Flying aging airplanes could be a thing of the past -- but not for another decade or more.
Concerned about metal fatigue after a rash of incidents involving gashes, gaps and holes in planes, the Federal Aviation Administration is giving the airline industry up to five years to settle on a mandatory age limit for planes and up to another six years beyond that to implement it.
"Metal fatigue has always been a problem," airline safety expert Denny Kelly said. "Corrosion is a big problem, maybe even bigger than metal fatigue."
The rule, which was released Friday, also reinforces existing requirements for regular maintenance and safety inspections.
"A lot of this rule is just restating the obvious, restating the rules that are there already," Kelly said. "If you do the maintenance the way it should be done, and you check them, and you do everything that needs to be done, you don't have to retire them most of the time."
"Our existing aircraft inspection procedures already meet the FAA's requirements of thoroughly inspecting aircraft throughout their normal lifespan, including those inspection procedures related to metal fatigue," the e-mailed statement said. "American has a long history of maintaining its aircraft to the highest standards and working closely with the FAA to address any potential safety issues, and we will continue to do so."
"We will review the new regulation and will comply fully with its requirements. Safety is and always will be our highest priority," Dallas-based Southwest spokesman Chris Mainz said in an e-mailed statement.
American Airlines said the age of its fleet averages 14.5 years. Southwest's fleet averages 15 years, according to Airfleets.net.