One quick note on the tragic Spanair crash yesterday that killed more than 150 people. As is the norm when a plane crashes, early news stories speculate about the cause of the crash and the age of the aircraft. Unless two planes collide, early speculation is nearly always wrong. Eyewitness reports are notoriously inaccurate, often suggesting an engine was on fire when it was not. It will take a while to find out what happened, though since the black box has been recovered investigators should have the data they need.
Even more egregious is when stories suggest that a plane has gone down because of its age. Planes do not crash because they are old (repeat that 3 times). Your 1977 Honda Civic doesn’t break down because it is old; it breaks down because a part was not maintained correctly. Airplanes throughout the world (even in countries you know little about) are meticulously maintained. Yes, the European Union has produced a list of blacklisted airlines that are supposedly unsafe (though even those are far more safe than driving between the cities they fly.) I cannot think of a single crash that was caused by the age of the plane – so ignore those reports when you read about them.
Salon’s Ask the Pilot column has spent quite a bit of space discussing poor aviation reporting, so I don’t need to re-hash, but when there’s an incident like the one yesterday, it’s best to remember that it’s just going to take a while to find out what happened.