This is what happens to planes when they’re retired

Written by Douglas Broom, Senior Writer, Formative Content
This article first appeared in the World Economic Forum

The world’s biggest operator of the Boeing 747 has announced it is withdrawing its entire fleet of the planes. But does retirement mean the end of the runway for airliners?

The iconic jumbo jet is the latest victim of the slump in air travel caused by the pandemic that has seen passenger numbers decline by almost two-thirds. British Airways is retiring its 31-strong 747 fleet, the world’s largest, with immediate effect.

Dutch airline KLM, Air France, Delta and United in the United States and Australia’s Qantas have already retired their 747s. Boeing is reportedly considering ending production of the 747 in 2022 when outstanding orders for freighter versions are completed.

The company is also working on converting two already-built passenger 747s into replacements for the US presidential Air Force One planes for delivery in 2024. The two aircraft were left undelivered after the Russian airline that ordered them filed for bankruptcy.

The 747’s rival, the 850-seat Airbus A380 superjumbo, has already ceased production after the cancellation of a large order. Some early examples of the airliner that first flew as recently as 2005 are already being scrapped.

Two-thirds of the world’s airliners were grounded in April by the collapse in air travel caused by the pandemic, according to aviation data source Cirium. By July, as other types began returning to service, only seven A380s and just 31 passenger 747s were operational.

Cargo conversions

So what happens to planes when they retire? Some will live on flying for other airlines, although in the case of the two jumbo types that might be unlikely.

A second option is to use them as freighters. Cargo conversions of the smaller Boeing 777 and 767 have proved popular and a freight conversion of the A300 – the original Airbus, first built in 1972 – is still flying parcels for DHL.

Boeing 747 freighters, with hinged noses to admit bulky cargoes, are likely to outlive their passenger counterparts by years. Some passenger versions may be converted by adding large side doors.

A dedicated freight version of the A380 never got off the drawing board but now a German company is working on converting surplus superjumbos to cargo carriers. The company says 40 airlines are interested in the project.

Stripped for parts

Aircraft all have finite lives – the period they are safe to fly before metal fatigue poses a safety threat. When their time is up there is still value in a plane’s many systems and parts and breaking them up for spares is increasingly profitable.

That’s because while the plane itself may need retiring, most parts will have been replaced many times. Everything from the engines and undercarriages to the seats and window blinds may have years of life left when the plane is scrapped.

The second-hand aviation spares market is so big that Honeywell, which also makes new aircraft parts, set up a blockchain-based online marketplace to allow airlines to buy validated used parts. It sold $5 million worth of spares last year.

Airbus subsidiary Satair, which specializes in recovering parts from retired Airbus airliners, says the total market for recycled airliner parts will reach $6 billion by 2022 – 70% of that coming from the sale of used engines and their parts.

Gone but not forgotten?

Not all retired airlines live on or become donors. Some simply go into storage. The dry atmosphere of the Southwestern US makes it a popular location for aircraft boneyards, such as in California’s Mojave Desert, where planes wait in the often forlorn hope of a recall to the skies.

Others end up as museum exhibits. The prototype 747 – serial number 001 – has been restored at Seattle’s Museum of Flight. When the museum reopens after the pandemic, it may be among the last places you can climb aboard a jumbo jet.

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