Covid-19: How unwanted planes are parked in aircraft boneyards across the world

It's been one year since the UAE first grounded flights because of the global pandemic, and the world's aircraft graveyards are littered with parked jets

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On March 23, 2020, exactly one year ago, the UAE announced that all passenger flights were to be grounded to prevent the spread of the coronavirus via air travel. While flights have since resumed across the Emirates, the year that followed has been the most challenging in aviation history.

With travel restrictions and border closures in place around the world, a lack of demand for travel means that several airlines have been forced to ground their jets and, in some cases, their entire fleets.

But parking a 40-metre-long aircraft is no mean feat, and finding storage space for an entire squadron is a logistical nightmare.

Desert climes work well for long-term aircraft storage thanks to soaring temperatures and very low rainfall. Courtesy ComAv (Commercial Aviation Services)

Last year, Germany's biggest airline, Lufthansa, relied on Frankfurt Airport shutting down operations on its newest runway twice, so that it could park  grounded planes on the tarmac.

In the UAE, Emirates was fortunate to have access to Dubai World Central Airport for grounded jets, but that's something of a rarity. Most airlines do not have access to massive amounts of airport parking space. Instead, the world's airlines have been increasingly turning to aircraft boneyards as a means to navigate the circumstances they find themselves in because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

More than 60 per cent of jets parked in the pandemic

Qantas has mothballed its A380 fleet in the California desert because of the pandemic. Courtesy Qantas

Aircraft boneyards, or graveyards, are sprawling outdoor storage spaces where jets are typically sent when they retire.

Airlines have to pay a monthly fee to park vehicles at these sites, but the price is a lot less than what it would cost to park jets at an airport. Since the onset of the pandemic, boneyards around the globe have seen a sharp upturn in the influx of jets.

According to Cirium, a UK aviation data and analytics company, peak numbers of aircraft storage were recorded last March. At the time, the London company estimated an inactive inventory of under 17,000 wide-bodies, narrow-bodies and regional jets in storage. That's equivalent to more than 60 per cent of the world's fleet.

The International Air Transport Association (Iata) also confirmed that the pandemic is set to see more commercial aircraft finish their working life earlier than they would have pre-Covid.

"The Covid-19 crisis will undoubtedly accelerate many of these retirements, and several operators have already announced they are bringing forward fleet retirement programmes," stated the association in a recent report.

The 'Queen of the Skies' lies in the desert

So where are airlines sending their unwanted fleets? For British Airways, which announced that it was retiring its Boeing 747 fleet last year, the Mojave Desert in the US has been its resting place of choice. Inside the Southern California Logistics Airport, also known as Victorville, is about 240 acres of land reserved for aircraft storage with the ability to accommodate more than 500 jets.

The world's largest operator of the "Queen of the Skies" had 31 of the 70-metre-long, four-engine aircraft, the majority of which have been sent to to early retirement in California.

In Australia, Qantas has been making heavy use of aircraft boneyards after grounding much of its fleet during the pandemic. The Australian national airline also retired its Boeing 747 fleet to the Mojave Desert, with the last of its jumbos departing Sydney in July last year, headed for California.

Jets placed in boneyards are not simply parked; depending on the plan for their future usage, ongoing maintenance is required. Courtesy ComAv

The airline has also sent 10 of its 12 A380 superjumbos for deep storage at the Victorville boneyard. Ranging in age from 10 to 13 years, Qantas's jumbos could have more than a decade of flying left in them. They have currently been "mothballed", rather than retired, meaning that there are plans to return the jets to service when demand for travel picks up again.

What are aircraft boneyards?

For now, unwanted aircraft are simply taking up space. Thankfully, in Mojave, there's plenty of space to go around.

epa08654874 (FILE) - Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner airplanes of Singapore low-cost carrier Scoot Tigerair, grounded due to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, are parked at the Asia Pacific Aircraft Storage facility in Alice Springs, Australia, 30 August 2020 (reissued 08 September 2020). US airplane manufacturer Boeing on 08 September 2020 announced that problems with the horizontal stabililzer are another issue slowing down the deliveries of the Dreamliner.  EPA/DARREN ENGLAND AUSTRALIA AND NEW ZEALAND OUT *** Local Caption *** 56307049

Dry weather in the desert works in the favour of airlines when it comes to storing their expensive jets. The arid climate means that precipitation can be as low as five inches year-round, and soaring daily temperatures can also help protect aircraft from rust.

UK company eCube Solutions is the operator of a sprawling boneyard in Wales, where there is parking for up to 40 jets. It also has a second storage facility in Spain. Specialising in disassembly services for aircraft owners, eCube has taken apart more than 250 aircraft over its nine years of operations, including two Etihad A319s, six Gulf Air A330s and a Qatar Airways A319.

eCube Solution's St Athan storage and disassembly facility in Wales. Courtesy eCube

Once an aircraft arrives at a storage facility, it's only the start of the cycle. What happens there dictates each aircraft's future, with options for resale, scrapping for parts or long-term storage for those that may be used again.

"Pre-Covid-19, aircraft would typically arrive at eCube with the airframe sale agreed between the owner and the specialist parts aftermarket company, requiring a parking period of a couple of weeks awaiting a disassembly slot," says Steven Taylor, commercial director at eCube Solutions.

"The unforeseen and unprecedented advent of Covid-19 heralded an urgent requirement for airlines and aircraft owners to park more than 70 per cent of the world's fleet to cater for the sudden demise in passenger demand."

Iata says the average retirement age of a passenger aircraft is 25 years. As many of the jets currently taking up space in the world's boneyards are a lot younger than 25, they need to be carefully stored and maintained in the hope of retaining their value if and when they take to the skies again.

The path of the pandemic is likely to dictate what tomorrow brings for many of these parked jets.

"If there is a likelihood of parked multimillion-dollar assets returning to service, the aircraft needs to be kept in a [European Aviation Safety Agency] Part 145-approved maintenance storage programme," explains Taylor.

This certification is renewed every two years by EASA to certify that storage facilities meet the necessary requirements for long-term aircraft and part storage.

Singapore Airlines, another popular passenger airline, has also turned to storage solutions to navigate the pandemic. It has parked more than a dozen of its jets at the Alice Springs boneyard.

Located in Australia's Northern Territory, the Asia Pacific Aircraft Storage facility was the first large-scale boneyard to open outside the US. The number of planes housed at the facility has increased in the last year, and there are now four A380s grounded there, marking the first time the Airbus superjumbo has landed in Alice Springs.

Will stored jets ever return to the sky?

Etihad Airways Airbus A380 with registration A6-APG landing in London Heathrow International Airport in England during a nice day. Etihad or EY is based at Abu Dhabi International Airport in United Arab Emirates and is the flag carrier of UAE. The airline connects daily Abu Dhabi Airport AUH / OMAA to London Heathrow LHR / EGLL. Airbus A380-800 double decker airplane is currently the largest airplane in the world. (Photo by Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

What the future holds for travel will impact what becomes of the world's currently unwanted jets. If air travel remains low for a considerable number of years, then airlines may find that demand for parking facilities increases, and operators could find themselves scrambling for space.

Should travel demand pick up, some of the jets that were retired or stored last year could see an increase in value as a source for much-needed parts.

Other jets may go on to a new type of life altogether, following in the path of aircraft such as this former Boeing 747 that was sunk to the bottom of the ocean in Bahrain last year, or this ex-Etihad Airbus that is now a glamping spot in the Welsh countryside.

At a time when so much of the world is in recession and industries are scrapping to survive, aircraft boneyards, through storage or scrapping, appear to be facing a buoyant future.