What happens to an airplane after its retirement? Well, the airplane is moved to a storage site, the biggest of them all being the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group in Tucson, Arizona. After the plane is moved here, usually it is kept for a few years and parts that can be used again are sold as second-hand parts on the market. Each year, 400 to 500 aircraft are scrapped and disassembled globally, for a $2 billion market for aircraft parts and around 12.500 aircraft will reach their end-of-life from 2009 to 2029.
AFRA stands for Aircraft Fleet Recycling Association and is the organization that disassembles around one-third of the airplanes. It is an international non-profit association aiming to promote environmental best practices, regulatory excellence, and sustainable developments in the fields of aircraft disassembly, as well as salvaging and recycling aircraft parts and materials. Most of the parked fleet is unlikely to fly again. The parked fleet is 31% widebody and 69% narrowbody. A parked airplane may return to service if it’s younger than 15 years and parked aircraft over three years have a 50% chance of flying again, dropping to 20% if it is stored for more than five years.
Airliners are typically operated for 20 to 30 years. Corrosion, metal fatigue, and low availability of new spare parts are problems encountered in greater frequency the older a machine becomes. Eventually, these factors, alongside improvements in fuel efficiency and reduction in maintenance cost of newer machines, reduce the economic viability of the operation of older airliners. Consequently, they may be stored, or scrapped, and recycled. Vast expanses of the arid desert are ideal for storage because hangars are not needed to maintain the aircraft at low humidity. Upon arrival, aircraft are washed to remove corroding salt, drained of fuel, and lubricated with light viscous oil. Explosive devices from the evacuation slides are removed, air ducts sealed, and an easily removable protective coat of paint may be applied Some airliners are kept in working order as reserves, and a few are involved in fire-fighting and aerospace training schemes or in safety tests. Most are used as a source of spare parts and scrapped. The scrapping process takes six weeks and begins with the removal of the explosive escape equipment and toxic de-icing fluid. Some components are unbolted and salvaged, including the engines and instruments, while the fuel is drained away.
The seats are worth from $450 to $5,000 and the landing gear can be sold for millions of dollars, although all parts need a Certificate of Airworthiness to be reused. Cables, batteries, and other electronic waste are fed into the conventional recycling chains. Plastic interior components are considered not recyclable, as they are made of mixed plastics and contain flame retardant chemicals. The remaining shell is cut into pieces and broken down by an industrial shredder so that the aluminum can be melted down. The scrap metal is ground up, mechanically sorted by density and magnetism, then sold to the trade. A future challenge for disposal is the construction of aircraft which use composite materials, such as aluminum/fiberglass GLARE in the Airbus A380.
A metal aircraft can be recycled up to 85-90% by mass with a 95% goal, and 85-90% could be maintained for composite airframes as the industry adapts with a carbon fiber market growing 12-14% a year towards 100,000t in 2019 of which 50% could be satisfied with recycled material.
Covid ramped up the recycling of many aircraft, mainly the big or very old ones. Many aircraft that might have flown for five, 10, or even more years are being sent to have their valuable parts and systems stripped, and their metals and other materials recycled.
Some airlines might prefer from a point of financial principle to spend money maintaining older airplanes rather than buying new ones, although the counterbalance for this is the impressive fuel efficiency gains of newer aircraft. That’s why some planes will fetch quite a sum on the second-hand market.
Before the departure of an aircraft to the scrapyard, companies may save a few things from that airplane, such as the cabin curtains that can be reused on other aircraft, as can the leather and seat covers. The requirements for oxygen bottles and fire extinguishers in the cabin, meanwhile, are based on the number of passengers, and with zero onboard these can also be taken off. The same thing happened with the ovens and coffee makers, so any retiring aircraft’s final pilots had better bring a flask on board with them. Besides large components like the landing gear, the avionics like communications, collision avoidance, weather, and other flight deck equipment can be also taken off and sold. Then there are the major structures like APU, thrust reversers, and nacelles, then the flight control systems such as flaps and rudders. After that, there is the interior, everything from seats, cabin equipment, and the toilets.
After you have only the fuselage, the flight deck might be cut and be reused as a simulator, while the doors might also be removed for cabin crew training units.
Everything else is split into four categories of recyclable materials or waste. The first is metal (whether that’s steel, stainless steel, titanium, aluminum, or something else). Then there are recyclables such as flight deck glass, tires, and so on, then hazardous components such as fire extinguishers and batteries, then composite materials such as the interiors and seats.
There are also some people that buy airplanes and turn them into hotels or restaurants. In the end, some companies sell pieces of the fuselage as memorabilia in limited amounts so that aviation enthusiasts can remember the legacy of that plane by owning a piece of it.