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April 23, 2018, 3:01 a.m. EDT

Are you a nervous flyer? Here’s how to find out the age of your airplane

Authorities are looking at metal fatigue as a possible cause of Tuesday’s exploding engine of a Southwest plane

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By Quentin Fottrell, MarketWatch


Reuters
Emergency personnel monitor the damaged engine of Southwest Airlines Flight 1380.

Should you have reason to be concerned about the age of an aircraft?

The official investigation into the failure of a Boeing 737-700 BA engine on a Southwest /zigman2/quotes/201071949/composite LUV -1.41%  flight is currently focusing on fatigue in the fan blade and the engine cover. The left engine of the plane exploded midair on Tuesday, sending debris into the side of the plane and breaking a window, and resulting in one fatality. Jennifer Riordan, a Wells Fargo /zigman2/quotes/203790192/composite WFC +0.08%  employee from Albuquerque, N.M., died after being partially sucked out of the plane through a broken window before other passengers pulled her back inside.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration will order engine inspections of the model that exploded on Southwest flight 1380, which was en route from New York’s LaGuardia Airport to Dallas Love Field, the agency announced on Wednesday. The aircraft in question was delivered to Southwest in July 2000 and the average age of the overall fleet is 11 years, a company spokesperson told MarketWatch. The engines involved in Tuesday’s accident have an average age of 14 years, The Dallas Morning News reported .

After reports of this terrifying incident, wear and tear is obviously at the forefront of passengers’ concerns, says Christopher Elliott, a travel writer, consumer advocate and co-founder of the advocacy group Travelers United. “The age of an airplane is a legitimate question. Is my aircraft flightworthy? Do you see signs of wear and tear on the interior — tattered seats, musky smell, panels coming off the ceiling, frayed carpeting or yellowing on the sides of the wall? All of those things can be a sign that you’re on an older or, more worrisome, an improperly maintained aircraft.”

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There are simple ways to check your aircraft’s age. “The age of an aircraft is public and available on the registry if you know the N-number of the aircraft,” says Tammy Jones, a spokeswoman for the FAA. Type that number into the FAA registry or on Planespotters.net . That’s the easiest, but perhaps least practical way to determine an aircraft’s age, given that spying the plane from the airport gate would be too late to change your flight. (Flight changes cost $200 for a domestic flight, but many economy flight tickets are not refundable or changeable.)

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Passengers can estimate the age of their aircraft before booking. AirFleets.com and Planespotters.com have details on the average aircraft age searchable by both aircraft and airline, covering the world’s major manufacturers — including Bombardier /zigman2/quotes/208994866/delayed CA:BBD.B -1.19% , Boeing /zigman2/quotes/208579720/composite BA -3.81% , Airbus /zigman2/quotes/204455808/composite AIR -0.55%   and Embraer /zigman2/quotes/201881360/composite ERJ -6.29% . The U.S. fleet age varies from 17.5 years for low-cost carrier Allegiant Air /zigman2/quotes/208507686/composite ALGT -2.90%   to 5.1 years for Spirit Airlines /zigman2/quotes/205782179/composite SAVE -2.21% according to both airlines.

“We have added more than 40 brand new aircraft in the last 3 years, and we are receiving new aircraft regularly,” a spokesman for Spirit said.

U.S. airlines operate some of the oldest planes in the world. Between 2018 and 2023, North America’s operating fleet is estimated to have an average fleet age of 12.2 years, according to Statista . That compares to 12.7 years in Africa, 10.2 years in Eastern Europe, 10.6 years in Western Europe and 9.2 years in Latin America. Regions with the youngest aircraft include the Asia-Pacific (8 years over the same period), Middle East (7.2) and China (5.9 years). (The International Air Transport Association and Airlines for America did not respond to request for comment.)

Increased vigilance (and nerves) among passengers should be expected after Tuesday’s emergency, Elliott says. “It’s easier to know that you’re on a new aircraft than you’re on an old aircraft,” he says. “Southwest is flying one aircraft type and they all look the same. Some aircraft fly as long as 30 years. They’re built to last that long. There’s a risk that you’ll become an ‘airophobe.’ When I get on a plane, I look around. I pay close attention in places like Eastern Europe and Africa. If you ever see anything out of the ordinary, don’t keep it to yourself.”

Passengers should be more concerned about maintenance, says George Hobica, travel writer and founder of Airfarewatchdog. “Remember, Air Force One is three decades old.”

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Quentin Fottrell is MarketWatch's personal-finance editor and The Moneyologist columnist for MarketWatch. You can follow him on Twitter @quantanamo.

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