Airliners in the Desert: How Planes Are Put in Storage

Jul 4, 2019

This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.

There are airports around the world where hundreds of aircraft sit quietly, wind whistling over wings that have safely carried passengers over millions of miles.

Airliners fly in from around the world to airports in places like Marana, Arizona; Victorville, California; and Teruel, Spain. Some planes will spend just a short time basking in the sun before heading back into service for another airline, while others may have reached the point where required extensive and expensive maintenance doesn’t make financial sense for their owners.

Those planes won’t leave the ground again, will be stripped of valuable parts, and will ultimately be broken up for scrap. But what happens to airplanes between the moment they land at a storage facility, sometimes known a bit crudely as a boneyard, and the moment they fly out, or get broken up for parts?

This photo taken on March 28, 2019 shows planes from various airlines in storage at a 'Boneyard' facility beside the Southern California Logistics Airport in Victorville, California. - Some of the planes will be returned to service while others will be dismantled and scrapped at the facility. California with its dry desert climate is a perfect place to store surplus aircraft. (Photo by Mark RALSTON / AFP) (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
Planes from various airlines in storage at the Southern California Logistics Airport in Victorville, California. (Photo by MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)

“From an owner’s standpoint, the storage of aircraft is the last thing they want to do,” explained David Querio, president of Ascent Aviation Services, in an interview with TPG. “The only time you would hopefully have to have an aircraft on the ground or if it was transitioning at the end of the lease from one operator to a new operator.”

Querio said that there are many other factors that could lead to the decision to send an aircraft to his facility, perhaps flying for the last time: “Rising fuel costs certainly play a part in the decision to store a less fuel-efficient aircraft, and the state of the economy is a huge driver of whether or not people can afford to travel and take vacations.”

Based at Pinal Air Park in Marana, northwest of Tucson, Arizona, Ascent is one of the world’s largest aircraft storage, maintenance and reclamation operators.

“If an aircraft has marketability (…) or if the airline intends to redeploy the aircraft, it will be placed into a storage program,” Querio said.

Those storage procedures are defined in an operational manual such as the Airbus Aircraft Maintenance Document, whose chapter 10 is titled covering “Parking, Mooring, Storage & Return to Service.” In case you’re wondering, “mooring” describes what needs to be done to secure an aircraft on the ground, in high winds.

According to Christoph Maier, Customer Management Maintenance Programmes & Services, Airbus splits up its storage program into “two times two” procedures. There are two parking procedures, up to one month and beyond one month, and two storage procedures, up to one year and beyond one year.

“The main difference is not really the length, but it’s the question of whether the aircraft is in flight-ready condition, or not,” Maier said. “If an aircraft is to be in flight-ready condition, it will always be in parking mode. That typically means that you have to do a lot of maintenance during the [parking] time on the aircraft.”

But, “if you say, ‘I’m not going to use this aircraft for a while,’ you would have to put this aircraft into storage mode,” he added.

At Ascent, inducting a plane into storage can take up to two weeks, depending on the size of the plane and the specific requirements of the airline’s or manufacturer’s program. Sometimes the engines, which are the most valuable parts of the plane, aren’t owned by the airline, but leased. So, they could be removed and returned to their owner.

Removing an aircraft's jet engine (Photo courtesy of Ascent Aviation Services)
Removing an aircraft’s jet engine (Photo courtesy of Ascent Aviation Services)

If the engines stay on the plane, “you may or may not preserve (them), which involves draining the normal oil and placing preservative oil inside the tanks,” Querio explained. “You will totally secure the aircraft. You’ll deactivate certain systems, cover all the openings, cover all windows, and cover the landing gear and tires to protect them from the elements.”

a row of noses of American Airlines McDonnell Douglas DC-10s parked after retirement in to desert-storage, Arizona, USA. (Photo by: Images Group via Getty Images)
A row of American Airlines McDonnell Douglas DC-10s parked and covered up after retirement in Arizona (Photo by Images Group via Getty Images)

Those covers are made from special materials designed to repel the heat at places like Pinal. The low humidity of the American Southwest’s high desert is what makes it attractive for aircraft storage, despite the heat: corrosion isn’t the problem it would be in more humid climates. And with the wide-open spaces of the Southwest, there’s usually room for lots of planes at these facilities. Right now, Ascent has between 150 and 200 aircraft, with “capacity for 400 and up to 500 if it’s the right mix of aircraft,” Querio said. In Europe, Tarmac Aerosave — a joint venture between Airbus, Safran and Suez — has room for more than 300 aircraft in Spain and France.

Depending on the owner’s requirements, regular maintenance on a plane in storage could include rolling the plane so that the tires don’t get flat-spotted, or opening the cabin doors to circulate the stale air.

“For storage, you have quite a lot to do in the beginning, and then you can keep the aircraft with very, very little maintenance during the [storage] time. You don’t need to regularly power up the aircraft electrics, hydraulics and pneumatics,” Maier said.

But while maintenance needs might be low when a plane is in storage, there’s still a clock ticking, at least for Airbus planes.

“Currently we have a requirement, if an aircraft has been in storage for two years, you need to bring it back to operability and do a short non-revenue flight, and then you can put it back into storage for another two years,” Maier said.

That process can be time-consuming and expensive, and instead, an aircraft owner may decide to recycle the plane.

“An aircraft needs to be properly disposed of in order to both retain the most potential in resale value of the parts and also for ecological reasons,” Maier said. “There is a lot of worth in an aircraft, even in its second life.”

But Maier explained it’s important to show that parts taken from aircraft are airworthy, with a trackable history of authenticity.

“The most convenient form to do that is that they are installed on an airworthy aircraft. At the moment that you have an aircraft that is deregistered, then it’s much more complicated to resell the part and install it on another aircraft.”

Workers removing parts from a plane to be scrapped (Photo courtesy of Ascent Aviation Services)
Workers removing parts from a plane to be scrapped (Photo courtesy of Ascent Aviation Services)

And although it might be jarring to watch a retired plane meet its end in the jaws of a metal-mashing monster, Querio is philosophical about it: “You know there’s a bit of melancholy there. But you realize that like the human life, it’s part of the life cycle and it’s out with the old and in with the new. When you’re crunching aircraft, that means that there’s new technology, better and newer products and new innovations are out there in the industry.”

Featured image by Zach Honig/TPG

Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card

Earn 90,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Offer ends 8/3/2022.

With Status Boost™, earn 10,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $25,000 in purchases on your Card in a calendar year, up to two times per year getting you closer to Medallion Status. Earn 3X Miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels, 2X Miles at restaurants and at U.S. supermarkets and earn 1X Mile on all other eligible purchases. Terms Apply.

Apply Now
More Things to Know
  • Limited Time Offer: Earn 90,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Offer ends 8/3/2022.
  • Earn up to 20,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) with Status Boost® per year. After you spend $25,000 in purchases on your Card in a calendar year, you can earn 10,000 MQMs up to two times per year, getting you closer to Medallion® Status. MQMs are used to determine Medallion® Status and are different than miles you earn toward flights.
  • Earn 3X Miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels.
  • Earn 2X Miles at restaurants worldwide including takeout and delivery in the U.S., and at U.S. supermarkets.
  • Earn 1X Miles on all other eligible purchases.
  • Receive a Domestic Main Cabin round-trip companion certificate each year upon renewal of your Card. Payment of the government imposed taxes and fees of no more than $80 for roundtrip domestic flights (for itineraries with up to four flight segments) is required. Baggage charges and other restrictions apply. See terms and conditions for details.
  • Enjoy your first checked bag free on Delta flights.
  • Fee Credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck® after you apply through any Authorized Enrollment Provider. If approved for Global Entry, at no additional charge, you will receive access to TSA PreCheck.
  • Enjoy an exclusive rate of $39 per person per visit to enter the Delta Sky Club® for you and up to two guests when traveling on a Delta flight.
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees.
  • $250 Annual Fee.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees
Regular APR
17.24%-26.24% Variable
Annual Fee
Balance Transfer Fee
Recommended Credit
Terms and restrictions apply. See rates & fees.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.