Dubai Air Show

Despite recovery, one jetliner in 10 is in ‘desert air force’

 - December 11, 2006, 5:08 AM

About one jetliner in 10 sits in storage, awaiting either permanent retirement or a change in economic or competitive conditions that warrants a return to service. Despite the airline market’s recovery in the past 12 to 18 months, the number of inactive aircraft has stayed essentially stable since soon after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the U.S. just over four years ago.

Comprehensive statistics maintained by London-based international consultancy Airclaims suggest a fall of about 5 percent in stored-aircraft volumes since mid-2002, after markets had settled down.

Subsequent setbacks for the air transport industry–such as those that followed the severe acute-respiratory syndrome outbreak in the Asia/Pacific region and reaction to the U.S./UK invasion of Iraq–continued to inhibit market recovery, before a 15-percent upturn in worldwide passenger traffic last year finally confirmed that recovery was under way. A near 25-percent increase in passenger traffic here in the Middle East and a 20-percent gain in the Asia/Pacific region led last year’s global growth, but Airclaims records released to Aviation International News show  negligible reduction in numbers of stored airliners.

Dubbed the “desert air force,” most of the airplanes sit in the Mojave Desert of the southwestern U.S., where consistently arid conditions inhibit corrosion and enable an early return to service. Alternatively, older airliners (usually noisy or fuel-thirsty designs compared with today’s models) may get parted out, pending a trip to the smelter.

In a synopsis of known stored aircraft as of June 30, Airclaims accounted for around 2,080 units withdrawn from regular operations, compared with about 1,080 exactly five years earlier. The earlier total had increased by about 100 in mid-2001, just 10 weeks before the 9/11 attacks. Once airlines had responded to the huge downturn in demand for travel during the following months by withdrawing many more aircraft, they parked another 1,000, bringing the total to some 2,150 by June 30, 2002.

Classics At Rest

Airclaims estimates that 85- to 90 percent of stored aircraft occupy the southwestern U.S. desert, which has become the final resting place for huge numbers of classic  designs, such as Boeing 707s, 727s, and early 737s, as well as DC-8s and DC-9s, and BAC 111s. Even aircraft equipped with Stage 3/Chapter III hush kits have become too expensive to operate compared with more recent equipment.

By far, the most populous type remains the Boeing 727, some 390 of which, or roughly 40 percent of the total, sit in storage. About 300 Pratt & Whitney JT8D-powered 737-100/200s (30 percent of the fleet) and 70 CFM International CFM56-engined Boeing 737-300s (less than 4 percent) populate desert storage grounds. About 30 percent of the DC-9 fleet, around 170 machines, remains parked, along with some 12 percent of the follow-on MD-80 fleet.

Of current types, a small number of Boeing 737-600/700/800s remain grounded (about 15 out of some 1,750), compared with fewer than 20 Airbus A318/A319/A320/A321 models (out of 2,500). Among larger aircraft, about one in four of the almost 300 McDonnell Douglas DC-10s sit idle, as does about one in eight of all 747s (about 130 out of nearly 1,100). About 9 percent of the 66-strong Airbus A300/A310 fleet occupies storage lots, according to Airclaims. But two thirds of all Lockheed Tri Stars, about 75 out of 111, have been parked.

Considering smaller, older aircraft, nearly 60 percent of the 76 BAC 111s do not fly, along with 40 percent of the 400 Fokker F28 and F100 models.

Among regional jets, Airclaims records show some 42 of 100 or so Fairchild Dornier 328Jets parked, as well as almost a third of the British Aerospace 146 fleet (60 from 210) and almost 30 Bombardier CRJ100/200/700 examples (out of about 1,250). About a dozen are listed as belonging to the desert air force.