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It is normal to see older planes (20+ years) quite frequently. In fact, a few months ago I saw a plane over 50 years old (not in a museum but on a runway, about to take off).

Comparing to cars, there are not many cars on the road which are older than 10-15 years.

What are the reasons for this besides the following?

  1. Airplanes are very expensive. A new 172 would be over USD 300,000, and a thirty year old can be around \$50k or less.
  2. Airplanes follow a very strict maintenance schedule and are inspected thoroughly (ideally speaking). Hence their life is increased.
  3. Pilots are very well trained compared to car drivers, so they know a lot more of what they are doing. Hence they are more aware of the condition of the plane.
  4. Cars crash a lot more often than airplanes.

It appears that this holds true for both general and commercial aviation.

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    $\begingroup$ There are two aspects to the question: why are they still in use (vs. being scrapped in favor of new airplanes) and why do they last so long (vs. falling apart as a car would). But I think you already nailed most of the key points to answering both aspects in your own question! $\endgroup$ – TypeIA Apr 14 '14 at 21:59
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    $\begingroup$ a well maintained car can last for a century (just look at all of the oldtimers in working condition), a well maintained airliner reaches EOL after 2-3 decades (IIRC) $\endgroup$ – ratchet freak Apr 14 '14 at 22:54
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    $\begingroup$ The biggest reason that I've read is #2 $\endgroup$ – SSumner Apr 14 '14 at 23:56
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    $\begingroup$ "[T]here are not many cars on the road which are older than 10-15 years." That depends on where you are looking. :) $\endgroup$ – Keep these mind Apr 15 '14 at 17:29
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    $\begingroup$ As for commercial aviation, it's a pretty different story. There are few, if any, 50-year-old airframes flying scheduled passenger service in the U.S. The U.S. passenger fleet's average age is actually only around 10-15 years right now. The oldest ones still flying on most major U.S. airlines are from the 80s and most of those are in the process of being replaced. Of course, it's not uncommon for aircraft retired from these fleets to go on to fly in some developing nation for many more years. $\endgroup$ – reirab Sep 3 '14 at 18:15
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Besides the main points you mentioned, I can think of a couple things, the first is sort of related to your point #1.

Airplanes are designed to be easy to service. Cars are less so. Cars only have a few very expensive parts, mainly the drivetrain (engine and transmission). If either of those needs to be replaced in an older car, it can easily cost more than the car is worth.

Airplanes are much more complex, and have a larger number of expensive components. The engines of most airliners are designed to be removed relatively quickly. Although the engines tend to be the most expensive part, replacing an engine is nowhere near the total cost of the airplane, and there is generally a good pool of engines out there for parts and replacement (just look at how many JT8D engines are still in service).

In GA aircraft, it is easier for a repair to cost more than the airplane is worth. However, the more comprehensive maintenance required on aircraft means that this kind of repair is less likely to be needed. Also, while its usually easy to go out and replace a broken car with a comparable new or used one, the aircraft market isn't as large. New aircraft tend to be much more expensive, and the used market is more limited.

Another reason is that airplanes can have more unique qualities than cars. For example, there are original 737s flying in Canada because they are able to operate from gravel runways. There are just more combinations of sizes and capabilities in airplanes than with cars. Many times, it is only economical to replace those aircraft (both for the builder and the buyer) in very long cycles.

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    $\begingroup$ "If either of those needs to be replaced, it can easily cost more than an older car is worth." Keep in mind, replacing things on even a small GA aircraft can easily cost more than an older car as well -- probably more than a new car too, if you're unlucky -- so it relates more to the value of the airplane than the cost of the repair :) $\endgroup$ – falstro Apr 15 '14 at 6:18
  • $\begingroup$ If you looked at light twin prices the last few years, you were basically buying the engines and the avionics and getting the airframe for free. :-) $\endgroup$ – Brian Knoblauch Apr 16 '14 at 23:44
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I own a 182 from 1976 and it looks brand new. It's a common misconception that planes don't oxidize; they do. Aluminum does have it's own form of "rust". Airplanes that are on the coasts usually have a rust preventative applied frequently to prevent oxidizing.

When you have a problem with a car you take it to the shop. This problem could have occurred in your driveway or on the road somewhere away from home. My point here is that cars rarely see service unless there's an issue.

For airplanes, they need to have a yearly "annual". In which a licensed A&P will go over the plane and recommend fixes before the plane is deemed flight worthy again. Also, an airplane engine has an end of life. This end of life is somewhat debated in the pilot community as it seems from data collected on accident statistics that many engine failures increase shortly after an engine has been rebuilt. This is in addition to any squawks I may have throughout the year. If something doesn't sound or feel right, it gets looked at. I don't wait for a "breakdown".

I trust my airplane and her engine 100%.

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    $\begingroup$ Good answer. Especially interesting that airplanes have a rust preventative applied - I wonder if this is in conjunction with salt usage as well? Also: in some countries (eg New Zealand) they have compulsory car inspections every six months (warrants of fitness). Cars last longer there, but still not as long as planes... $\endgroup$ – Peter Apr 15 '14 at 5:43
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    $\begingroup$ most countries require cars to be inspected yearly as well but no where near as thorough as for planes $\endgroup$ – ratchet freak Apr 15 '14 at 7:50
  • $\begingroup$ @Peter The stuff used for ice-prevention on runways is much less corrosive than the calcium chloride/sodium-chloride used in most road salting/sanding operations (I think we talked about it on the site somewhere, if I recall correctly it's usually potassium acetate or similar). $\endgroup$ – voretaq7 Apr 16 '14 at 22:20
  • $\begingroup$ and quite a few car manufacturers give special perks for people who have their cars serviced regularly at a dealership (e.g. free towing and emergency repair service, think AA Roadwatch equivalent, free replacement of liquids and light bulbs, etc.). $\endgroup$ – jwenting Sep 3 '14 at 9:33
  • $\begingroup$ @ratchetfreak: Most countries do require cars to be inspected regularly, but I am not sure how every year is usual. Here it is after 5 years, then another 5 and afterwards every 2 years. $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Dec 13 '14 at 14:19
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The answers so far give many valid reasons, but two more are missing:

  • In GA aircraft, progress has stopped in airframe design somewhere in the Sixties. Only the home build community has really improved the designs, and the avionics have tremendously improved, but commercial GA aircraft have still the same structure and engines. Since the number of active pilots has dropped, the number of old airplanes makes new designs (again, outside of the home build area) commercially questionable, and their performance would be comparable to the ones from 50 years ago.
  • Grandfather rules: The rules which have been in force at the time the aircraft was built are still valid for that particular aircraft, which makes compliance much easier than with newly built aircraft. All certification authorities all over the world have only added to the body of regulations in the last decades. If you think of it, this makes sense (for them): There is no incentive to remove old and by now superfluous rules, and new rules are issued if only to show that the bureaucracy is active and needed.

Whenever I read some old aircraft magazine from the Fifties or Sixties, I find the ads most striking for showing modern-looking planes alongside really outdated automobiles. The aircraft development in General Aviation has stopped a long time ago, whereas the car industry still needs to entice it's customers with regular updates.

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  • $\begingroup$ Diamomd has been pretty innovative. $\endgroup$ – Koyovis Jul 2 '17 at 22:07
  • $\begingroup$ @Koyovis There was a renaissance in aircraft design about 20-30 years ago, inspired by kit aircraft beginning to use composites. Diamond and CIrrus and Lancair/Columbia/Cessna 300-350-400 are each composite aircraft with advanced avionics, FADEC engine management, and clean sheet design. Unfortunately, the market for new airplanes is rather small and the cost to develop new designs is high, so we haven’t seen much innovation in this area. Beech, Cessna, Mooney, and Piper are shielded from lawsuits by the General Aviation Revitalization Act of 1994 so they have lower risk by making old designs. $\endgroup$ – JScarry Jul 3 '17 at 0:00
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    $\begingroup$ @Koyovis: Yes, Diamond is an exception to the rule. It is headed by the Mitsubishi car importer for Austria (hence the name) and employs a very clever chief designer who has spent many years in the Akaflieg in Braunschweig, designing, building and flying high performance gliders. They are not only innovative in airframes, but also in engines, having certified a Diesel engine for aviation use. $\endgroup$ – Peter Kämpf Jul 3 '17 at 17:09
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There are so many standards regulating the inspection and maintenance of aircraft, that when a plane is legally in the air, it is most probably safe enough to be there.

For airline operators, efficiency is at the order of the day. You will thus find that even if some 'old' airliners are still being operated, they are very different from the day they first entered into service. The engines are probably much newer and much more efficient models and avionics is also always replaced with the latest affordable technology.

Old planes evoke nostalgia and are very fun to fly for leisure. Due to all the regulating standards it is great that some of these old planes can still be flown.

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Airliners must make money, and a LARGE part of their operating cost is fuel. B707s and DC-8s were designed when crude oil was $10 a barrel; so it's obvious why they are now out of the picture. (DC-8s were re-engined as "Super 70s" in the 1980s with modern CFM56s, giving lower fuel burn and longer range).

But visit an antique fly-in; planes from the 20s-30s-40s can be seen, showing lots of TLC, better than new! You might see a few antique cars at the same event.

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I'll challenge your assumption that there aren't many cars on the road more than 10-15 years old, since my two are 15 and 27 years old, and cars this age are far from rare hereabouts (western US). Of course this can vary: if you live in the US northeast, where they make a practice of spreading corrosive chemicals on the roads, your car's body might fall off in a few years.

I'd add two reasons to yours:

  1. There was a period of a couple of decades where few if any new GA airplanes were built, for fear of liability.
  2. Planned obsolescence: auto makers come out with "new" (that is, different sheet metal) models every year, so that the gullible will buy the new designs in order to follow fashion. That's hard for aircraft makers to do when the basic shape of the plane is dictated by aerodynamics rather than style.

The much higher price for a new plane only makes it harder still.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the answer. Can you please add some reference for your 1st reason. And for the 2nd reason, cars are very aerodynamic too. It's a huge research project to make less air resistant for a smoother and better travel experience. Regarding airplanes, there were and are many different designs in wings and tails. Flying wings and tailless should also be considered. $\endgroup$ – Farhan Jan 23 '15 at 22:18
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    $\begingroup$ @Farhan cars are indeed affected by aerodynamics, but not nearly as much as airplanes. Vehicles can get away with ignoring that a lot more. $\endgroup$ – fooot Jan 23 '15 at 22:35
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    $\begingroup$ According to people who study such things, the average age of a car in the U.S. is only 11.4 years. General aviation aircraft are indeed often much older than that. It's perfectly normal for Cessnas and Pipers from the 60s and 70s to still be flying regularly. Airliners, on the other hand, do have an average age pretty close to those of cars, at least in the U.S. The average fleet age for most major U.S. airlines is in the 10-15 year range. $\endgroup$ – reirab Jan 24 '15 at 3:42
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    $\begingroup$ @Farhan: On #1, I can't give you a better reference than having lived & flown those years, but see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/General_Aviation_Revitalization_Act. For auto age, see e.g. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… and note that since the number of autos keeps increasing, that lowers the average. For #2, few autos pay much attention to actual aerodynamics (as opposed to "looks fast" styling). Look at any pickup, SUV, those small "dorm room on wheels" things that are popular these days... $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Jan 25 '15 at 7:15

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