What happens to planes grounded by COVID-19?

There is no doubt that COVID-19 is shaking up the world we live in today. The human tragedy that has taken place and has yet to take place cannot be overstated.

One of the biggest and most visible effects, is that of our ability to move around freely, specifically, through air travel. To curb the spread of COVID-19, and the importation of that virus, many countries moved quickly to restrict travel. Most particularly international arrivals. In the early stages, airlines reduced their services so as to avoid the well-known infected areas and the risk of bringing back infected passengers to their home country. This has quickly escalated to total travel bans being put in place for most countries, leaving airlines with no business in those markets.

Naturally, no income means that costs have to be reduced very drastically and quickly to avoid bankruptcy. This has involved mass staff layoffs and of course the grounding of many aircraft. At first international routes were most affected as countries closed their borders to new arrivals. Domestic services continued to run, however, at a reduced frequency. According to the OAG (Overseas Airline Guide), a data centre for flight schedules, in the U.S. in the week to 24 March 2020 airline seat capacity dropped by 1.4 million seats or 6%. Some of the larger airlines are saying they are planning to further reduce domestic capacity by 30% and international by 75%.

While some low-cost carriers like Spirit are trying to stay afloat by offering fares as low as US$18 plus fees, the trend is growing to ground airliners that cannot fly their normal routes.

So where do the airlines keep these grounded planes? As you can appreciate, a large modern airliner takes up a lot of space and also needs to have a solid base beneath its wheels. In a way, the problem being common to all operators helps. For example, at Tulsa International Airport they have been able to close seldom-used taxiways and runways to accommodate 50 airliners owned by American Airlines. Normal operations are not affected.

Airliners are stored at Don Muang Airport in Bangkok.

Airliners are stored at Don Muang Airport in Bangkok.

This is obviously not the answer everywhere. There are many thousands of aircraft being grounded and there isn't enough unused space at the world's airports to accommodate them all. Throw into the mix the fact that there are the grounded Boeing 737 Max aircraft in various locations awaiting certification clearance to fly again, and you see there is a parking problem.

Where there is a problem, however, there is often someone benefiting from the solution they provide to that problem. One such business is ComAv, an aircraft maintenance and storage firm based at Southern California Logistics Airport in Victorville. Their Director of Corporate Initiative, Lisa Skeels, said they are definitely very busy. They are currently storing 275 planes and can accommodate 200 more. ComAv is inundated with requests from various airlines for storage space although they would not reveal which airlines.

I'm sure we've all heard of the desert boneyard storage facilities for unused airliners, but there is a distinct difference between parking an aircraft in the desert and parking an aircraft and keeping it maintained. Like anything an aircraft left unattended will start to deteriorate and will eventually become unairworthy. Airlines have huge amounts of capital tied up in these aircraft and they need to know that when this global downturn ends, their aircraft can come back into service with a minimum delay. This is not just like parking your car in the long-term car park while you go on a trip. The aircraft, if it is to be stored for a long period of time, needs to be put into an "aircraft coma". This typically means draining and replacing all fluids and sealing the cabin doors and engines.

Whilst parking a large Boeing 777 can cost around US$150 a day to store, the required maintenance can start from US$2,000 per month. Even though the jet is static, the manual calls for regular checks on such systems as avionics, hydraulics, electronics, and other operating systems. The trick is guessing how long this covid19 situation will last. There is a more intense idling maintenance schedule that involves aircraft actually being regularly started up. Basically, the more intense the maintenance schedule, the quicker the aircraft can return to service when things return to normal. The maintenance cost may be high, but the lost earnings may be much higher for an aircraft's delayed return to service.

What we also no doubt might see is perhaps the earlier retirement of older aircraft like the McDonnell Douglas MD-88s, MD-90s, and perhaps even some of the remaining Boeing 747s.

What tomorrow's airline industry will look like is anyone's guess right now.


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