A New Aircraft Recycling Model Taking Flight

by Sven Daniel Koechler

Sven Daniel Koechler PhD, is General Manager of North American Aerospace Industries Corporation (NAAI), a provider of sustainable, end-to-end aircraft recycling solutions.

With over 14,000 passenger aircraft grounded due to the pandemic and a large percentage facing decommission, the aviation industry is exploring sustainable aircraft recycling business models that offer environmental preservation and deliver a higher return on investment to owners and operators.

Deserts, airports and parking lots around the world are now overflowing with aircraft grounded due to the pandemic. In April 2020, when air transportation was barely perceptible, Cirium, the London-based aviation data and analytics company, estimated that over 14,000 passenger aircraft or two-thirds of the global fleet had been grounded due to the pandemic; a dramatic increase from 1,900 airplanes counted in January 2020.

Some of these airplanes will take flight again, or perhaps already have, but others will meet a fate that older, retired aircraft have for years. In the worst-case scenario, they will be parked in what are aptly dubbed “aircraft boneyards” where they will reach their end of life. In the best-case scenario, they will be dismantled with certain parts harvested for resale and other components slated for recycling.

Just how this process of managing decommissioned aircraft is handled is what the aviation industry is currently scrutinizing, especially given the number of planes that may face this outcome. On the side of preserving the environment, delivering a higher return on investment to aircraft owners and operators, and addressing social needs are new sustainable aircraft recycling business models. Their mission is a departure from how the industry has traditionally recycled aircraft and offers a much higher value proposition.

Optimizing the Aircraft Recycling Process

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) reports that conventional practices saw approximately 85% of an aircraft recycled. Of that percentage, an estimated 40-50% of the aircraft’s weight is returned to the aircraft parts market and 15% ends up in landfills with negative impacts on the environment.

NAAI aims to recycle 100% of aircraft to protect the environment and meet social needs.

In the first phase of aircraft recycling, the removal of parts intended for re-use are removed based on EASA PART 145 processes. Of these parts, engines, landing gear and aircraft electronics are the most valued, and their harvesting is a high priority.

The second phase of aircraft recycling, at which point the aircraft no longer has its certification and aviation regulations no longer apply, is left to the recyclers and the aircraft owners on what processes will be followed. In addition to disassembling of the aircraft; its parts and components, there is rough and precise material cutting, shredding, and separation of various material compositions.

In both phases, managing this process of harvesting parts, high value components and precious metals found in aircraft avionics and electronics (e.g., aluminum-lithium) is not without its challenges. Aluminum-lithium, for example, can create an explosion hazard when re-melted and there are hazards associated with materials, including fuel left in tanks, hydraulic oil, waste water, Halon 1301 found in fire extinguishers and, in the case of aircraft manufactured before the 1980s, depleted uranium used for ballast weight.  Materials like cabin carpets, seat cushions, ceiling and wall panels, all of which contain embedded flame retardants, cannot be recycled, but still must be managed in accordance with occupational health and safety laws and standards.

Separating differently materials such as aluminum alloys, stainless steel and titanium also requires special processes. Similarly, composite materials (i.e., carbon reinforced polymers) found in aircraft both which are difficult to categorize, require special handling and alloys such as nickel and cobalt require specialized equipment.

A New Model Gets Its Wings

For years, these challenges and an industry mindset allowed aircraft recycling to continue as status quo. Now, however, there is a growing movement for the industry to adopt a more sustainable aircraft recycling model that:

  • Strives to protect the environment from the toxins that accumulate when incomplete recycling leaves aircraft remnants to rust and corrode, and then seep into landfill grounds, ground water supplies and the air;
  • Aims to recycle 100% of an aircraft for the good of the industry and also to meet social needs; and
  • Provides the highest return on investment to the aircraft owner and/or operator.

This movement already had roots growing two decades ago. For example, in 2005, Airbus launched its PAMELA project to demonstrate that up to 85% of an aircraft’s components could be recovered and repurposed at a time when the industry standard was just 60%. On the OEM side, other initiatives to improve aircraft recycling came from Boeing and Bombardier.

For their part, the airlines have largely focused on sustainability as it involves their day to day operations. Delta, United Airlines, Jet Blue and countless other airlines have sustainability programs through which they are implementing measures such as recycling all bottles and cans used on their flights and repurposing old crew uniforms to be used to create clothing for the needy. Last October, United announced a $40 million investment commitment to accelerate the development of sustainable aviation fuels and other de-carbonized technologies.

All of these noble measures contribute greatly to a more sustainable aviation industry but are unrelated to aircraft recycling. Enhancing the aircraft recycling model has largely been left to the recyclers. They are now creating business models that expand their roles from aircraft dismantlers, parts harvesters and maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) operators to environmentalists and champions of social causes such as providing clothing and shoes for those living in underserved communities, using reclaimed aircraft metals and materials to build tiny houses for the homeless, and reducing the environmental impacts of a end-of-life aircraft by virtually using up the entire plane.

A Financially Sound Model

Beyond the usual return on investment aircraft owners gain when a decommissioned aircraft is properly managed and “recycled,” there are other financial benefits to an aircraft recycling model that swiftly manages an end-of-life aircraft.

Parking fees for grounded planes can add up quickly. While they vary from country to country and locations (i.e., airports, parking lots, deserts which are favored for their hot, dry climates), costs can add up.  Mark Martin, founder of Martin Consulting, estimated that a six-month grounding of a fleet of more than 250 jets could incur parking costs in the area of $12.5 million. Parking fees of $2,000 a day and higher per jet are not unusual.

Industry data suggests that aircraft disposal costs in the area of approximately 10% of the aircraft’s purchase price or 1% of its total life cycle costs, but these figures can vary depending on the disposal and recycling processes involved. What we can be certain of, however, is that if 100% of an aircraft is recycled, there are more opportunities for a higher return on investment – not just in the usual parts and high value items, but in the 15% of the aircraft that was left unclaimed, but can be repurposed both for commercial and social gains.

This would depend on the application of best practices across the board in areas such as: quicker placement of aircraft in hangars where they would not be subject to the elements, more efficient removal of high value components and parts so they could be promptly placed back on the market when demand would be highest and savings over new parts greatest, accurate composite material labeling, and innovative up-cycling of interior aircraft materials such as aircraft seats and overhead bins to create new consumer industrial products and new revenue streams.

In sum, a more holistic, sustainable aircraft recycling model offers benefits across the board to aircraft owners (leasing companies and/or operators) looking to maximize their ROI, as well as airlines, MROs and fixed base operators (FBOs), all seeking quality parts at lower costs, and all the rest of us concerned about protecting our environment and helping address important social causes.

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