Airlines Feel the Strain of High Demand

What does it mean that the nation’s airlines and airplane manufacturers Tuesday asked the Federal Aviation Administration to order an $800-million repair program for aging airliners?

In the short run, it means that flights will be even more crowded and demand for new airplanes will become even more intense because the greatest strain on the system is not aging aircraft--although they’re a problem--but the expansion of the traveling public.

On the safety side, the industry’s new procedures will mean mandatory replacements of rivets and fuselage panels at intervals in an airplane’s operating life, instead of frequent inspection and repair of such items. The industry’s action came days after the accident on United Airlines Flight 811 out of Honolulu took nine lives. And it follows a year of worrisome incidents involving cracks in airliners--causing public concern and persuading the industry to openly demonstrate that it was stepping up its maintenance procedures.

But still people wonder why cracks are suddenly showing up. Is flying less safe these days?


Improved Safety Record

No, the problem is one of wear and tear on older planes; it is being dealt with and is not an emergency. Meanwhile, the overriding truth of air travel today is that there are more flights but fewer accidents. In 1977, the year before deregulation, scheduled airlines flew 4.9 million flights on 2,700 airliners in the United States. Last year there were 7 million flights and 4,300 airplanes. That’s a 43% increase in flights but a 59% increase in airplanes.

The average age of planes was 10 years then, is 12 years today--although some planes are almost 20 years old, like the United 747 in Honolulu. Still accident totals are down: four U.S. accidents a year involving fatalities in the early 1980s, three a year for the last two years.

The result is that insurance rates actually have eased a little, say airline insurance people. The insurance of airliners is a group affair with insurance companies forming syndicates to spread the risk, and perhaps $1.5 billion in premiums per year insuring the world’s total of 7,800 airliners.


Were the insurers worried about aging aircraft? Not really, says Daniel Izard, president of Associated Aviation Underwriters, one of the major U.S. groups. “Age is only one of the many factors we consider,” Izard says. Others include size of aircraft, number of takeoffs and landings in its route structure and the airline’s record on maintenance. (United Airlines, say industry experts, has an extraordinarily good record on maintenance.)

Planes Retired Early

But the question of aging airliners doesn’t arise immediately because in theory airliners have an indefinite life. Their operating parts, engines and such, have always been replaced at regular intervals--the equivalent of replacing the brakes, transmission or engine on a car. The outer skin of the plane--the rivets and plates--have been inspected and patched at regular intervals but not totally replaced. Now those parts will be replaced.

Traditionally, though, airplanes have come to the end of their economic lives before reaching the end of their operating lives. That is, they were retired when, like the Boeing 707, they were no longer as fuel-efficient as newer models or their old configurations and engines made them too noisy for new regulations.

And that’s the problem. It used to be that new models and new technology came along more often, causing old airliners to be scrapped. That was when development costs of a new plane were moderate and manufacturers could sell the new planes for a reasonable price. But development costs today are prohibitive. Developing a whole new airplane would cost $2.5 billion, which would result in a price per plane of about $35 million. And airlines are reluctant to pay it, when their problem is not to get a new type of aircraft whether for fuel efficiency or greater speed or whatever. Their problem is to get enough planes to handle the growing passenger traffic worldwide. That is why airlines have ordered enough aircraft to back up the production lines of Boeing, McDonnell Douglas and Airbus Industrie. That is why they are flying all their planes longer.

And the mandatory programs proposed Tuesday will further strain the system because they will produce increased downtime for maintenance and thus a scarcity of available seats. Demand will become even more intense for new planes from the manufacturers, all of whom are trying to stretch their production capacity.

Summing up, the alarming appearance of fuselage cracks and the industry’s response to the alarm are one episode in the short, 30-year history of commercial jet travel. But we should keep in mind that behind that episode is the far more encouraging reality of growing passenger traffic and rising living standards worldwide.