By Ian Putzger
And the authorities have yet to announce a cap on the service age of planes already registered in Thailand for commercial use, which could further undermine the viability of placing cargo aircraft in the kingdom.
The proposed ceiling for freighters to be deployed in Thailand is 18 years at registration, compared with 16 years for passenger planes.
This is part of a bundle of measures designed to raise the bar for start-up carriers, including more rigorous scrutiny of financial and ownership matters.
The Thai government has taken strides to overhaul its regulatory regime in the wake of a “Significant Safety Concern” ICAO put on Thailand in the summer of 2015 following an inspection under its Universal Safety Oversight Audit Programme that identified a large number of shortcomings.
Thailand joins a growing list of countries that have imposed age ceilings for commercial aircraft in recent years, such as Bolivia, Malaysia, Mongolia, Uganda and Turkey. Saudia was forced to alter its freighter fleet after the government imposed a 20-year limit on aircraft age. Several of the countries are markets with significant momentum in economic and aviation growth, including Indonesia, India and China.
There are no age restrictions on aircraft registered in the US, Canada, the EU or Australia. In several cases, such as Thailand and Indonesia, such age limits were introduced after aviation safety issues had provoked a reaction from international bodies, notably ICAO.
Indonesia has been particularly strident in its push to bring down the age of aircraft operating across the archipelago. It has imposed an age limit of 10 years for passenger aircraft and 15 years for freighters.
Given that many freighters are converted aircraft, such time limits mean that by the time an aeroplane becomes viable for conversion, it will be too old.
The trend to impose national age ceilings for planes should be a concern for both aircraft owners and operators, warned Richard Greener, senior vice-president and manager, cargo, at GE Capital Aviation Services (GECAS).
“Age limits tend to be arbitrary and have the consequence of restricting the importation and operation of viable and economic aircraft,” he said. “As of yet, there hasn’t been a significant impact, but we expect operators to soon require younger aircraft.”
Mr Greener revealed that age importation restrictions were a contributing factor to GECAS’s decision to launch its 737-800 conversion programme, especially in Asia.
Classic 737 freighters now see some avenues blocked.
“In Thailand they’re facing a closed door,” said Robert Convey, vice-president of sales and marketing at Aeronautical Engineering Inc.
While Thailand has signalled a strict stance on the matter, the authorities in some other countries are adopting a less stringent position and are not overly aggressive in their policing of aircraft age limitations, said Brian McCarthy, vice-president, aircraft trading, at Precision Aircraft Solutions, which has focused on B757 conversions.
“In some places there is some flexibility allowed in the name of the pedigree of the aircraft. They look if an aircraft has had just one owner or one operator all its life, versus an aircraft that has been leased by tour operators for years,” he said.
One example is China, which promulgated a ceiling of 15 years but has shown a more flexible approach in dealing with individual cases.
“They look at the operator, who’s owned the plane, cycles and so on, rather than age,” said Mr Convey.
Mr Greener agrees that age ceilings do not reflect the shape an aircraft is in.
”Rather than imposing an arbitrary age limit, existing regulations related to operators and aircraft should be the governing barometer,” he said.
In jurisdictions with more aggressive age import regulations, operators will either convert younger aircraft or use older aircraft previously imported, he added.
Some countries, however, might effectively ban the establishment of freighter operations with older planes. There have been suggestions that age limits could conceivably be ignored as long as operators have older models at their disposal that were registered before the tighter rules were introduced. Such a stance becomes more difficult if the age ceiling for newly registered planes is combined with an age limit for incumbent aircraft.
Indonesia flanked its ceiling for aircraft to be registered with an overall age limit of 30 years for freighters already in operation.