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Creative solutions for older aircraft

The trend for aircraft to be retired at earlier service ages is creating a booming aircraft recycling industry.

The economic advantage of recycling is becoming clearer. The cost of storing a grounded aircraft varies greatly depending on the type of airframe, but let’s use an example rate of £25,000 ($42,000) per month. By contrast, the price of dismantling an aircraft can be between £120,000 and £160,000, stripping it of items that can be reused or sold on at a profit. So in this case, in six months of storage an owner could end up with a similar bill as he would by recycling an aircraft, without the new revenue stream of the broken down parts being sold on for re-use. 

Similarly, the economics of maintaining an aircraft at a milestone point in its service life may not add up when compared to what could be gained for selling the aircraft for parts.

The number of aircraft being made available for disassembly has led to a large number of new players entering the recycling market, making it more competitive. Right now, though, there is still a lot of work for everyone. “It is estimated that up to 600 aircraft will be retired a year; if even half this number becomes available for dismantling and recycling, that’s still a lot of airplanes and that’s more than enough to provide work for everyone operating in our sector,” explains Tim Zemanovic, CEO of US-based Aircraft Demolition.

But as a relatively young sector, there is still a need to consolidate best practices and mitigate the environmental impact of dismantling. Derk-Jan van Heerden, founder of Aircraft End-of-Life Solutions (AELS), points to a recent situation where another company was recycling two older 747s in Belgium. “It was done incorrectly, resulting in depleted uranium mixing in with the scrap metal. This is a big violation of standard scrap metal regulations,” he says. “It is important that everybody that works in the industry and touches this niche sector knows what the risks are and can recognise who is a company with the right expertise.”

The Aircraft Fleet Recycling Association (AFRA) was formed in 2006 with the aim of guiding the sector - 11 companies helped to found AFRA but there are now 72 members, with this number steadily rising. It is still down to aircraft owners to select environmentally-friendly teardown options rather than what might be the cheapest, but there are encouraging signs of progress.

“As aircraft end-of-life industry standards have risen there has been a noticeable increase in the willingness of aircraft owners to work with the more responsible elements of the industry to find creative solutions for older aircraft,” notes Martin Fraissignes, AFRA’s executive director and general manager of Chateauroux Air Centre.

Another aim of paramount importance for the recycling industry is to improve materials recovery from retired aircraft and manufacturing scrap – making sure that even more of the aircraft can be returned to high-end manufacturing applications.

For a full report on the aircraft recycling industry, see the February-March issue (128) of Aircraft Technology Engineering & Maintenance, out next week.

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