Aircraft’s Lifespan
Aside from pressurization cycles and maintenance, the “environment” where the aircraft is parked can also determine its lifespan. In general, there is less corrosion if it is parked in a hangar situated in a hot and dry region. This is why the US Airforce prefers to build their hangars in desert environments where the lack of moisture and rain reduces the risk of corrosion of the fuselage and the engine.
How the plane is used also affects its lifespan. For instance, aircraft used in long flights experience fewer pressurization cycles, and ultimately, less exposure to stress than planes used in short hauls.
The airworthiness also depends on the plane’s intrinsic design and the manufacturing process. For example, passenger aircraft manufactured by Airbus and Boeing are “overbuilt,” which means that they are extremely durable and can work perfectly fine even after 25-30 years.
The two most important factors contributing to the aircraft’s lifespan are the number of takeoffs and landings and the maintenance it has received.
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