Spit and Polish or a Wing and a Prayer?

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I am just back from a trip to the United States. I usually try to do all I can to avoid getting inside the domestic airline system there and more or less succeeded this time, taking trains up and down the east coast. I have spent a great deal of time flying within two large nations in the last decade, China and Indonesia and, in terms of convenience, comfort and punctuality at least, have always felt that I would prefer to fly in those countries than the continental U.S., which is a horror show of delays, cancellations and cramped limbs. The U.S. safety record has always been its standout characteristic, though. Indonesia is still a very dangerous place to fly. China, through dint of enormous effort gets safer every year despite the enormous increase in traffic. But the U.S. is still well amazing, considering the volume of flights. You can’t help wondering, though, particularly if you are a white-knuckle flyer like me. American airlines always seem to be on the brink of bankruptcy and the current record oil prices are pushing them to the wall again, which is no comfort to a troubled mind. United and Air China code share, so I went out on the former and came back on the later. Remembering that most crashes are caused by pilot error, I have always consoled myself that the one thing American carriers have going for them is experienced pilots and good maintenance. But sheer age is a factor, too. At an average of around 12 years old, United’s planes are about twice as old as Air China’s. That was vividly illustrated for us on the journey out, when I noticed that the United 747-400 we were to board had areas of exposed metal on the fuselage. Not just flaking paint mind you but huge patches five or six feet across missing paint altogether and showing the aluminum skin. When I asked the stewardess (an extremely exasperated person, even by United standards: the plane was delayed a full day, something that clearly didn’t make the crew any happier than the passengers) she told me that these models were ” due to be retired in October” so weren’t being kept up. I am the last person to be obsessive about spit and polish, but I was inordinately happy to board the Air China plane (also a 747-400: paint intact) on the way back.