August 20, 2008 / 8:14 PM / 11 years ago

Type of plane in Madrid crash old but seen as safe

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The McDonnell Douglas MD-80 line of planes is aging and nearly obsolete but generally regarded as safe, despite the fatal crash of one in Madrid on Wednesday with the loss of about 145 lives.

The single-aisle, twin-engine family of aircraft has been a workhorse for U.S. airlines for almost 30 years with only some minor maintenance issues in the United States earlier this year.

It is only now being phased out, but more because of its costly fuel consumption than its safety record.

“It’s been a long time since one of these had an accident,” said Richard Aboulafia, an analyst at aerospace consultants Teal Group. “They are a little thirsty by standards of other planes, but they have a very strong safety record.”

The type of plane that crashed in Madrid was a 15-year-old MD-82, an early variant of the MD-80 family, which can carry up to 172 passengers on short and medium-range flights up to about 2,700 miles.

The MD-80 family was designed by McDonnell Douglas in the 1970s as the successor to its DC-9 line and entered service in 1980. The last one rolled off the California production line in 1999, two years after Boeing Co bought McDonnell Douglas.

Overall, 1,191 MD-80s were delivered to 60 airlines across the world and 977 remain in service, according to World Airliner Census, published by industry trade magazine Flight International.

The MD-80 was overtaken in the 1990s by Boeing’s revamped 737 and rival Airbus’s A320 line of planes, which offer better fuel efficiency and comfort. Airbus, Boeing’s arch rival, is a unit of European aerospace group EADS.

SAFER THAN AVERAGE

MD-80s are safer than average airliners, according to Boeing.

“The fatal hull loss accident rate (for MD-80s) is 0.34 per million departures,” Boeing spokesman Jim Proulx said. That means one serious crash involving fatalities for every 3 million or so take-offs. The industry average for western-built jets is 0.9 per million departures, he said.

Boeing offered condolences to the families and friends of those lost in the Madrid crash, and said it was ready to provide technical assistance to Spanish authorities.

McDonnell Douglas delivered 539 MD-82s in total between 1981 and 1997. AMR Corp’s American Airlines was the biggest buyer, ordering 234 of the aircraft. Delta Air Lines is also a major operator, along with now-defunct TWA.

Only now is American Airlines getting round to replacing its MD-80s in earnest, in the face of soaring fuel prices. The world’s largest airline said last week it would speed up deliveries of 737s in order to phase out its gas-guzzling MD-80s more quickly.

American’s fleet came under scrutiny earlier this year, when the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration ordered the carrier to ground some 300 MD-80s to inspect wiring in the right wheel well, which it said could be a fire risk if not properly covered and secured.

Safety officials have paid closer attention to aircraft wiring since TWA flight 800 was lost over the Atlantic Ocean in 1996. Investigators believe a wiring short triggered a catastrophic fuel tank explosion.

However, the wiring inspection issue never posed an immediate safety risk, according to industry-watchers.

“I don’t know of any accusations of original equipment safety concerns on the MD-80. It’s universally considered a safe and robust airframe,” said Aboulafia.

Early reports suggest an engine fire may have caused Wednesday’s crash. The engines on the plane were manufactured by Pratt & Whitney, a unit of U.S. conglomerate United Technologies Corp, a spokeswoman for Pratt confirmed.

Additional reporting by Dan Lalor in London; Editing by Daniel Trotta

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