Still in good shape: old passenger jets in the desert near Victorville, Southern California, USA
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New life in the desert

  • TEXT LILLIAN SIEWERT

Decommissioned airplanes all over the world await their final journey to become material warehouses worth millions; today’s airline industry knows the value of extensive parts recycling

It was her final departure. She rolled down the runway in Frankfurt just like she had so many times before, climbed into the sky and headed out over the ocean toward the American continent. But instead of touching down in New York, this time the Düsseldorf landed roughly five hours further west in Tulsa. There she now stands, parked in the scorching Oklahoma heat. A strong wind sweeps across the airfield. Turbine blades rotate beneath her majestic wings, recalling the old days. Mumbai, Buenos Aires, Shanghai and, very often, New York.

This Boeing 747-400 has served the glittering megacities of the world. During her 24 years in operation, she covered more than 100 million kilometers, spent 124 000 hours in the air and transported four million passengers – always in the service of Lufthansa. Now, she is being retired, and the latest generation “dash eight” has joined the fleet as part of Lufthansa’s renewal program. In four weeks’ time, there will be precious little of the Düsseldorf left.

Recycling is worth it: Engine, cockpit and landing gear all contain valuable parts

Recycling is worth it: landing gear, ...

© Kenneth M. Ruggiano
Recycling is worth it: Engine, cockpit and landing gear all contain valuable parts

... engine and cockpit all contain valuable parts

© Kenneth M. Ruggiano

 But these days, instead of the old lady being sold to another airline, Lufthansa Technik buys her with the aim of giving the aircraft – or at least those components that are still valuable and in demand – what its new recycling concept “2nd Life” promises . The parts in question are generally the ones that passengers rarely see because they belong to the cockpit, the landing gear or the engines. The Düsseldorf has four engines beneath her wings, and they alone contain elements worth more than seven million euros, which is roughly 80 percent of the value of the Boeing’s reusable parts. But even on-board coffee machines are expensive; in use many hours a day, they need to be very hard-wearing, after all. All of the components are removed, overhauled and tested inside the hangars in Tulsa with the aid of the U.S. subsidiary Lufthansa Technik Component Services (LTCS). Later they go to Germany for reinstallation in Lufthansa fleet aircraft that are still in service.

The aviation industry is ­facing an aircraft retirement tsunami

Richard Brown, ICF International

But first, every defective component had to be laboriously repaired or replaced; a costly affair. Today, Lufthansa simply falls back on the stocks of repaired and tested components salvaged from decommissioned aircraft waiting for their second life. “The quality of the used parts is just as good, and they are just as safe, as new parts – because they have to meet the same certification requirements and pass the same functional tests,” explains Hans Bernd Schmidt, project manager at Lufthansa Technik. The in-house recycling of decommissioned aircraft was his brainchild, in fact, and it came at exactly the right time, when Lufthansa began trimming its fleet in early 2012. Since then, the Tulsa team has dismantled and recycled 35 planes. Three further 747s are due to follow early next year.

Other companies have now begun to notice the booming business with old planes. Aircraft are generally decommissioned after 20 to 25 years – or even earlier if modern, less fuel-intensive models supersede them. This is currently affecting up to 800 aircraft a year worldwide, and the trend is upward. While some companies are only interested in keeping the most valuable spare parts and simply scrap the rest, Lufthansa Technik recycles roughly 92 percent of a decommissioned airplane.

A worker inspects a dismantled engine in Tulsa, Oklahoma

A worker inspects a dismantled engine in Tulsa, Oklahoma

© Kenneth M. Ruggiano
This is how it looks when it’s off: engine mountings and connectors on the wing of a Boeing 747

This is how it looks when it’s off: engine mountings and connectors on the wing of a Boeing 747

© Kenneth M. Ruggiano
Engine components like this high-pressure turbine disk make up nearly 80 percent of the value of an aircraft’s reusable parts

Engine components like this high-pressure turbine disk make up nearly 80 percent of the value of an aircraft’s reusable parts

© Kenneth M. Ruggiano
Lufthansa Technik uses the majority of the components as spare parts in repairs. The remainder end up on the U.S. market

Lufthansa Technik uses the majority of the components as spare parts in repairs. The remainder end up on the U.S. market

© Kenneth M. Ruggiano

 The question of sustainability is more relevant today than ever before: “The aviation industry is facing an aircraft retirement tsunami,” warned principal consultant Richard Brown of ICF International at the annual conference of the international recycling network Aircraft Fleet Recycling Association (AFRA). In the next 20 years, AFRA expects to see some 12 000 jets being decommissioned worldwide.

When the Düsseldorf lands in Tulsa, its cabin is already stripped. Back in Frankfurt, Lufthansa Technik have taken out the seats, screens and trolleys to be recycled in Germany. The LTCS team takes over in the USA, painting over the logo and markings to obscure the airplane’s origins. One engine has already been taken down and is now standing in the hangar. Over the next few days, the remaining three engines will arrive, each weighing a good four tons. Once the landing gear components have all been removed, the jet lies on its belly. Then the team begins to work along the fuselage, dismantling individual components – usually around 5000 – before finally removing cable harnesses, interior trim and windows. Resusable parts go for inspection. They are manually tested, repaired and prepared for recertification. Lufthansa Technik retains the majority to use as spare parts in repairs. The remainder end up on the U.S. market.

Not every airline can develop a recycling concept like this, especially since aircraft frequently change hands and continents before being taken out of service. Europe has a handful of scrap yards for the purpose, including the AFRA site at the airport near Châteauroux, 260 kilometers south of Paris. But most aircraft come to rest in huge parking lots in the U.S. or Brazil – as spare part donors. A good number, however, especially in Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe, stand eviscerated and rotting away somewhere beside a runway, often with negative consequences for humans and nature. The ground is seldom sealed to prevent liquids, such as kerosene, antifreeze or radioactive americum, which is used in smoke detectors, from seeping into the groundwater. Lufthansa Technik makes sure to fulfill all the necessary environment requirements.

For the recycling industry, ensuring the safe processing of an old airplane is a logistical challenge. “Moving the decommissioned plane one last time is usually too expensive an undertaking, or safety regulations prohibit it,” explains Marc Keske, CEO and owner of the waste disposal company, Keske Entsorgung in Brunswick, Germany. His company goes into action when others throw down their tools; it shreds the remaining fuselage shell on site. In collaboration with the Hamburg Süderelbe business initiative, Clausthal University of Technology and Stute Logistics, Keske has devised a mobile unit it calls More-Aero. In essence, it is a pair of transportable scrap shears that fits inside a container, which also carries tools and equipment for the proper disposal of harmful substances and stripping and stowing of components for transport back to Germany. The north German alliance researched and tested the “outsized toolbox,” as Keske calls it, for two-and-a-half years launching it in 2015.

The scrap shears snap energetically shut in Tulsa, too, eating their way through what’s left of the aircraft’s shell, in which up to 50 tons of old metal slumber – aluminum, steel, titanium and copper, all of which go to local recycling companies. Neither in the U.S. nor in Germany is the scrap metal used to make new wings (it is not of sufficiently good quality for that), but it is at least used to make cans for drinks – which sooner or later may well find their way back onto the plane.