The recent crash of a leased-Cubana Boeing 737 has caused the media to focus on the age of the aircraft. The Mexican registered airplane crashed on takeoff from Havana on a domestic flight to Holguin. The aircraft involved in the accident was a thirty-nine-year-old Boeing 737-200 that was manufactured in 1979. The accident is under investigation, though the media is focusing on the age of the aircraft as a primary cause.
However, the age of the aircraft may not be a primary factor. In the U.S., an aircraft’s airworthiness certificate is considered valid if the appropriate maintenance is performed and inspections are made on the aircraft. In theory, an aircraft can be flown forever as long as the owners maintain it well and perform the necessary inspections. The only caveat to this is manufacturer recommended service life for an airframe, which can be extended.
In many parts of the world, there are aircraft older than the accident aircraft in Cuba that are safely transporting passengers. In remote parts of the Canadian arctic region, carriers are still using the Douglas DC-3 to transport passengers and cargo. The DC-3 ended production in 1942. The carrier that operates these DC-3s has seen no fatalities in nearly fifty years of operation.
Although rarer than in previous years, the Boeing 737-200 is still used in many remote parts of the world. Even in the United States, the aircraft is still in use by charter carrier Sierra Pacific. Similar to the DC-3, the Boeing 737-200 is still popular in the Canadian arctic for its ability to be used on remote gravel runways.
Even in my own experience, older aircraft are safe to operate. While earning my seaplane rating in Florida, the training and checkride was carried out in an aircraft built in 1958. At 60 years old the aircraft was perfectly safe to fly and is current with its inspections and had been routinely maintained by its owner. The operator also had other aircraft in their fleet that had been built in the 1940s.
The age of an aircraft can matter less to an investigation and accidents than the media portrays. In the end, it often depends on the maintenance that is performed on the aircraft rather than the aircraft’s age. Here in the United States, some airlines operate aircraft twenty years or older and they are operated safely everyday with thousands of passengers flying on them unknowingly. The safety of the aircraft is often dependent on the maintenance practices of the operator and their safety culture.