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“A ‘55 Chevy in the right hands could go hundreds of thousands of miles,” he says.

But that isn’t much comfort to some passengers. After all, if the Chevy breaks down, you simply pull off to the side of the road.

Emily Kahn of Portland, Ore., says she now does more research before booking a flight and is willing to pay more for a newer model of plane.

“When the magazine rack in front of me is falling apart, it’s not the best feeling in the world,” Kahn says. “It makes me think they aren’t spending enough time inspecting this plane.”

Of the 5,363 jets used by U.S. airlines today, almost 1,300 are more than 15 years old and 235 of them were built before 1988, the year the government banned smoking on most domestic flights.

At least one site, airfarewatchdog.com, provided travelers this week with instructions on how to find the type of plane assigned to a route. “If you have a choice, why not go with a newer model?” founder George Hobica says.

Passengers can check the make and model of a plane by entering the flight number on sites such as flightaware.com and flightstats.com. The airlines also usually provide that information on their websites. However, aircraft can be changed at the last minute. And none of the sites specify the age or maintenance history of a specific plane.

Some airlines have much younger fleets than others. Virgin America, which only started service in August 2007, is flying planes that average just 3.4 years. Allegiant Air, which bought MD-80s once flown by Aeromexico and SAS Scandinavian Airlines, has an average fleet age of 21.5 years.

Ascend aviation analyst Andy Golub notes that Allegiant picked up its used jets for bargain prices, meaning the company has plenty of cash on hand.

“They have more than enough money to make sure that those aircraft are superbly maintained,” Golub says.

Even within an airline, there can be big differences. Delta Air Lines has an average fleet age of 16 years. Its 737-700s average less than two years old. But it also has more than 30 DC-9s that date back to the 1970s. They are the oldest commercial passenger planes flown today by a U.S. airline. Delta plans to retire those jets next year.

Not even new planes have spotless safety records, of course. The last two U.S. fatal airline crashes — a Continental Express flight to Buffalo, N.Y., and a Delta Connection flight out of Kentucky — were both on relatively new planes, one and five years old respectively.