SIMPLE FLYING – Emily Derrick (Re-edited by Julian Smith)

There has been plenty of news in recent months of airlines retiring aircraft early as the industry comes to a virtual standstill. Many retired aircraft are being sent to aviation graveyards, otherwise known as boneyards.

Here, they live out the rest of their days being been picked apart to keep other aircraft flying. However, not all stored aircraft are destined for scrap.

Why do airlines retire planes?

As time and technology move on, manufacturers such as Boeing and Airbus, and suppliers such as Rolls-Royce and Pratt & Whitney, find new ways to make aircraft more economical. This means more modern aircraft not only do less damage to the environment, but they are also cheaper to run, an example is the new Airbus A321neo’s as they use 15% less fuel compared to existing comparable aircraft.

Aircraft are subject to wear and tear. As aircraft get older, they naturally become less efficient. Just as we get older, we tend to slow down and occasionally even need a few parts replaced, so do aircraft.

Maintaining airworthiness, therefore, becomes increasingly expensive.

Modern aircraft are equipped with the latest technology. Photo: Alaska Airlines

Not only do the newer aircraft have a direct cost-benefit to airlines, but they also have a more subtle benefit as they are equipped with the latest in passenger comforts from mood lighting to minimize jetlag, to better entertainment systems and more comfortable seats.

Modern passenger jets generally offer a better experience for passengers, as they are more likely to travel on an airline with newer fleets.

Why not scrap them all?

Once an airline has decided to remove aircraft from its fleet, the aircraft are generally sent to boneyards. Sometimes, an aircraft goes to a boneyard for maintenance or an overhaul. Boneyards often have maintenance hangars attached for this purpose. These hangars are also used to remove parts.

However, if an aircraft is being retired completely, it doesn’t mean it will stay in the boneyard forever. Sometimes, retired aircraft are overhauled and then snapped up by other airlines.

Aircraft temporarily taken off flying status can spend months in hiatus before being restored and repaired.

Sometimes retired aircraft are used for scrap or parts. Photo: Getty Images

Airlines may also choose to temporarily store aircraft due to economic conditions such as rising fuel costs. If an airline is changing its network, consolidating with another airline or downsizing, it may choose to ground some aircraft. These aircraft may be retired permanently or be snapped up by another airline or may only be stored temporarily until conditions improve.

There is also a strong second-hand market for aircraft. Leasing companies often take retired aircraft and refurbish them before leasing them to airlines who cannot afford, or do not want, to buy their own. One of the most well-known is Hi Fly, which recently gave a new lease of life to an Airbus A380 formerly flown by Singapore Airlines.

Taking advantage of the downturn

There is no set industry standard of when an aircraft should permanently retire. Various factors affect aircraft retirement age, including the number of flight hours and pressurization cycles.

The recent downturn has meant that many aircraft have retired early.

Rather than pay to store aircraft at airports, airlines have been using this time to refurbish their aircraft and renew their fleet.

Global health

The global health crisis has rocked the aviation market from top to bottom. Even if carriers were planning to eventually let go of some members of their fleet, the pandemic has catalysed their retirements, from passengers to pilots. The Queen of the Skies, the Boeing 747 is a favourite across the industry, however, it is one of the largest casualties this year.

Qantas notably retired the last of its 747 units last month. These jumbo’s have been sent to the Mojave Desert in California joining 12 Qantas’ A380s that are in hibernation there.

British Airways also confirmed that it is retiring the jumbo early due to the implications surrounding COVID-19. Many redundant 747’s from across the globe are being sent to Cotswold Airport in the Gloucestershire. This small British field has a storage park for aircraft that don’t have a role in the current climate.

Altogether, travel restrictions, border closures, and passenger concerns have caused an unprecedented downturn in passenger numbers across the globe. Even though some services are picking up slowly, it could take between three to five years for activity to return to pre-2020 levels.

Aircraft such as the 747 and the A380 were already under review due to more efficient, modern types being available. However, with long-haul opportunities limited amid the current COVID-19 pandemic, these models are now required even less.

Therefore, until regular diverse operations occur across nations again, many aircraft will be taking well-deserved sabbaticals and retirement in the sun.

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