Covid Brings Flood of Supply to Aircraft Recycling Business

 - July 13, 2021, 9:00 AM
Airliners sit in storage at Tarmac Aerosave grounds at Tarbes-Lourdes-Pyrenees Airport in France as an ex-Singapore Airlines Airbus A380 arrives in November 2017. (Photo: Tarmac Aerosave)

Few would disagree that aircraft recycling has evolved from an almost non-existing, polluting industry to become a textbook example of how aerospace contributes to a circular economy and aviation’s overarching environmental sustainability goals. Depending on the type of aircraft, recyclers can recover about 90 percent of an aircraft's weight for reuse in aviation or other sectors, a level that Tarmac Aerosave CEO Patrick Lecer described as “fantastic.” The company, a joint venture of Airbus, Safran Aircraft Engines, and waste specialist Suez, has disassembled, dismantled, and recycled 291 aircraft and 141 CFM56 engines in an eco-efficient manner since its creation in 2007, including 75 percent of all the A340s that companies have recycled.

Yet Lecer expressed concern about the sector’s post-Covid course. Due to the pandemic, the number of aircraft that owners have stored is enormous, he noted during a webinar organized by France’s aerospace business club, Usaire. “Of course, not all of them will be parted out but there is a risk of increased so-called dry dismantling when aircraft are scrapped with poorly-controlled processes and end up as landfill waste—particularly in certain parts of the world. This is very different from what we do; we recycle to maximize reuse and focus on the safe disposal of non-recyclable parts,” he explained.

Lufthansa Technik several years ago switched its strategy to dismantle aircraft of Lufthansa Group— which includes Lufthansa, Swiss, Austrian Airlines, and Brussels Airlines—with European providers only, said Fabrício La Banca, Lufthansa Technik senior director of corporate purchasing. “By doing so, we avoided the traditional ferry flights to other destinations, saving tons of kerosene and CO2. On top of that, the European providers we are using are AFRA [Aircraft Fleet Recycling Association] members that follow rigid processes and rules in regard to recycling and final demolition of the aircraft,” he told AIN. AFRA’s more than 70 accredited members must pass an audit based on best management practices. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) also has developed the "Best Industry Practices for Aircraft Decommissioning" manual.

Operators retired about 600 airplanes a year before the pandemic and the vast majority were recycled, according to Boeing. Management consultancy Oliver Wyman estimated that due to the Covid-19 shock to aviation, roughly 2,000 aircraft will leave the fleet permanently during a 12-month time span. Candidates now include airplanes only 20 years old rather than the more typical 25-year-old aircraft.

For IATA director-general Willie Walsh, the acceleration of the retirements of older aircraft marks a positive contribution to the aviation industry’s environmental commitments. “The fleet that we will be operating in 2021, 2022, and beyond will be much more efficient and sustainable than the fleet that was in place in 2019,” he said. For the recycling market and the used serviceable materials (USM) market, however, the higher volume of aircraft retirements marks a changed dynamic.

Under normal market conditions, retired commercial jets represent an excellent source of USM. “Someone will buy an aircraft to recycle if it makes economic sense, meaning if there is a market to sell the material that will come off the decommissioned aircraft,” explained Chris Markou, head of operational cost management at IATA. “The recycling market—aircraft disassembled for parting out and reuse of components—may decrease due to lower demand for spare parts as many airlines operate smaller fleets, therefore they have excess parts inventories in their warehouses before they need to go out to the market to get parts. Excess inventories will be used first before getting into aircraft part-outs,” he told AIN.

Based on IATA analysis, Covid is driving up the inventory of components and parts, with the market for used surplus material expected to grow to $7.9 billion by 2022.

Since March 2019 demand for USM dropped significantly, though Lufthansa Technik has continued its strategy to maximize the quota of USM in its work, said La Banca. However due to the overall demand reduction, the absolute numbers went down, he confirmed. “Especially in the engine sector the demand for certain engine types disappeared completely as airlines have been trying to avoid major overhaul events and are performing only the necessary minor events on-wing or during short shop visits,” he said. Also, some widebody aircraft types might never return to service and, therefore, their supply potential might not be relevant at all for the USM market, he explained. Nevertheless, despite the current slump in demand, he believes airlines and MROs will need the contributions from USM “in order to recover faster.”

Meanwhile, the aircraft recycling ecosystem is working to develop new solutions to increase the recyclability level of aircraft above the current 90 percent. Carbon fiber-reinforced polymer composites that appear in modern commercial airframes have proved a challenge to recycle and reuse, Lecer said.

OEMs have invested in initiatives to improve the recycling process for composites for many years. “Boeing has conducted extensive work on the use and recycling of carbon composite material and we strive for the capability to recycle as many materials as possible for use in other applications,” a spokesperson for the U.S. aircraft manufacturer told AIN. “We worked with two business partners in May 2018 to conduct the world’s first dismantling of a composite fuselage airplane—one of the first-built 787s.” 

Another example of this circular economy, he said, appears in the company’s partnership with UK-based ELG Carbon Fibre. Boeing provides about one million pounds a year of excess carbon composite fiber from its manufacturing processes to ELG, which recycles the material and sells it to other manufacturers that make car parts, computer laptop cases, and wind turbine blades. “As part of our strategy, we consider the full lifecycle of our airplanes—from design and assembly to in-service operation and end-of-service retirement,” he concluded.