Airlines Seek Storage For Grounded Fleets Due To COVID-19

Ask any airline executive what their plans were back in January 2020, and you’d probably get the expected spiel about growing market share and improving returns for shareholders. Of course, the coronovirus pandemic quickly changed all that in the space of just a few months. Borders closed, and worldwide air travel ground to a halt.

Suddenly, the world’s airlines had thousands of planes and quite literally nowhere to go. Obviously, leaving the planes just sitting around in the open wouldn’t do them any good. So what exactly is involved in mothballing a modern airliner?

Location, Location, Location

Airplanes parked at Southern California Logistics Airport near Victorville [via Google Maps Satellite View]
The first thing required to park a modern airliner is space. Airports have limited room to store aircraft, as they’re primarily designed for constant flights in and out rather than extended stays. Instead, dedicated facilities are used to store airliners that are taking a sabbatical from the flight line. The most sought after places are in cool, dry climates, where the ambient conditions take a minimal toll on the aircraft’s materials and systems. High humidity can speed the corrosion of parts, and also aid fungal and microbial growth in aircraft interiors and fuel tanks. High temperatures also cause rubber parts to perish quicker, and the UV light can damage interiors if not managed correctly.

Popular locations in the US include Victorville in California and facilities in Arizona, where conditions are favorable. Similar facilities run overseas, with European airlines looking towards Spain and Australian airlines storing some aircraft in the dry climate of Alice Springs. Often, if cool and dry isn’t on the table, hot and dry is a good second-best option. As important as the location is the presence of skilled maintenance staff to carry out the work. Many airlines prefer to store their planes in locations where they can rely on their own engineering crews to look after their precious assets.

Parking Vs. Storage

When an airline decides a plane won’t be flying commerical routes for a while, a decision has to be made as to how long the plane will be decommissioned. Exact practices vary, but most draw a distinction between active parking and long-term storage.

Covering engines is key to minimising corrosion and damage from pests. Photo credit: Nicholas Kimura

Active parking concerns planes that are being kept in a ready-to-fly or almost-ready-to-fly configuration. These planes are most typically stored at airports or facilities relatively nearby their typical operational routes. Planes in active parking are intended to be ready to rejoin the flight line within 24-48 hours when needed. In this regime, parts like landing gears will be specially lubricated and engine covers will be fitted to keep out insects and birds as well as corrosion. Other apetures, such as holes for pitot tubes and vents, will similarly be sealed. The aircraft will also be moved slightly every few weeks to avoid flat spotting the tyres. Engines, hydraulic systems, and electronics will be powered up at regular intervals every few weeks to ensure the plane remains in a functional state. This avoids negative effects such as capacitors failing from lack of use or bearings flat-spotting from long periods of sitting. Planes will also be flown periodically on short flights to ensure airworthiness.

Long-term storage is for planes that are intended to be out of action for many months before they will be called upon again. In the current climate, this is particularly relevant for large-capacity widebody aircraft, as low demand will see smaller twin-engined jets serving the majority of routes for the foreseeable future. In these cases, more work is done to prepare the aircraft for storage. Engines may be “pickled”, where their normal lubricants are replaced with special anti-corrosion agents designed to minimise the effects of time. For longer-term storage, the engines may be removed entirely and shipped back to the manufacturer.

More effort may be placed on more labor-intensive preservation methods, designed to reduce the ongoing effort required to maintain the plane in storage. Regular engine starts, landing gear checks and hydraulic tests are avoided, at the expense of the aircraft needing to go through a longer process to rejoin the flightline at the end of storage. In some cases, companies like Airbus mandate that any stored aircraft must be brought back to flight-ready status after two years, before a further storage period. With such restrictions on the table, many airlines will elect to retire or recycle an aircraft at this point rather than continue to pay the high costs of storage. Many larger aircraft, like the 747, are facing early retirement for this very reason.

It’ll Get Worse Before It Gets Better

A Qantas 747 sets off on its final flight to Mohave, California. The type’s retirement was brought forward as a result of the 2020 pandemic.

With the pandemic raging and no end in sight, air travel looks set to remain in the doldrums for years to come. Current estimates expect the industry to be back at pre-pandemic levels by 2024 at the earliest. This has led to flow-on problems, with existing aircraft no longer the only problem. Boeing hit record production levels of the 787 Dreamliner at precisely the wrong time, and is now stuck holding an excess of undelivered aircraft. This follows on from the issues the company already faced, trying to find enough parking for grounded 737 MAX aircraft.

Thankfully, the checklist-focused and highly dilligent aerospace industry was prepared with procedures in place to handle such a situation. The real hurdle is merely overcoming the sheer scale of the problem, in both space and time. In future years, expect to see great turnover in fleets as airlines turn to newly delivered planes to replace older craft that have spent just a little too long cooking out in the desert.

Pour one out for the great flying giants of yesteryear, and maybe ask your local boneyard magnate to shout the next round at the pilot’s bar.

58 thoughts on “Airlines Seek Storage For Grounded Fleets Due To COVID-19

    1. One family got a retired jet, had it delivered and set up near a local airport. They live on the plane (after conversion) and the wings cover an awesome patio, part of which allows watching takeoffs and landings at the little field adjacent to their property.

    1. What is fine with this? I hope this f… stupidity, fighting a virus from a china with methods of dictatorship, like curfews and other restrictions of basic human rights, is not “fine”. And it is not “fine”, that the government interferes with my wishes to travel or make vacation were and when I want.
      So hopefully we are back to _real_ normality better sooner than later.

      1. You are free to travel. Anytime, anywhere.

        Just provide your own plane or similar.
        And your own airport. For take off and landing.

        Freedom is there, don’t delay. You are free. No excuses.

  1. It is high time for “palettisation” (or rather “encapsulation”) and “integrated transport” of passengers. Small vehicles for one or two passengers, with standardized outer volume, densely packable, with short autonomy on batteries and able to be remotely conducted to terminals, closed-circuit (or attached to carrier vehicle provider system doing separation) life support system…

    1. No need to exit the “pod” from home to the destination hotel. Make it single person, two person, four person, with space under it for luggage. Buy or borrow the pod with right size, pack it, call podtaxi, get hauled to the airport, chcek in without leaving the pod, get packed into the plane, get unpacked to another taxi and exit the pod on a pod parking under the hotel, on your camping lot or just about anywhere. You will only need to leave it for the toilets, and it can be locked. put the thing on wheels with an engine you can borrow at destination, and you have a podcar!

      I would rather stay in a pod than need to check in, checkout, leave my luggage somewhere and then waiting to pick it up, this all sucks.

      Elon Musk, make those a reality!

      1. “I would rather stay in a pod than need to check in, checkout, leave my luggage somewhere and then waiting to pick it up, this all sucks.”

        Yeah, a few years ago, my wife, daughter, and I took a 2 week vacation traveling through 5 States.
        Each day it was,
        Find a hotel/motel
        Check in
        Haul luggage (~1 hour)
        Next morning
        Eat breakfast,
        Haul luggage
        Check out
        Haul luggage
        Drive and do touristy things

        We’re seriously considering an RV rental next time.

    1. I worked it out a few months ago – 2 people flying to Puerto Rico from NY used roughly the same amount of fuel and hence released similar CO2 as driving a Prius with two people in it, except the Prius couldn’t drive over the ocean. The third person pushed it carbon positive – the Prius would win, assuming the plane was going to be full anyway. But, yeah, airplane emissions are barely regulated and are sky high (see what I did there?), while the Prius is pretty clean by comparison.

      1. you don’t know abut the Prius cleanness. you cannot point to the exact power plant the energy came from: was it coal, gas, hydro, solar, wind or nuclear.

        there is no zero emission, just emission by proxy (but that does not sound sexy on the back of your car…)

          1. Most modern Prius are plug in hybrids so they do have small batteries and regen capabilities. It would be a interesting to see how different vehicles compared to aircraft.

            How does train travel compare? It would be interesting to see a modern high speed rail system in the USA. It seems like a good candidate as it has a large landmass to traverse

          2. I think we will see huge train renaissance. They could be sitting for years and then are pretty much ready for a ride. Aircraft cost fortune even as a sitting duck.

          3. Train renaissance? No.
            When I want to travel with land speed, then I take the car. No limitation to schedules or stations.
            For long distance I prefer the fastest means of transportation: The plane
            Those arrogant environmentalists try to decide over MY use of time. and MY lifestyle – that’s not in their range of competence.

          4. Train travel is considerably faster than car, in West-Europe. It also as expensive as plane travel (or more) even with government subsidies.
            Those no-limit highways are just to get people excited, my travelling average is 120km/h in Germany, at best, while on highways in other countries is 130-140.
            Not a rant, I still choose the car for long-range mobility, but the only reason is flexibility and sometimes cost.

    1. What I see is they either get bought by other operators or scrapped. It is quite lucrative to purchase an old passenger airliner and convert it to a cargo plane, FedEx and UPS do it all the time (soon Amazon will be all over it, I imagine). Air cargo operations, if anything, have increased over the past 6 months.

      With the scrapping side of things the big-ticket items are salvaged and parted-out while the hulk is recycled. Jet engines, even little ones, still easily break the $1M mark and the avionics are in the hundreds-of-thousands. Although, the used market is becoming a better option than scrapping as more manufacturers push towards lightweight composite materials (Kevlar, Nomex, etc) over good ol’ aluminum.

      My 2¢.

      1. Lightweight composites could be cut out and used for house construction: skin for roof tiling, structural elements for load bearing.

        It needs architects and mechanical engineers to make a template project, or perhaps it should be even a new discipline and university course – reusing standardized, previously used, high quality/high performance construction elements in architecture… sort of real life LEGO.

        Because, we increasingly have surpluses of large composite material elements which are no longer fit for their original purpose, but are not recyclable. Case in point – wind generator wings, and even the towers. The reuse becomes necessity.

        Various post-apocalyptic works of fiction imagine people doing that ad hoc and willy-nilly, one-off style. However, our civilisation could design it in for reasons of frugality and environmental consciousness (I’m kidding. There’s profit in it. “One man’s garbage…”).

    2. Pinal Airpark in Phoenix, Arizona, has several dozen commercial aircraft in its boneyard, used for parts, and a bunch more that could fly again with new engines. It’s interesting to see a bunch of aircraft painted up in designs or for commercial carriers you’ve never seen before in your life.
      I’m presuming there are similar commercial boneyards in Europe.
      BTW google maps satellite view of Davis Montham AFB near Pinal is pretty amazing. Thousands of aircraft in various stages of completeness.

    1. That’s been the case for decades. My local car salvage yard doesn’t take anything more than 10 years old, and they probably have 2000 cars. Their turnover is about two months from when a car comes in to when they give up and send the remains to recycling. Many cars don’t ever end up in a scrap yard: they’re so badly damaged they go right to recycling. Americans buy about 15 million cars a year, and most of the time, somewhere along the line a car gets scrapped for every new car sold. So that’s roughly 25-30 billion kilograms of steel a year, just for the US.

    2. Uber is just another form of the “good old” taxi. You have to call, wait and pay per km or time. And it would be the same with a “driverless taxi”. Why should that replace private cars?
      I would love if MY car has a self driving OPTION for situations where I do not want to drive or when I am e.g. too tired or drunk. But otherwise I don’t see a difference. Oh yes: With level 5 self driving cars, even persons without a driving license or severe disabilities like blindness can own and use a private car. There is no reason, a self driving car should be publicly owned.

  2. Aerospace will make a comeback since there is no other practical way to cross vast distances in short order. I agree that it will take time, but I believe it will be a bit sooner if a real viable vaccine is available Q1 of 2021. People and businesses are itching to get back to normal.

    1. Yes you are right demand will come back as soon as the pandemic is over. Unfortunately it takes time for the airlines to resurrect planes from the airplane boneyard. As soon as this is over, plane ticket prices will sky rocket. Airlines will slowly increase capacity and return stored aircraft back to service. Prices will spike and by 2024 the average cost per ticket when adjusted for inflation will return to normal.

    2. Business travelers won’t come back, at least no as many as before. Good luck explaining your boss that you need to take the plane for a meeting, when you have done all of them via videoconference and it went perfectly well during the months before. Unfortunately for airlines & hotels, business travelers are also where the big margin was. It’s gone.

      1. “perfectly well” is something different. A video-conference is never the same as a real meeting. But some more meetings will of course be done as v.c. than before.
        I found especially any training sessions really inefficient without personal interaction.

  3. It is really sad to see. Puts a lot of people out of work. Makes travelling that more difficult. Longer delays. Connecting flights are a problem. Our kids are scattered around the country so much harder to see them. It just doesn’t make sense. And pretty much all political. Sad. Really sad.

    1. What are you talking about? How is it political?

      And air travel is the most polluting way to travel, this industry crashing is a good thing overall for all of us. It’s unfortunate people are losing their jobs but we’ll all be breathing and living better because of it.

  4. Well, taking a car as a baseline (even a plug-in hybrid) is, of course, pretty generous (just think about it: the ratio of dead weight to payload is about 8:1 or worse).

  5. How feasible would it be to convert passenger aircraft into water tankers for fighting wildfires like the ones that are going on in California? (For those who wonder where California’s going to get the water, seawater works fine for extinguishing fire, although it will need engineering consideration to mitigate corrosion.)

    1. People and cargo don’t slosh about. And you have to build a tank/pump system, then guarantee the CG wont go out of bounds during a dump. The other point is the 747 water tanker doesn’t do a good job of suppression because it’s way too high. Does lay down a huge swath of borate though

  6. Well, maybe the situation will provide a boost in the paradigm of thinking for re-usable rocket travel?

    Seems like the black/white UV protective boat shrink wrap sales will go up, I guess if is used for aircraft also. Good job opportunity thinking… to at least work on storing the aircraft… maybe recommissioning too.

    1. With age, they tend to fall in a state of error, where slowly charging them up resolves these.
      As long as there is a voltage, little will happen. But without voltage, these small defects appear.

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