After a plane has been decommissioned it ends up in a dusty parking lot known as a “boneyard.” A boneyard is a massive field that houses aircraft that can no longer fly, where the parts that are still functioning are recycled, or often times, resold. A plane that has been deemed too old to fly can still have a large amount of value. These boneyards may not be spectacular, but they are a heavy contributor into the industry that comprises an “after life” ecosystem. One that spans from hedge funds to specialized recycling firms.
Permanently retired aircraft are slowly but surely dismantled overtime. Their decommissioning fluctuates with the demand for working spare parts. The vessels are inspected for key components that can still serve a purpose, and when there’s nothing left, the remains are melted down for scrap metal. Some sections of the fuselage may be removed and used as training facilities for flight crew, firefighters, or other educational purposes. Breaking down an aircraft requires specialized skills and training—combined with modern technology—to gather, separate, and recycle the different alloys, plastics, and fluids. Often times the aircraft is not recycled, instead it is simply left to rust. Once the plane has been de-registered, it is classed as waste and has to be processed in compliance with environmental regulations.
The amount of parts that can be reused depends on the age of the aircraft. A fairly new A320 aircraft can have as many as 1,200 reusable aircraft components, although most of the value lies in the engine. Their turbines contain rotating blades that must be changed out on a regular basis to stay in compliance with aircraft regulations. Swapping out these blades with used parts can cut repair costs in half. Secondhand landing gear can also fetch a hefty price ($300,00). Approximately $2.5 billion worth of salvaged and recycled parts entered the market between 2009 and 2011. These components can be sold overseas to countries that have different regulatory standards on which parts are still functional. Airlines can purchase spare parts through a third-party reseller, from a government marketplace, or even on eBay. Almost every part of an airplane can be recycled for use in newer planes.
The world’s largest aircraft boneyard (AMARG) is located in Arizona and is estimated to hold more than $32 billion worth of outdated planes, including government aircraft. The arid climate in this state slows down the rusting process, prolonging the afterlife of the aircraft. The inventory consists of retired commercial carriers to nuclear capable B-52 bombers, and everything in between. More than 80% of the planes stored here are used for spare parts. When a plane arrives in AMARG it is thoroughly washed to remove any salt on the exterior. Technicians then drain the fuel tanks, cover the tires, and remove any potentially explosive devices (guns or ejection seat activators). They then paint the top of the plane white to deflect the sun’s rays and signify an inoperable aircraft.
The life of an aircraft doesn’t end when it is decommissioned. It lives on in the boneyards of the world, providing parts to upgraded versions of themselves and enabling a new market to exist.
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