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What Happens to Airplanes Once They're Taken Out of Service?

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To the average consumer, aircraft do not seem to change much over the years. You have probably flown in an airplane that still had ashtrays for smokers, even though smoking has been banned aboard commercial flights since 1988. Yet, planes do change, and they must change. With the lifespan of a commercial aircraft between 20 and 30 years (due to metal fatigue), hundreds of planes must be retired each year. In case you have not noticed, that is a lot of material to have to put somewhere. With so much concern centered around the environment in recent years, what happens to these giant hunks of metal and circuit boards once they are taken out of commission? Here are a few uses for old airplanes.

Desert Storage

No matter who owns the aircraft, be it an airline or a private individual, aircraft are expensive investments. Small, single-engine aircraft start at around $15,000, while larger intercontinental airplanes run into the hundreds of millions. You also have to add storage, fuel and maintenance costs, which are exponentially higher than those of an automobile.

With so much invested, especially as the size increases, you want to store an aircraft safely. If you have traveled through the southwestern portion of the United States, you have likely seen an aircraft storage yard or two. Humidity is the enemy of preservation, and the desert not only provides plenty of dry air but also plenty of space.

Airplane Recycling

Airplane metal fatigue may make the plane unsafe for flight, but that does not mean the entire craft is beyond reuse. When an aircraft is retired, it can be parked in a giant desert yard while it awaits the process of aircraft recycling. During the recycling process, it will be harvested for parts that are still useful. This could include everything from the engine to the interior. Even the metal is recyclable. Some recycling companies estimate that up to 85% of planes can be recycled and used elsewhere.

The Secondary Market

Can an airplane that has been retired be resold to a private buyer? The answer is an easy yes.
Not all retired aircraft have lived out their estimated 165,000 hours of flight time. There are many reasons an aircraft may become grounded. It could be that newer aircraft have better fuel economy or that the owner needs to upsize or downsize.

There are plenty of aircraft that are flight-worthy yet grounded, and they are eligible to be sold to the highest bidder.

It is also worth mentioning that not all countries have the same aviation regulations. An aircraft that an airline may find is no longer suitable for their needs in the United States may easily be maintained and flown in another country. There is no universal aviation standard for what types of parts an aircraft must be fitted with.

Other Uses

With a cabin sturdy enough to handle the pressure of air travel, an airplane is fit for more than a ride in the sky. Creative owners have converted aircraft bodies into hotel rooms, bed and breakfast boutiques and even restaurants. In Colorado Springs, Colorado, diners at the aptly-named Airplane Restaurant can actually eat inside a decommissioned Boeing KC-97 tanker.

You can also find many iconic aircraft models, whether used for transporting civilians during an earlier decade or used during times of war, in museums throughout the world, including at the Pima Air and Space Museum in Tucson, Arizona.

Many things can happen with an aircraft once it has been decommissioned. These giants of the sky can't simply be stripped and crushed like cars for metal recycling. Their large bodies are still home to costly and valuable parts. While there may be thousands of aircraft flying the skies daily, you can be sure that they will be replaced by thousands of newer aircraft in another thirty years, which means thousands more will inhabit those desert yards throughout the world.

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