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Where Planes Go To Die.... And Be Born Again

Maybe you didn't know that the cutting-edge jumbo jets we fly around the world are often filled with recycled used parts.

Article illustrative image Partner logo On the chopping block (Aircraft Demolition LLC)

SAINT ATHAN - Back from down under, this A320 Airbus will only spend a few days on Montpellier’s tarmac before it makes its last flight to an air base in southern Wales. In the cabin’s feeble light, abandoned menus show how quickly Air Australia’s bankruptcy sealed the fate of this plane, which was still connecting Melbourne to Southeast Asian beach destinations last fall.

“Everything depends on the buying price,” says Bernard Comensoli as he opens a hangar, where a dozen technicians have been dismantling the twin-engined jet since June 21. His company, called RBD, was created 26 years ago. It bought this plane for $1.1 million – without the engines. The goal? Resell the thousands of dismantled pieces for at least $1.6 million. Among the jobs in recent years, RBD has taken care of an Air Liberty DC-10, a Philippine Airlines A300 or a Corsair 747.

Speed is of the essence. These small components are fragile: several months under St Athan’s rain are enough to transform an Airbus into a worthless pile of aluminum. As soon as it arrives, service number MSN 0190 – the 190th built Airbus A320 out of 5,000 – is purged from its kerosene and its hydraulic liquids. Then an engineer tests the plane’s systems, inspects its bowels with an endoscope and delves into the 70 crates of paperwork that retrace its life.

A lucrative business

Sold in advance, the engines can make up 80 % of the plane’s worth. But be careful before you whip out your wrench: “Just opening an engine can require the complete replacement of some components… like the 86 paddles of the turbine’s first floor, which cost $8,000 a piece,” says Comensoli.

Another prime piece is what specialists call the “APU,” an electric generator located in the tail cone, which goes for more than $300,000, "provided it is recertified,” says Phil Donohoe, the C.E.O. of P3 Aviation, a mid-sized British company that resells pieces. Landing gear sells very fast, $100,000 per component. A row of leather seats? The whole cabin was sold for $150,000. A luggage hold door? Good for $40,000.

Everything sells, and it isn’t cheap. “Summer is scrap season, so when it takes three months for a constructor to deliver an APU, without which your plane isn’t leaving Palma, a reconditioned piece, on the other hand, is available in less than 48 hours,” says Julien Glassey, another RBD associate.  

As dusk falls upon this former Royal Air Force base, a Ford Transit is loaded with black blocks the size of pressure-cookers: the carbon brakes. “$85,000 for the whole lot, this van is going straight to Milan,” says the P3 C.E.O., whose memory of each piece’s serial number is impressive (as are his rugby player looks – Cardiff is nearby).

Skyrocketing gas prices

Most people believe that Airbus’ and Boeings retire in Africa. “Aircraft manufacturers are less and less comfortable with their names being associated with crashes, and they’ve set up associations – like the AFRA (Aircraft Fleet Recycling Association), which we belong to – that certify demolition,” says Bernard Comensoli.

Many emerging country companies simply want to get rid of planes because they are unable to pay at the pump. Fuel prices have skyrocketed and even the tireless Tristars and other Jumbos hidden in the tropics are being targeted. “A first generation 747 is a huge 147-ton gas stove with hundreds of pieces for the taking…when you’re lucky,” says the RBD C.E.O.

Sky-rocketing oil prices and the economic crisis are encouraging financial groups who own fleets to get rid of hundreds of planes that are still in good condition but guzzle too much fuel. Companies are ready to lend them planes that consume less for a much higher price. So why pay for a huge maintenance – the bill can reach $10 million – to extend the life of a plane?

“Ten years ago, maintenance, staffing and fuel balanced each other; today, fuel absorbs more than half of costs,” says Tim Schmidt, director of eCube, a dismantling company with headquarters in St Athan. “This trend risks disrupting the whole aeronautic financing system, which is still based on planes designed to live at least 25 years,” he warns as he zigzags between the electronic casings on the ground. According to the AFRA, in 10 years, over a third of all planes currently in service will be retired or dismantled.

Work on Air Australia’s A320 will end on Aug. 3rd. The empty cabin will then be brought onto the tarmac, where an excavator with a giant pincer will attack the carcass. In one morning, everything will be taken apart, the components spread out like giant pieces of a puzzle.

Read more from Le Temps in French.

Photo - Aircraft Demolition LLC

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