“Some words, like graveyard or dump, should not be heard in our company,” a Tarmac Aerosave executive says. Company employees pride themselves on being at the forefront of aircraft dismantling and recycling know-how. The company, based here, is investing in the activity both to remain competitive and to serve as a differentiator when a customer is looking for aircraft maintenance and storage, its other two businesses.
Making money from a retired aircraft starts with selling its components—from an auxiliary power unit to a pylon or a landing gear. About 1,500 components can be removed from an aircraft and sold on the second-hand market. In total, they account for 20-30% of the weight of a retired aircraft but comprise 99% of its value, according to Tarmac executives.
Some subassemblies are reused for relatively novel purposes. A cockpit may become part of a flight simulator. But Tarmac does not sell parts to collectors. “We would not like to introduce a bogus part on the market,” an executive explains.
After component reuse, the next step is material recycling. This is where Tarmac is looking to improve.
Between 600-650 aircraft are retired every year, according to Jonathan Berger, managing director at Alton Aviation Consultancy. As deliveries of new commercial aircraft continue at a sustained pace, the number of retirements is growing. In turn, this will increase supply and thus negatively affect the price of their components, Tarmac President Philippe Fournadet predicts. The cost of ferrying the aircraft to its final destination and disassembling it will, meanwhile, remain unchanged. Fournadet infers that the value of the materials—mainly metal—recovered from the stripped aircraft will become more important elements in the business case of dismantling.
Consequently, there is a need to make waste treatment more efficient. Tarmac is acquiring new tools for faster and cleaner processes, Fournadet says. It is benefiting from the know-how of waste treatment specialist Suez—one of its shareholders along with Airbus and Safran. “Our capacity to deal with greater volume will allow us to stay in the business,” Fournadet says.
He is certain that, one day, cutting an aircraft apart with hydraulic pliers—“that look like a dinosaur”—will be prohibited. Instead, since the company was created 10 years ago, Tarmac has been using a diamond-cutting cable cooled with water. The system is deemed cleaner than hydraulic pliers, the method most commonly used. With the cable, all of the excess water and dust produced is recovered. This method is also said to be safer, as it avoids fire hazards. It costs an average €30,000 ($35,000) per aircraft.
The “production” rate has been increasing; 35 aircraft were slated for dismantling in 2017, up from 20 last year.
Another potential improvement may be found in composite-material recycling. Tarmac reuses or recycles 92% of an aircraft’s weight, and the remaining few percent are essentially composites. Suez has found a partner to develop a profitable method to retrieve carbon from carbon-fiber reinforced plastics. The process is said to be at the pre-production stage.
Since 2007, Tarmac has dismantled and recycled more than 100 aircraft—the latest being Air France’s last Boeing 747—and 90 turbofan engines, the company says. The cost of dismantling an aircraft is €10,000-100,000. Company executives say maintenance and storage are more profitable.
But some customers for the latter two services come to Tarbes or to Tarmac’s Teruel, Spain, site “because they know their aircraft, if dismantled, will be dismantled with high standards,” a Tarmac executive says. Cathay Pacific has used pictures in its communications of aircraft Tarmac was tearing apart.
Tarmac emphasizes its processes enable the aluminum it recovers to be reused in aerospace. When it is stripped, it is mixed with steel rivets and has to be mixed with “purer” alloys. “Those companies that buy aluminum from us are paying below-market prices,” the executive says.
At the other end of the recycling spectrum are seat and insulation foams. Tarmac uses them in packaging—for example, to wedge a part into a crate.
Despite the focus on making the activity “greener,” developing a clean dismantling, storage and maintenance business remains an environmental challenge. Taking up space on otherwise-fertile land around Tarbes’ airport has sparked debate locally. And Tarmac, although it did evaluate its CO2 footprint three years ago, is not using it as a key performance indicator.
Fournadet expects his 200-employee company to grow five fold by 2022. A large part of revenues comes from aircraft maintenance and storage. The latter activity is mainly driven by the needs of lessors. Tarmac officials note an average storage period of seven months between leases. Owners often order maintenance and refurbishing work to be done during that time.