There could be anywhere between 6,000 and 17,000 commercial aircraft retirements over the next decade, according to industry calculations. Some fleets are seeing accelerated downsizing in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic and its chilling effect on air travel, and limited space in aircraft boneyards are prompting further consideration of how to recycle airframes.
Sven Koechler, managing principal and general manager of North American Aerospace Industries Corp, said that currently around 85 to 90 percent of each aircraft is being recycled, but he believes that proportion should be higher. “First, we need to increase that number to 100 percent and recognize that instead of placing the remaining 10 to 15 percent in landfills where it has negative effects on our environment, we can give those materials a new life, which in turn will help give a new life to those in need,” he noted in a press statement this week.
Koechler is investing $100 million in the development of a modern recycling facility slated to open mid-2021 at a 2,500-acre airport industrial site in Kinston, North Carolina, and challenging the industry to start thinking and acting to create a more sustainable and socially-minded view of aircraft recycling. "There’s no reason why remaining materials from retired aircraft can’t be recycled to produce footwear, clothing, hats, coats, gloves, and even tiny homes for those in need,” he said.
Even before the pandemic, the industry was seeing the retirement of several hundred airliners each year. “An average commercial aircraft has an estimated 800 to 1,000 parts that can be recycled,” explained Koechler, noting the most valuable are the engines, landing gear, avionics, and electronics. “Once these components and parts are removed, overhauled, tested, and recertified, they can be repurposed back into aviation.”
Other metal parts can be melted down and returned to the raw material supply chain. “That leaves many interior components such as seating, overhead bins, cabinets and walls, which are largely comprised of composite materials such as carbon-reinforced polymers, [which] can be responsibly recycled to meet critical social needs,” said Koechler.
He is not the first to have such ideas. Back in 2006, Airbus launched its own aircraft recycling initiative named PAMELA (Process for Advanced Management of End-of-Life of Aircraft), which aimed to increase the percentage of recycled parts from the then-industry standard of 60 percent to today’s 85 percent. Southwest Airlines has also introduced its own “Repurpose with Purpose” program, which has upcycled one million pounds of seat covering leather into goods such as shoes, bags, and ponchos, while establishing new jobs and training opportunities for veterans, individuals with disabilities, human trafficking victims, and indigenous artisans.