What Happens To Old Airplanes?: Did you know that disposal of used aircraft is a booming business of billions of dollars? Or that it has recently created a dangerous shadow market in counterfeit aircraft parts? Jump on board and buckle up for takeoff as we ask, What happens to old airplanes?
You might wonder why airplanes need to die in the first place. After all, they’re made of metal, right – couldn’t they theoretically be made to last forever? not enough.
Most modern airliners have a built-in lifespan of about 25-30 years. What usually brings them down, in the end, is far more lethal than regular breakages.
The lifetime of an aircraft is usually measured in so-called ‘pressure cycles‘. what does this mean? Every time an aircraft takes off, it has to pressurize its cabin so that passengers and crew can breathe comfortably at high altitudes.
This pressure naturally exerts considerable pressure on the aircraft frame, which inevitably leads to metal fatigue over time. Over many thousands of flight hours, this fatigue can be fatal.
In 1988, a flight attendant named Clarabell Lansing tragically died when an aging Aloha Airlines Boeing 737 suffered explosive mid-air decompression. The Boeing 747 is rated for 35,000 pressure cycles, which typically works out to about 150,000 flight hours.
Interestingly, nippy short-haul planes accelerate faster than larger long-haul jets for the same reason. Short heelers necessarily burp and decelerate several times a day, accelerating their decline.
Carriers, especially large well-known passenger airlines, don’t want to wait until metal fatigue becomes problematic. So at about halfway through the rated lifetime of the aircraft, an exhaustive evaluation is done to see if it is worth more in parts than a working airliner.
Often with a newer, more fuel-efficient model available that makes more sense for an airline to trade in, it’s certainly going to take on exciting new things for jets arriving in the autumn of their lives. Not unheard of.
They can be sold to countries with less stringent regulations and run on land, at least figuratively.
Big Boeing 747s are often refined as freight carriers, smaller aircraft that can operate in highly specialist niches, such as the Dutch workhorse Fokker 100 which are so strong that they are a roaring business supplying remote mining outposts in the Australian outback. We do.
Some lucky planes end up as cherished museum pieces, like the few remaining Concordes. Or refined into grand sky palaces for the likes of hip-hop star Drake, or shadowy aristocrat Roman Abramovich, who roams around in a private pimped-out Boeing 767 named ‘Bandit’.
Although it is rare. Most aircraft – almost all aircraft, eventually – break down for parts. The volumes and prices associated with the airline parts trade can be staggering, with the global market for secondhand plane components estimated to be around $6 billion in 2022.
This market is so vibrant that it has spawned its own class of dedicated investment organizations and even specialist hedge funds.
Even more astonishingly, the airline spare parts industry is locked in a constant battle with counterfeiters, who supply a hungry world market with cheap knock-off components.
It is believed that 2% of all spare airliner parts on the market today are counterfeit, with obvious and terrifying safety implications.
A Paris start-up called SafeFlights is trying to use blockchain certification to stamp out this decidedly dodgy practice. So, why is the parts market so lucrative? A modern aircraft is made up of about 350,000 parts.
Most of the value – above 75% – is derived from the engines alone. Airlines generally prefer to replace a failed component, like an engine fan blade, rather than attempt a risky repair. So idle aircraft essentially become money-making organ banks for their airworthy brethren.
There is serious cash to be made here. For example, the only winglets on a retired Boeing 737 can fetch up to US$650,000 in the second-hand market.
And with about 11,000 airline retirements due in the coming decade, you can begin to see why defunct planes are such a big business. So where are these massive beasts kept while they are broken up for parts?
Storage airports – also known as cemeteries, still more explicitly referred to as ‘boneyards’ – are essentially spacious open-air parking lots. for planes. The largest area in the southwestern United States, where an arid local climate and plentiful cheap land help prevent rusting and decay on these extremely valuable assets.
The largest in the world, Davis-Manthan Air Force Base in Arizona, cares for approximately 4,000 military aircraft, among them F-16 fighter jets, combat helicopters, and the giant Lockheed C-5 Galaxy transport aircraft.
For civilian aircraft, the Mojave Air & Space Port is a saying, with 1,000 or so inactive aircraft glimmering silently in the midst of the desert. Upon arrival at these facilities, the planes are cleaned to remove any salt that could cause rust.
The fuel tank is typically drained and flush with lubricant, and the tires are dressed in a thick film of specialist mylar to prevent ruthless heat degradation. When the last valuable component is removed and sold to the highest bidder, all that is left is sold for scrap.
The fuselage of the Boeing 747 is said to have a $43,000 scrap value, and boneyards are encouraged to move quickly at this stage. This is because the moment an airline is decommissioned, it is considered industrial waste and is subject to local environmental laws.
This partly explains why European boneyards – such as Kemble in the UK, or Tarbes in France – are so small compared to their American counterparts. For one thing, Europe’s climate is more forgiving. As is this regulatory framework.
Still, there are some more imaginative uses for old planes that the enterprising types do from time to time.
For example, a New York architecture studio called LOT-EK has proposed to buy 200 cheap Boeing 727 and 737 fuselages and convert them into a library in Mexico. It’s not really built yet, but a lot of airframes enjoy meeting a second life.
Take this up-cycled 747 to a parking lot next to Sweden’s Arlanda Airport. It is a smart hotel with 25 rooms, and a luxurious honeymoon suite in the cockpit.
Economy Cabins also has a budget hostel, backpacker-style, backpacker style. This kindergarten in Rustavi, Georgia was repurposed from a retired Yakovlev 42 aircraft.
In Zurich, a Soviet-era Ilyushin Il-14 has been converted into an upscale restaurant, while the Douglas DC-3 in Taupo, New Zealand, serves as an outlet for fast-food giant McDonald’s. We are loving it.
Interior aircraft components such as the beverage trolley have been transformed into eye-catching cupboards by aspiring German design firm Skypark.
California-based MotoArt Studio remakes segments of large aircraft components such as engine housings or fuselages into upscale office furniture, with a blue-chip client list including Microsoft and Boeing.
Perhaps the strangest second life for any recycled aircraft is this former Malaysia Airlines 747, which intentionally sank off the coast of Bahrain and turned into an artificial reef and once a scuba diving destination.
Such imaginative reuse should be encouraged, as long as it is done sensitively. The world’s boneyards are increasingly filling up with unwanted 747s, a trend that is set to accelerate with the havoc the COVID-19 pandemic wreaks on the travel industry.
Environmentally conscious aviation industry body AFRA, the Aircraft Fleet Recycling Association, believes that today 70% of aircraft parts are recyclable. It plans to bring this figure to 95% with promised improvements in technology and responsible disposal practices.
Well, anything is better than winging it. what do you think Can you think of a better use of the thousands of planes that currently sit idle in the world’s boneyards? Tell us in the comments.
Thanks for reading till the end. Comment what’s your opinion about this information “What Happens To Old Airplanes?”.
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