• Dr. Herpy

How Airliners are Retired

By Robert Phillips

United 737-924ERs sit in storage at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport
United 737-924ERs sit in storage at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. These planes will eventually return to service.

 

Commercial airliners can fly for around 30 years. However, as a result of the covid pandemic the number of aircraft retirements have skyrocketed. Many airlines have elected to put their planes in storage rather than retiring them completely. The number of planes in storage has increased so rapidly that many airports ran out of room for more planes. At least 30 United Airlines 737s and ERJ-145s were in storage at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. The number of planes stored in Cleveland has been decreasing as United adds back flights. When a plane is placed in storage its doors, engines, and access panels are covered and sealed. However many planes are not as lucky, the Boeing 747 is being retired in huge numbers because of lack of travelers and high operating costs. Qantas and British Airways both retired their 747-400s due to COVID-19. These planes were flown to airports where they will be scrapped. Airports where planes are being scraped are referred to as boneyards. Boneyards are typically located in warm dry places like California and Arizona. These boneyards are massive and can house thousands of planes. The biggest aircraft boneyard is Davis Monthan Air Force Base where over 4,400 military aircraft are stored on the base. Most planes have not been stripped of their interior fixtures when they are flown to the boneyard. Many planes still have magazines and safety cards in the seat backs when they arrive. Once the plane lands at the boneyard, the plane may sit in storage for a long period of time. The scrapping process begins when the airline logos are painted over. The scrapping companies will remove the engines and other components that can be sold as parts. In rare cases, the cockpits are saved for flight simulators or museums. As soon as the plane is stripped of any parts that can be resold, the planes are torn apart by heavy equipment. Typically the wings are torn off and then the fuselage is torn apart starting with the tail. The metal from the planes is then sold as scrap. Some of these aircraft go on to live a new life, some companies like MotoArt remove pieces of the aircraft and sell them as items like desks and mirrors.