Executive Traveller exclusive
Rounding a corner on his morning commute, Ben Connell spies a Cathay Pacific Boeing 777 parked in the distance. Moving closer, another pops into view… and then another, with dozens of jets sitting in orderly rows
While not an uncommon sight at the airline’s Hong Kong Airport hub, it is unusual here in Alice Springs, in the middle of Australia’s parched Red Centre.
Nestled amid seemingly-endless red dirt and spinifex alongside the Asia Pacific Aircraft Storage (APAS), the regional airport has no international flights - until 2020 at least, it rarely welcomed anything larger than a Boeing 737.
But then, things have changed dramatically for the outback gateway since the pandemic began, with row upon row of Boeing 777, Airbus A330 and A320 aircraft – their once-bright fuselages covered in dust – now lined up in hibernation alongside its single long runway.
As Cathay Pacific’s Regional Engineering Manager for Southwest Pacific, Connell is tasked with overseeing the storage, maintenance and now, finally, reactivation of the fleet at the remote facility, in full view of the terminal.
Now based full-time in Alice Springs, having relocated his family in January after two years of flying back and forth from Brisbane, the view on Connell’s commute is one he’s become accustomed to. But even so, he says it still makes for an emotional sight which drives home the gravity of the pandemic.
More than simply parking the aircraft and ‘removing the keys’, putting a plane into hibernation is a labour-intensive operation with a never-ending maintenance schedule.
It takes a small army some four days just to complete the initial processes... and waking them up is just as complex.
At the pandemic’s peak over 70 Cathay and Dragonair-branded planes, almost half the airline’s 151-strong fleet, were parked in Alice Springs. Roughly a third have since returned to the sky.
While there’s no clear timeline for when the last plane will depart, the number parked is steadily decreasing. But why was this tiny, regional airport chosen to host Cathay’s stood-down aircraft in the first place?
It’s all to do with the climate, and space. Because although hot enough to fry an egg in the shade, Alice Springs’ weather is consistent, rarely seeing any severe weather events.
“Anywhere you’re going to park an aircraft long-term really needs low humidity – less than 20% – as you don't want moisture building up inside,” Connell explains to Executive Traveller, as he prepares to assign the day’s tasks.
“Likewise, somewhere with no severe weather events, such as typhoons or heavy rain. Alice Springs was ideal for that, but the remoteness posed some of its own challenges.”
Those challenges have mostly been logistics-related, with spare parts from Cathay’s Hong Kong HQ having to be sent via the capital cities (Alice doesn’t have customs or border control). Bulky items have to be transported by road.
“We’ve had some interesting discussions with Hong Kong, like: ‘Is there any way we can get it to Alice Springs faster?’ And we’ve just said: ‘The distance doesn’t change. You’re in the middle of Australia and that’s what it's going to take to fly in or drive it out on a truck,’” he adds with a chortle.
Aside from its remoteness, the location presented plenty of other obstacles too, from dust storms to wildlife.
Cathay’s team also had to liaise with numerous authorities to get special authorisation and flight permissions just to fly the aircraft to Alice Springs.
Now, as more planes are selected for a return to service, the team is increasingly adept at ‘waking planes up’, from reactivating electrical systems to replacing oils and lubricants, all of which had been swapped for corrosion-inhibiting oils when they first arrived.
Window coverings are being removed too, as are the door seals and plastic wraps encasing sensors and landing gear – all put in place to ensure nothing could contaminate the aircraft, whether it was the Red Centre’s infamous dust or a lizard seeking a new home.
All the while, the team is dealing with extreme desert heat – Connell recalls drinking 2.5-litres of water in an hour during his first walk-through of the site – not to mention an onslaught of flies, and side-stepping goannas known to stroll across the strip and through landing gear.
“It’s a credit to manufacturers that they’ve taken into consideration that, at some stage in their life, these aircraft may be parked,” he reflects.
“Not only that, but we can park them in the desert, work on them, and know they’ll be in the best condition when they go back into service.”
When planes eventually do ‘fly the nest’, Connell describes it as the best feeling in the world.
He says an enormous amount of work goes into getting planes ready to fly – so much attention to detail. Going through every aspect, piece by piece, system by system, and wing by wing.
“Then you start working on all the backup processes. It’s like, ‘Right, let’s work through the redundancies, let’s work through the backups. Let’s make sure that every computer is back up, online and exactly how it needs to be for the aircraft to have that safe flight.’
“When they start to wash them down and they give them that final clean down, you can just see it coming back to life. It’s absolutely sensational.”
It’s a sentiment shared by Richard Jones, Cathay Pacific’s Acting Head of Southwest Pacific, who describes the return of each aircraft to the sky as a ‘fantastic feeling’.
While the last couple of years have been particularly challenging for the airline, Jones says they’ve also shown him how resilient the business is, noting it’s a testament to the whole company.
With October alone seeing a total of 40 flights from Sydney to Hong Kong, as well as departures from Melbourne, Perth and Brisbane, Cathay has certainly come a long way from its recent low point of not having a single passenger flight to Australia.
“We have had to become a lot more agile and flexible in our approach,” Jones explains.
“This gives me great confidence that whatever future challenges arise, and there will be future challenges, we have the team to rise to the occasion to navigate whatever obstacles we encounter.”