Print Headline: Tightening Up
“Fly-em till they drop” has been the rule in the past few years as traffic growth and moderate oil prices have kept older jets in fleets and disassemblies averaging 400-500 a year at the most. But sooner or later—as fuel costs rise, traffic slows or aircraft just age out—old birds will head for teardown shops at a more normal pace of 900-plus annually.
When that happens, new rules will be in place that should mean final farewells to aircraft will be done more smartly—for airlines and the environment. The Aircraft Fleet Recycling Association (AFRA), which self-regulates teardowns for nearly 80 members, will soon issue version 4.0 of its best management practices, according to Executive Director Han Craen. These cover teardown facilities, training, documents, tooling, part-processing and environmental protection.
In addition, an International Air Transport Association (IATA) ad hoc group plans to issue its first guide to best practices in aircraft decommissioning. It is expected to be generally consistent with AFRA’s best practices, but it also should address the economic decision on when an aircraft should be harvested for parts and how to distribute those parts.
How much will new rules matter? James Cobbold, sales manager of Air Salvage International, sauys “there were some cowboys” before AFRA began self-regulation of most teardown shops. And teardowns by non-AFRA members still generate a few “horror stories,” with parts damaged by incorrect removals or airframes washing up on beaches after being barged out to sea in the Asia-Pacific region.
Even among AFRA members, remote-location teardowns may occur in countries with less demanding environmental rules for final material disposal. And shops located in different nations face different rules.
Teardown processes vary according to both the company involved and the region where dismantling occurs, says Fabricio La Banca, Lufthansa Technik surplus purchaser. “Some facilities work under very strong environmental rules and trace where material goes,” he notes. “Others keep crushing aircraft at the end of dismantling and perform all work under open skies.” But La Banca expects these differences to narrow in the near future.
Keri Wright, CEO of Universal Asset Management (UAM), ticks off some mistakes badly managed shops can make: improper handling of avionics, which damages valuable components; hurried removal of engines without securing on stands; failure to capture and properly dispose of fluids and waste materials; and insufficient attention to aluminum dust from cutting airframes, dust that can contaminate soil and affect workers.
Competent shops typically should recover 800-1,200 parts that can be used as spares and recycle the rest, meaning that more than 90% of an aircraft is recycled—either as parts or as reused scrap. But recovery prospects differ by model and age. For an old Boeing 737 Classic, for example, only 100 parts may be useful, La Banca estimates. In contrast, UAM recovered 10,000 parts from its first 777 teardown. Wright says on average about 20% of parts are usually beyond economic repair. By far the most valuable parts are engines, auxiliary power units and landing gear.
The value of parts and materials recycled also can differ greatly by specific aircraft, location and business arrangements. And these values are being judged against the estimated value of keeping an aircraft flying, always a tricky calculation. The economic decision on whether and how to part out a jet is often very difficult.
Cobbold advises any lessor to put aging jets near a disassembly shop when they come off lease, so moving them will be cheap, if necessary. La Banca says airlines err when they sell overripe aircraft to part traders, which is the common practice. A part trader “is only a reseller, not a consumer of the parts,” he argues. “The airline might purchase back its own parts at too high a cost.” One alternative is working with a major MRO as a partner in teardown and recovery of parts.
UAM’s Wright says airlines too often treat aircraft merely as scrap, not recognizing that even smaller components like avionics have value if properly removed. The increasing amount of carbon fiber on aircraft also may have value if it can be recycled. But many owners are “not fully aware of what is installed on the aircraft and the current market value,” Wright says. This information is critical to planning the harvest list for maximum return. And teardown shops often fail to ensure they completely understand the work scope. Wright urges owner and teardown facilities to review work scopes together.
Teardown managers expect decommissioning of aircraft to increase, along with the number of participants in the industry. Safety, economics and environmental protection also should improve in coming years with International Air Transport Association guidance, new AFRA rules and the spread of environmental sensitivities.