Between those that find a second life and those that end up abandoned in a graveyard, the fortunes of retired aircraft vary widely.
There was a lot of talk about this during COVID: a large number of aircraft were suddenly retired, leading to an impressive ballet towards storage areas.
But this phenomenon, unique in its scale and bound to attract attention, is by no means rare. Aircraft are regularly retired, and what’s less well known is what happens to them afterwards.
- What is the lifespan of an aircraft?
- Why does an airline part with a plane?
- Returning the aircraft to its owner
- Storage of the aircraft
- Aircraft dismantling
- The second-hand market
- Atypical uses
- Bottom line
What is the lifespan of an aircraft?
Even though they have a very long service life, due to the fact that they have to follow strict maintenance protocols and are dismantled and reassembled several times over the course of their career, aircraft, like cars, eventually have to be retired from service.
The lifespan of an aircraft is between 20 and 30 years, depending on a number of factors. Some 747s have even retired after 35 years of service.
These factors include the type of aircraft, its operating conditions, the quality of maintenance, and the environmental and meteorological context in which it has been operated.
But more often than not, it’s factors other than age that prompt an airline to part with aircraft that are totally fit to fly.
Why does an airline part with a plane?
Apart from age, which we have already mentioned, there are many other reasons why an airline may part with an aircraft. Among the most common are :
Economic efficiency: the aircraft is perfectly serviceable, but its operation is no longer economically optimal. This may be due to age, or to technical factors, as we saw with the A380s, penalized by the fact that they have 4 engines.
It also happens that an airline removes a model from its fleet for reasons of fleet rationalization, which has an impact on staff training, maintenance, etc.
As far as possible, airlines try to keep their fleets as young as possible.
Economic difficulties: the airline can no longer operate the aircraft, or can no longer pay lease to the owner (a large part of the world fleet is leased, and does not belong to the airline).
An accident: after an accident, the device is not repairable or would be too expensive to repair.
But what happens to them then?
Returning the aircraft to its owner
When the aircraft is leased, it is returned to its owner, the lessor, who decides what happens to it.
Which brings us to the following cases.
Storage of the aircraft
During COVID, for example, we saw gigantic storage areas for aircraft that airlines were disposing of. These areas are generally in dry, desert zones, to protect the aircraft from the elements, corrosion and so on.
This storage can be temporary or permanent.
Temporary, when waiting to find a new use for it, a buyer, or to reintegrate it into the fleet when the economic climate improves. This has been the case for many aircraft ” put on pause ” during the COVID while waiting to be flown.
This means that some aircraft can remain parked for many years.
Definitive when it is pending dismantling.
It’s the total dismantling of the plane, its destruction.
If its parts have value on the second-hand market, it will be meticulously dismantled to resell everything that is saleable. And with the price of used parts fluctuating, it can still take years of keeping the plane parked in the sun.
The fuselage is resold at metal value.
According to IATA, 16,000 aircraft have been permanently withdrawn from service over the last 35 years, with 700 reaching the end of their career each year.
The second-hand market
While airlines like to have young fleets, not all of them can afford it. And sometimes economic difficulties mean they have to part with recent aircraft. So there is a second-hand market.
It is mainly composed of :
– young airlines who can’t afford to buy new, or who want to grow faster than the delivery times for new aircraft allow.
– cash-strapped airlines, often in poor or developing countries, happy to get a 20-year-old aircraft at low cost that others no longer want to operate. Unfortunately, maintenance and checks become less rigorous later on.
– airlines specializing in wet leasing, on the lookout for young aircraft being disposed of by ailing airlines. For example, the Hifly A330 on which I recently flew to Chicago was new (it entered service in 2017) and had previously belonged to South African Airways.
Some aircraft have a more atypical and joyful end-of-life.
Some iconic models, for example, can be exhibited in museums.
But other can meet a more original fate and be transformed into a bar, restaurant or even a hotel, like this 747 at Stockholm Arlanda airport. Another 747, sunk, is also used as a diving spot in Bahrain.
Aircraft have a long lifespan, up to 30 years, and can have several lives before being dismantled. Some even continue to serve afterwards.