With the economy in a tailspin, aircraft “boneyards” across the country are filling up with Boeing 747s and other jetliners no longer needed to ferry passengers. Call it airline limbo.
Air carriers are grounding planes at a rate not seen since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and industry experts say this year is likely to set a record for planes sitting on the ground.
That has meant job security for Richard Robertson, an aircraft mechanic at the Southern California Logistics Airport in Victorville, formerly George Air Force Base, now one of the nation’s busiest boneyards.
Robertson has perfected the art of “pickling” airplanes, aviation jargon for disassembling parts and draining fluids from aircraft so they can be stored for a long time.
“It’s unfortunate, but when the economy is bad we’re doing good,” Robertson said as he pulled a cockpit instrument off a Boeing 727 last week so it could be stored for use another time or perhaps on another plane.
The jet, with its windows covered in aluminum foil and engines removed, will be towed later to a sprawling lot that resembles a used-car dealership. It is filled with rows of planes that just months earlier had crisscrossed the Pacific or hopped across the Midwest.
High fuel costs last summer drove many airlines to ground older, gas-guzzling planes.
Since then, a recession- induced travel slump has led carriers to take even more planes out of the sky.
Passenger traffic for the nation’s largest carriers dropped an average of 11% in February compared with a year earlier . It marked the carriers’ 18th consecutive monthly decline.
Several big airlines that already had pared their schedules over the last six months said last week that they would slash even more flights than planned because demand was falling further.
The latest rush of airliners to Victorville began in October. Before long 100 aircraft were on the tarmac, then 150, and by last week the roster had swelled to nearly 200, making the outpost more crowded at times than Los Angeles International Airport.
Victorville, about 80 miles northeast of Los Angeles, is home to one of three major commercial boneyards in the U.S.
The others are in Arizona and New Mexico, where grounded planes are also piling up. (Mothballed military aircraft such as fighters, bombers and cargo planes end up at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona.)
“We’re seeing consistent growth and anticipate growth for another six months,” said Steve Coffaro, vice president of marketing for Evergreen Maintenance Center in Marana, Ariz.
Coffaro counted 198 planes in his lot last week, twice as many as several months ago.
The Victorville airport isn’t bursting at the seams yet, but it’s getting closer to its maximum capacity of 300 aircraft, said Jeff A. Lynn, general manager for Southern California Aviation, which provides “transitional parking” for grounded planes.
Based on recent airline inquiries about available space, there could be 50 or more planes arriving at the airport by this summer, Lynn said, adding that “we could run out of room” if the facility gets more 747 jumbo jets, which take up two spaces.
The Victorville airport was established after the closure of George Air Force Base in 1992. The airport in Mojave, about 75 miles away, is also used for idled jets; about 100 planes are mothballed there.
Airlines like to park planes in the desert because the dry weather acts as a preservative, preventing corrosion.
“Boneyards are purgatory for airliners,” said aviation consultant Michael Boyd, who estimates that 10% to 20% of the planes will fly again.
“They sit there for a while before they’re turned into beer cans.”
Or until they’re sold. Older aircraft no longer wanted by the U.S. carriers sometimes find their way to airlines that serve countries in Africa or Latin America.
Buyers are likely to see some of the lowest prices for used planes in decades.
Last year, nearly 1,200 planes worldwide were grounded, making 2008 the worst year for fleet cutbacks since 2001, according to London-based aviation consulting firm Ascend Worldwide.
An additional 675 aircraft could be parked this year.
If that happens, a record percentage of planes will be sitting on the ground rather than flying.
“Fleet reduction is the most efficient way to reduce capacity,” said Jean Medina, spokeswoman for United Airlines, which began phasing out older, gas-guzzling 737 jets last fall.
Many of the planes are for sale, but if the airline doesn’t find buyers, the aircraft are sent to the boneyard to wait out the lull or be dismantled for parts, Medina said. “We’ve been working to sell these where we can.”
Aircraft leasing companies are also grounding planes because fewer airlines are renewing their leases. In some cases the companies park the planes rather than slash lease rates, said aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia of Teal Group Corp.
With plane numbers far exceeding demand and travel sliding even more than anticipated, the boneyards are expected to remain busy this year.
Lynn’s company has been growing steadily since airlines began grounding planes. Its payroll increased by 30% since last fall.
The company has 150 employees and is looking for more aircraft mechanics.
But Lynn says the company has been cautious about hiring too many workers too quickly to avoid the boom-and-bust cycle that has characterized the business for decades.
“We’re trying to be careful about ramping up too fast,” he said.
Each airline has its own preferred way of storing aircraft, which could include draining a plane of fluids, covering up the windows and then having a tow truck move it slightly every two weeks to even out the tires.
Planes that are not expected to return to service are stripped of parts or “chomped” into pieces to be used as scrap.
The Mojave airport boneyard, once one of the nation’s largest, may be more familiar to Southland travelers than the boneyard in Victorville because the planes are visible from California Highway 14, the main route to Highway 395 and the Eastern Sierra Nevada.
In recent years, however, the Mojave airport has focused on boosting commercial spaceflight and research operations. The airport, about 100 miles north of Los Angeles, is now officially called the Mojave Air and Space Port.
But in the last few weeks, the company that stores planes in Mojave has had an uptick in calls from airlines looking for spaces to park their aircraft, said Lin Roberts, manager of Flight Test Associates Inc.
“March and April are going to be big,” she said. “We’re getting calls from all over.”
Roberts had expected the next upswing in business to come in 2011 and 2012, when most carriers had planned to begin updating their planes. But the falloff in travel has pushed it up a few years, she said.
“The economy is taking us all for a wild ride,” Roberts said.