Retired old airplanes, what happens to them?

Aviation Facilities | July 23, 2018
Retired old airplanes, what happens to them?

Airplanes are extremely expensive, airline spend millions and millions to get the latest models, and millions more to operate them. But what happens when the old airplanes get too old to fly, and the lifespan of airplanes is much shorter than you think.

The average airplane can fly for around 25 years; some can fly for 30 years but never more than that. So what happens to old airplanes when they reach that age? Are they still any use?

Let’s take a look at the industry that starts when old airplanes are retired.

What makes an airplane age?

What makes an airplane age?

An airplane’s age is usually measured by pressurization cycles. An airplane is pressurized every time it takes flight, inflicting stress on fuselage and wings.

That is why, contrary to popular belief, short haul airplanes age faster than long haul airplanes.

There are maintenance programs designed by airplane manufacturers that determine if some of the airplane’s components have become weary by pressurization. These parts should then be replaced. If the whole airplane has become over-fatigued it should be retired.

When do airplanes actually retire?

When do airplanes actually retire?

Of course no one waits for an airline to become over-fatigued! Many airplanes do not even reach old age. Even though the lifespan of an airplane is around 25 years as stated earlier, most airplanes are dismantled when they reach 18 years old.

The decision to disassemble an aircraft and sell the parts usually depends on whether the value of its parts and components is higher than that of the airplane as an aircraft.

At the middle of its expected lifespan, most airlines reevaluate the plane. How much does it cost to run the airplane? Are there newer more fuel efficient models that can fly at a cheaper cost? How much is this plane worth now? Is the sum of its parts larger than the value of it as a plane?

If the cost of the running the plane is high but it is still valuable as an aircraft it is usually sold to other smaller airlines.

If the value of the parts and components are higher than the whole the plane is replaced, retired and dismantled.

What happens when they retire?

What happens when they retire?

When an airplane is no longer operational it often times takes a last flight to a storage airport. These facilities are huge open air parking lots which are available in several places around the world.

But most of them are located in the southwestern United States, to take advantage of the land availability, and also because dry climate in these states slows down rusting.

Once an airplane arrives at a storage airport, it is meticulously washed to wash off any salt that may cause corrosion to the exterior. After that, fuel tanks are drained and flushed with lubricant.

Tires are then covered in Mylar to prevent the sun from deteriorating the rubber. And the top coat is painted in white to deflect the scorching sun rays.

Now the airplane is ready to be stored.

But what is it stored for?

But what is it stored for?

On average, every plane includes more than 350,000 individual components, such as engines, fuselage parts and electronics.

And even though the plane itself is out of service, many of these parts can be used as spare parts for other aircrafts. It is often better to replace a malfunctioning part in an airplane than to fix it.

This process takes a while and when there is nothing of value left, the remains of the airplane are melted for scrap metal.

For more about airplanes see also:

Aircraft Construction: How are airplanes made?

History of aviation: Who invented the airplane


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