The tragic crash of a Concorde near Paris on a flight to New York City killing all 109 on board and four on the ground has shocked the world and brought public attention to an issue being quietly debated by aviation safety experts and officials: Should old aircraft face mandatory retirement?
Airline corporations and the federal government mandate that airline pilots must retire at age 60, yet at the same time oppose any mandatory retirement for aircraft. Currently, aircraft have clearance to fly even if they far exceed their design life (the number of years or takeoffs and landings for which the manufacturer designed the aircraft). Some airlines take advantage of this by continuing to fly passengers as long as the planes can be repaired and pass government inspections. However, many safety experts and engineers—including some in the aircraft manufacturing industry and aviation safety organizations such as the Aviation Consumer Action Project (ACAP) (which I founded in 1971 to give consumers a voice and ear on major aviation issues)—are worried that airlines do not decommission airliners after their planned 20-year life. This poses a growing danger to the traveling public. So far, the only action taken by the U.S. and other governments is to “study” the
Meanwhile, the U.S. aircraft fleet of about 4,900 airplanes is rapidly aging according to a 1998 report by the White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security, chaired by Vice President Al Gore. The Commission also concluded that airline crash fatalities would double by 2007 unless major improvements in air safety were implemented.
Historically, old airliners were made obsolete by improved newer aircraft and rarely remained in service past their design life. But, today, deregulated profit hungry U.S. airlines have about 3,000 aircraft, or 60 percent of the total fleet, in service that have already exceeded their design life. Some in industry advocate that aircraft
designed for 20 years of service (or about 40,000 takeoffs and landings, called cycles) should be allowed to continue indefinitely in public passenger service—30, 40 or even 50 years. This is taking the aviation industry into uncharted territory where passengers and flight crews unwittingly become the test subjects to see how long old airliners can fly before they literally come apart.
The supersonic Concorde fleet, which now consist of only 12 planes in service, were all built between 1969 and 1979. Contrary to some media reports that the Concorde has had a “perfect” safety record, there have been a growing and disturbing number of safety incidents, at least six since 1998. They include the near disastrous loss of 40 percent of a Concorde’s lower rudder during a flight to New York City on October 8, 1998, a wing problem on May 28, 1998 over the Atlantic that caused the aircraft to turn back to London, an engine failure resulting in an emergency landing and a fire alarm on another Concorde causing another
emergency landing both on January 30, 2000. And most recently, on July 24, 2000, one day before the Concorde crash near Paris, there was an announcement of the discovery of cracks in the wing supports of all seven British Air Concordes resulting in the mandatory grounding of only one. This record is particularly distressing considering the very small number of Concordes in service and the very high level of maintenance they constantly receive.
Paul Hudson, ACAP’s executive director, points out that the use of jetliners far beyond their design life is also retarding the adoption of modern safety systems that could make flying much safer. Such systems include fire and explosion suppression systems that have been used successfully in military aircraft for over a decade (three of the past five air disasters in North America were due to uncontrolled in flight fires or explosions—Swissair 111, TWA 800 and Valujet).
In 1999, the high cost of retrofitting existing airlines was cited by industry as the main reason for its opposition to installing fire and explosion suppression systems in fuel tanks after the TWA 800 disaster. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommended, after finding that the TWA 800 disaster was due to an exploding center fuel tank, that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) should implement measures to eliminate or substantially reduce the risk of such explosions.
Last year an industry-government task force report on fuel tank safety found that existing aircraft which often contain center fuel tanks with adjacent heat sources were in a potentially explosive condition about 30 percent of their operating time and calculated that it could be expected that 600 persons would die in such accidents over the next 10 years. The FAA typically has agreed with the industry to “study” the problem, but has not required any currently available explosion or fire suppression technology be installed on commercial airliners.
Many state and local fire codes for large buildings and even restaurant kitchens are now under stricter standards in the United States (which generally require automatic fire suppression systems) than those for airliners. Of course, most air travelers do not know that when traveling at 30,000 feet there are few, if any, fire suppression or detection systems.
The aviation industry and government claim that existing maintenance and inspection programs are adequate, but they fail to require replacement of basic systems such as old wiring (insulation has been shown to wear out with age and use) or the hydraulic systems which power aircraft controls or even most electronics.
Ultimately, consumers have real power to determine whether old aircraft will be taken out of service before they become older than their pilots, regardless of corporate greed or government inaction. Air passengers should ask the age of the aircraft when booking flights and avoid aircraft that have far exceeded their design life, and support a mandatory retirement regulation for aging aircraft. You can find out more about this growing menace to aviation safety and what you can do by
contacting ACAP: web site www.acap1971.org, telephone 800-588-ACAP, address: 529 14th Street NW, Suite 1265, Washington, D.C. 20045, email
address: [email protected]