Flight Plan

How long do commercial aircraft last?

| Updated on June 13, 2021

What airlines can do to extend the longevity of their fleet

Most airlines make it a point to flaunt their young fleet.

Clearly, the performance of a young aircraft is better than that of an older one. It guzzles less fuel and makes passengers feel safer. However, not all airlines have the luxury of owning a younger fleet of aircraft.

So, how long do aeroplanes last? Boeing and Airbus, the two biggest commercial aircraft manufacturers in the world, build their planes to last for over 40 years but again not all of them last that long. Their longevity entirely depends on an airline’s ability to keep them “well-oiled”, replacing parts at the right time and not flogging them.

Experts will tell us that aircraft are overbuilt, as they should be. They are built stronger than what is needed, as they operate in a high-stress environment, running between 65-85 per cent of their maximum power compared with an automobile, which typically runs at 25 per cent of its power. So, it is pretty obvious that they work harder than a typical passenger car. In an interview with Condé Nast Traveler, Bruce Landsberg, the former president of Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association’s Air Safety Institute, points out, “your car engine is basically loafing” while an aeroplane engine has to keep you afloat.

A modern commercial aircraft costs anywhere between $80 million and $400 million and the average lifespan of a commercial aeroplane is around 20 years, 51,000 flight hours and 75,000 pressurisation cycles. Each time an aircraft is pressurised during flight, its fuselage (main body of the aeroplane) and wings are stressed. The more times it goes through this cycle, the older it gets. Corrosion and fatigue also determine whether it is time to decommission a plane.

Suffice it to say, an aircraft that has over 3,50,000 individual components, is still good enough for the owners to make money out of selling the components. Therefore, the thumb rule to retire an aircraft is when you know the value of the components is higher than that of the sum of its parts.

(Source: Airline Routes & Ground Services (ARGS); Condé Nast Traveler; Air & Space)

Published on June 13, 2021

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