Some civil aviation authorities in developing markets are imposing age limits on aircraft in a quest to force airlines to operate newer equipment.

Myanmar's Department of Civil Aviation recently introduced regulations stating that no commercial aircraft imported into the country can be older than 20 years and that aircraft already in situ must be no older than 25 years. India and Indonesia also impose age limits, and Mongolia is understood to be considering it as well.

The assumption is that newer aircraft are safer than older ones, therefore it is easier for a civil aviation regulator to maintain industry safety. Aircraft manufacturers have a vested interest in maintaining aircraft residual values, and they argue that it is wrong to assume older aircraft are less safe. Their position is that old aircraft can be just as safe as new, as long as they are properly maintained. But manufacturers concede there is some additional work required on the part of the regulator to ensure that airlines have the necessary maintenance personnel and are meeting standards.

Fokker and other manufacturers say the fact that some regulators in developing countries do impose age limits—and regulators in more established markets such as the U.S. and Australia do not—is a reflection of how the regulators in emerging economies have doubts about their ability to provide proper oversight.

Fokker's vice president of marketing and sales for Asia Pacific, Raj Ramanujam, says: “There is no reason why pre-owned aircraft cannot fly as safely and as reliably as new aircraft. As the type certificate holder for Fokker types, Fokker Services is supporting almost 600 aircraft worldwide. We see operators across a wide variety of operating conditions and regulatory environments.” Achieving dispatch reliability levels of more than 99% is not uncommon, and aircraft technology is being kept up-to-date with a variety of avionics and systems upgrades, he says. The airframe is certified for 90,000 flights.

Civil aviation regulators that ban older aircraft following an air crash are just playing politics, says Ramanujam. “The politically expedient reaction to such events is to blame it on 'old aircraft' and follow this up with age limits on the import and operation of aircraft. While this shows the general public that some action is being taken, it masks the true source of the problem, which is lack of progress in one of the three pre-conditions for growth, namely improved regulatory infrastructure and a well-developed maintenance and support base.”

Bombardier Commercial Aircraft's vice president of sales for Asia-Pacific, Torbjorn Karlsson, says imposing age limits on aircraft is ridiculous, because there is no correlation between aircraft age and how well it was maintained. “How can you say, for example, that a 15-year-old aircraft from Scandinavia's SAS is less safe than a 14-year-old aircraft from Adam Air,” he asks rhetorically. Adam Air is a defunct Indonesian carrier.

Other aircraft-makers also question the logic behind age limits. They point out that some countries have an age limit on importation of aircraft, but no such limit on aircraft already in-country. If aircraft over a certain age are unsafe, then why is it OK for aircraft already in-country to be over that age?

There are also instances where countries have banned certain types of commercial aircraft for being too old, but those same types are still being flown in the country by the military. This is illogical because military aircraft—some of which were formally commercial aircraft—are often used to transport VIPs, including government politicians. If the aircraft were unsafe, wouldn't the authorities have ensured that no one, including politicians, can use them?

The fact that some developing countries are imposing age limits is creating a situation where some older aircraft are shifting from poorer to richer countries. Normally it is the other way around. Fokker 100s, for example, are finding their way to Australia—where the aircraft type is popular with mining charter operators because of its low-acquisition cost and short takeoff and landing capability.

Ramanujam says the fact that Australia's Civil Aviation Safety Authority and the U.S. FAA continue to allow Fokkers to be registered is testimony to the aircraft's safety and reliability.

He says countries that limit the importation of older aircraft could be adversely affecting the development of their nation's airline industry. “It will stunt growth of the regional market by raising the financial threshold to enter the market which, in turn, will slow down overall economic growth. Carriers will be forced to look for new aircraft with the attendant higher levels of debt and financing that entails. With the Asian regional market in its infancy, returns in the first instance will not be solid enough to sustain that level of investment.”

Ramanujam adds: “We believe that pre-owned aircraft have an important role to play in growing the regional market to maturity in Asia. Sustainable growth in the regional market over the coming years will be difficult to achieve without pre-owned aircraft.” He also mentions that “many of the pioneers of the regional business in now-mature markets in Europe and the U.S. started off with pre-owned aircraft.”