How do you put a jumbo – and over 16,000 other aircraft – to sleep?
Clumped in forlorn clusters around the world, these jets will stand idle for months on end.
The skies are eerily empty these days, presenting a new challenge for the world’s embattled airlines as they work to safeguard thousands of grounded planes parked wingtip to wingtip on runways and in storage facilities.
More than 16,000 passenger jets are grounded worldwide, according to industry researcher Cirium, as the coronavirus obliterates travel and puts unprecedented strain on airline finances. Finding the right space and conditions for 62% of the world’s planes and keeping them airworthy have suddenly become priorities for 2020.
Aircraft can’t simply be dusted back into action. They need plenty of work and attention while in storage, from maintenance of hydraulics and flight-control systems to protection against insects and wildlife – nesting birds can be a problem.
Then there’s humidity, which can corrode parts and damage interiors. Even when parked on runways, planes are often loaded with fuel to keep them from rocking in the wind and to ensure tanks stay lubricated.
“Nobody thought this magnitude of preservation would need to be done,” said Anand Bhaskar, chief executive officer of New Delhi-based Air Works, a plane repair and maintenance company. “Parking space is a problem. These are logistics nightmares which we’re trying to work around.”
The number of passenger jets in service is the lowest in 26 years, according to Cirium. Managing such large-scale storage is a challenge for an industry already in crisis, with airlines worldwide slashing capacity to close to zero or not flying at all.
The International Air Transport Association has warned that revenue from flying passengers could drop by nearly a third of a trillion dollars this year and that 25 million jobs are at risk.
Airlines are hunting for space on the ground at airports or in longer-term storage facilities in arid places such as Australia’s outback and the Mojave Desert in the U.S.
At Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport, KLM has more than 200 aircraft at gates and on a runway, arranged according to size and type, and ensuring enough space for them to be towed if maintenance is required, according to a post on the company’s website.
“Schiphol is packed,” KLM Community Manager Annemiek Cornielje wrote. “Not with passengers, unfortunately, but with the many aircraft parked on the ramp and even on a runway. Choreographing this sad and unique sight is quite a parking-puzzle,” she said, adding that Schiphol isn’t charging parking fees.
Charges differ from airport to airport. In India, parking alone can cost US$1,000 a day for a large aircraft, according to Mark Martin, founder of Dubai-based Martin Consulting. For an airline with a fleet of more than 250 jets, even heavily discounted rates may mean expenses of US$12.5 million for a six-month grounding, without taking into account maintenance costs, he said.
In its online magazine, IATA said it asked governments to cut parking fees, which usually account for less than 2% of airport revenue in a normal year. Under current circumstances, those charges could “make-or-break” some airlines, it said.
Wash, shampoo, then rotate the tyres
Etihad Airways said its engineers are working around the clock maintaining its grounded fleet, a process that includes running engines and powering up aircraft, checking flight controls, and covering sensors and engines to protect inner workings from sand and dust.
About 200 staff per shift clean plane cabins in hangars, from replacing seat covers to shampooing carpets, according to a video on the airline’s official Twitter account.
“I’ve never seen anything like this before in my aviation career,” Etihad’s Head of Technical Operations Gary Byrne said. The aircraft “are very intricate, complex pieces of machinery – it’s not like parking a car.”
Tires also need attention. Qantas said all planes from Boeing 737s to Airbus A380s need to have their wheels rotated – by being towed on the tarmac or jacked into the air to be spun — every one to two weeks, while hydraulic fluid is put on landing gear to protect against rust.
Giant silica moisture absorption sachets are also put inside engines to keep them dry, while all external holes on the fuselage are covered to block insects and nesting birds. Qantas said it has more than 200 aircraft, including Jetstar’s Boeing 787 Dreamliners, parked at airports around Australia.
The country’s climate makes it more suited for storage, especially compared with much of Asia, which has high levels of humidity as well as the threat of typhoons.
Near Alice Springs in the Northern Territory, Asia Pacific Aircraft Storage is holding aircraft for the likes of Singapore Airlines and Fiji Airways. The storage firm is expanding capacity to about 70 aircraft and considering raising that to more than 100, according to Managing Director Tom Vincent.
“There is a scramble for proper storage facilities,” he said. “We have a large number of deliveries over the next coming weeks and months.”
Asia Pacific has been a rapidly growing aviation market, with a slew of budget carriers from Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, India and elsewhere ordering thousands of planes, buoyed by an emerging middle class embracing flying.
That expansion came to a screeching halt because of the coronavirus, which has also hit orders for manufacturing giants Boeing and Airbus.
Finnair has parked aircraft at its Helsinki hub and has capacity if needed to use airports in Tampere and Rovaniemi, the capital of Lapland province. Work includes reconnecting aircraft batteries every 14 days, the airline said on its website.
One a month, a more extensive check is carried out that involves removing protective covers, starting engines and inspecting air-conditioning and anti-ice systems. One big challenge with parked planes is brakes, which can fade within 24 hours, according to Finnair Vice President of Ground Operations Jukka Glader.
Each of its jets requires 10 to 12 chocks behind the wheels to keep them in position. With so many aircraft grounded, Finnair ordered 500 wooden “corona chocks” from a local carpentry shop.
British Airways has parked half of its fleet of 12 Airbus A380 superjumbos in Chateauroux, France, for longer storage. Tarmac Aerosave, which has storage sites in France and Spain, is working to handle higher volumes of requests, while ComAv is also experiencing increased demand for its facility at the Southern California Logistics Airport in Victorville, to the northeast of Los Angeles.
At crowded airports like in New Delhi, which doesn’t have spare parking spots, a runway has been converted into a temporary storage area, like at Schiphol.
“Whether it’s the multiple control surfaces or avionics or hydraulic systems, prolonged storage effectively means an impact to airworthiness,” said Satyendra Pandey, an independent consultant and former head of strategy at Go Airlines India.
“Long-term storage is a specialized skill and ideal in dry and hot environments. This aspect will have to be revisited as currently airplanes are parked at airports and runways across the globe.”
Among other carriers, United Airlines expects to park about 400 aircraft, mostly at its hubs like Newark and Chicago, a spokeswoman said, while Delta Air Lines has sent planes to Pinal Airpark near Tucson, Arizona. American Airlines is using a maintenance base in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and facilities elsewhere.
“It might seem a simple task, but there’s some nuance to it,” APAS’s Vincent said. “It doesn’t just stop, there are the continuous, periodic checks.”
This article is published under license from Bloomberg Media: the original article can be viewed here
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Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer
09 Jun 2011
Total posts 88
Given how few flights run at night domestically in Australia, there must be significant capacity for 'storage' at the domestic terminals today.
12 Dec 2012
Total posts 1024
There isn't. Few, if any, nations have airport capacity to park all their jets at the same time.
If there was space to park the Australian jet fleets at Australian airports using normal hard or terminal stands, then Qantas wouldn't have needed to send some A380s and 787s to be parked in their LAX hanger, nor would SYD and BNE be using taxiways and some runways to park aircraft.
Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer
09 Jun 2011
Total posts 88
Then where does the Oz domestic fleet sleep each night? I should have clarified that I was only referring to the domestic fleet in my original post.
21 Jul 2014
Total posts 6
Some Oz Dom aircraft are parked overnight, but there are still many dom aircraft which continue flying over night, for example the red-eye flights.
But it's not just the dom aircraft which they need to find room for, it's the international aircraft as well, so whilst an airline could probably deal with having their entire dom fleet grounded, the fact that they also have to compete for space with international aircraft, plus it's aircraft from other carriers as well.
Basically the world was expecting for a good amount of it's planes to always be in the air all the time, so it didn't exactly make enough parking spaces for all aircraft to be grounded. Whilst we've certainly had large groundings in the past, that's typically been limited to one airline or one country, thus still leaving the majority of the worlds aircraft fleet flying.
12 Dec 2012
Total posts 1024
The Australian narrow body fleet doesn't all "sleep" each night. A part is normally always in operation. Only 4 airports in Australia have curfews, the others have passenger and cargo flights overnight.
There are normally the PER red eye transcons overnight, as well as some red eyes to New Zealand and Indonesia (which also often use "domestic" aircraft).
Across mainline, regional, cargo and charter airlines, there are roughly ~1000 commercial aircraft in Australia. There would be maybe 600 normal parking spaces for them at Australian airports, and it isn't just Australian airlines seeking to park aircraft here. SQ have a number parked in Alice Springs, as do some Indonesian airlines.
Aircraft parking has the same sort of idea behind shopping center car parks. Should shopping centers have enough parking available to meet the demand of the busiest day of the year, and have the majority of it go unused for most of the rest of the time?
Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards
02 Jun 2019
Total posts 16
Extraordinary insight. My thoughts are firstly with anyone in the airline industry who has been impacted by this dreadful situation. But my heart is full of admiration for the thousands of people who have been entrusted with the care, attention and storage of these beautiful machines.
I await the day we are all in the air again, with the anticipation and excitement of a small child at Christmas.