Struck by the collapse in demand for flights due to Covid-19, commercial airlines have grounded their fleets in some of the most remote places in the world.
Last month, Australian airline Qantas bade farewell to its latest Boeing 747 and sent it on a final flight to retire from Sydney to the Mojave Desert in California.
The fleet, according to a report, had carried more than 250 million people during nearly half a century of service, including Queen Elizabeth II and all of Australia’s Olympic teams since 1984. The airline also announced that it had decided to store its fleet of A380 super jumbos. in a Mojave Desert facility until at least 2023.
Qantas said they planned to pull the plane down in six months, but moved the date forward because the coronavirus pandemic had “decimated international travel around the world.”
The pandemic has forced a large number of commercial airlines to tie up their fleets in a handful of large storage facilities across the world, some located in isolated and arid deserts.
These places are variously referred to as airline “boneyards” or retreat centers. Here, planes are either parked – or stored – for long periods of time and then returned to service, or demolished to sell their parts.
Commercial airlines often find it cheaper to park their aircraft in a storage facility than at an airport.
Airplanes can be stored for a long time at these locations. Experts say airlines would typically have to incur a monthly cost of around $ 5,000 (£ 3,882) to keep the aircraft on a “long-term storage program”.
“Some planes are stored for a long time before they find a new tenant, some are stored and then used for parts, some are scrapped,” Ian Petchenik of the flight tracking site FlightRadar24 told me.
Some of the most popular private storage facilities are located in vast expanses of arid deserts in countries like the United States, Spain and Australia.
Alice Springs in central Australia and Mojave in eastern California, for example, are two prime spots. Other well-known storage locations are in Marana, Arizona and Roswell, New Mexico.
“Deserts provide two key elements: large areas of open, flat land and a climate that slows down the corrosion of metal parts,” says Petchenik. The low humidity along with the low amount of aerosols and airborne particles in these rooms help to store airplanes for a long time.
American author and former New York Times columnist Joe Sharkey remembers traveling to a former CIA-turned-commercial airfield in Marana, in the desert, about 15 miles north of Tucson, Arizona.
“It was somewhat disconcerting to see the shiny tails of many commercial airliners twinkling in the sun in the distance. All the planes have closed the windows and the engines, ”said Mr. Sharkey.
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Aviation experts say the pandemic has forced more planes into these “boneyards” than any other development in recent history. Long-haul aircraft are also being retired prematurely. Last week British Airways, the world’s largest widebody operator, announced it would withdraw all of its 31 Boeing 747s, 10% of its total fleet, ahead of its scheduled phasing out in 2024.
In April, more than 14,000 passenger planes – the equivalent of two-thirds of the world’s fleet – were grounded around the world, up from less than 1,900 planes at the start of the year, according to Cirium, a data service and d aeronautical analysis based in London. company.
About 7.5 million flights were canceled between January and July and the airline industry has already suffered up to $ 84 billion in lost revenue this year, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA).
“This is the largest ever commercial aircraft grounding, precipitated by the virtual shutdown of the global passenger network due to travel restrictions resulting from the pandemic and reduced demand for passenger air travel.” , Rob Morris, head of the board at Cirium, told me in an email.
Airlines have faced a sharp drop in traffic brought on by world events in the past.
More than 13% of the commercial aircraft fleet were grounded after the attacks of September 11 and the Gulf War that followed in 2001, analysts said. Passenger traffic plunged after the global financial crisis of 2008, with 11% of the commercial fleet stranded in storage facilities in mid-2009.
“But the stored ratio has never been anything close to the ratios we saw in 2020, illustrating the extent of the crisis on airlines around the world,” Morris said.
Delta Airlines parked its fleet on a “boneyard” in Arizona, and American Airlines flew its planes to a former military base turned into a storage facility in New Mexico.
Many of the 371 Boeing 737 Max have been moved to storage facilities around the world after the plane was grounded last March due to safety concerns.
The Singapore Airlines group has parked 29 planes in Alice Springs, Australia, an airline spokesperson told me. The Airbus 380 appears to be one of the most affected fleets.
“The A380 fleet is entering long-term storage due to an unprecedented drop in passenger demand,” says Petchenik.
As the pandemic enters its eighth month, many planes have returned to service as airlines resume flying.
Nearly 10,000 passenger planes were in the sky on July 17, making some 34,800 flights.
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But according to Cirium, some 7,600 planes, representing more than a third of the world fleet, are still on the ground.
To prove how bleak things still are with air travel, consider this: Singapore Airlines, one of the world’s leading carriers, operates only 30 of its group fleet of 220 aircraft, while another 30 of its passenger planes are used to transport cargo only.
The fate of the planes in the installations remains uncertain. Some just sit there. The last option is to scrap the plane and sell the parts.
“There is a precious metal element in engines that has some value, but in many cases today the scrap value of the aircraft is minimal compared to the cost of scrapping, especially considering compliance with environmental laws, ”says Morris.
“As a result, many obsolete aircraft can remain in stock for an extended period.”
Others are put back into service.
“These planes require maintenance and generally a series of test flights before they are returned to service. Motors and systems often work to ensure a quick return to service, ”says Petchenik.
More often than not, however, airline “boneyards” conjure up visions of abandoned planes, which will never return to service.
Mr. Sharkey met a senior executive at one such facility in Arizona who spoke about his experiences.
“A 747 arrived not long ago with newspapers and magazines tidy in the shelves, and pillows and blankets on the seats,” the manager told him.
“It was strange, like a ghost ship. “
Photos from Getty Images, Reuters and EPA