End-of-Life Practices for Aircraft Present Challenges for Greener Aviation

January 28, 2013

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Credit: Frank Kovalchek, CC BY 2.0

Credit: Frank Kovalchek, CC BY 2.0

As I discussed in last week's article about aircraft manufacturing, sustainability efforts in this sector are driven by the need for greater fuel efficiency: “Going green” means designing aircraft that use less fuel, reducing emissions and carbon footprint. However, environmental considerations also enter into decisions around what to do with older aircraft. Should they be retired or refurbished, and how can that be done in an eco-friendly way?

According to research firm Markets and Markets, the global market for refurbishing and conversion of aircraft cabins was $3.04 billion in 2012 and should climb to $4.26 billion by 2017, an annual growth rate of 7.0 percent. The primary geographic markets are North America and Europe, but Asia is growing quickly. A key driver of growth in aircraft refurbishment is that “airlines and business jet owners have undertaken retrofit of their aircraft in a shorter cycle than in the early days of civil aviation.” Particularly important in this market is the overhaul of short-haul planes “to keep the aircraft in line with the goal of fuel reduction and increasing seating capacity” to help maximize revenues.

E-Leather eco-friendly seat covers. Credit: Southwest Airlines.

E-Leather eco-friendly seat covers. Credit: Southwest Airlines.

Aircraft interiors are an important target area for sustainable refurbishment. In 2012, Southwest Airlines introduced a new aircraft interior it calls “Evolve.” The new interior incorporates eco-friendly products such as seat covers, life vest pouches and foam fillers, all designed to to reduce cabin weight by six pounds per seat, saving 635 pounds per aircraft. Across the airline's entire fleet of 372 737-700s, Southwest expects to save more than $10 million annually in fuel costs. The new interior features a lightweight E-Leather seat cover made from natural leather fiber by Irwin Automotive of Pontiac, Mich. The Evolve interior uses a recyclable, carbon-neutral carpet by Interface that is laid in squares, making repairs easier and less wasteful. Southwest says it plans to have its entire 737-700 fleet refurbished with the Evolve interior by the end of 2013.

Repainting of aircraft is a key step in refurbishment, said Mike Van Sicklen of Tejas Aero Services, an aircraft refurbishing company in San Marcos, Texas. Repainting is also a process where environmental protection is important, he told me. “We're pretty strict with what we do,” he said. The company uses a biodegradable paint stripper to remove the old paint. “We do everything inside the building,” he added, which allows them to exercise strict control over the use of chemicals and the collection of wastes. Old paint is collected using special filters and catch-basins and is hauled away by a hazardous-waste company. “There's really nothing hazardous going into the ground or into the environment,” Van Sicklen said.

Preparing a plane for repainting. Courtesy of Tejas Aero Services.

Preparing a plane for repainting. Courtesy of Tejas Aero Services.

Michael Mangeot, communications representative for UPS Airlines, the cargo airline owned by United Parcel Service Inc., told me that the company refurbishes aircraft. He said, “Our existing MD-11 fleet of 38 aircraft were purchased as passenger aircraft from other carriers, some of which were defunct, and converted to cargo configuration. We also converted two of our existing 747-400 fleet. The classic 747, 727 and DC-8 fleets we used to fly were all purchased as used passenger aircraft and converted to cargo configuration, extending their lives by many years.”

In a sense, Mangeot said, “all planes are continually refurbished,” in that “every aircraft is subject to heavy maintenance checks per FAA regulations. At these checks, which take place every few years, aircraft are effectively taken apart, inspected and put back together.”

Recycling Parts: “The Definition of Sustainability”

Mangeot stressed that “Given the high value of aircraft parts, and the fact that some aircraft have literally a million parts on them, recycling parts is the definition of sustainability -- it’s good for the environment and good business, too.” He stated, “There are many aircraft parts classified as 'repairable' and 'expendable' that are removed from aircraft during repairs and routine maintenance cycles that can be refurbished and returned to service.” In addition, “at the end of an aircraft’s life, components are recycled or removed for re-sale, which is another sustainable practice.”

Aircraft recycling yard. Courtesy of Tarmac Aerosave.

Aircraft recycling yard. Courtesy of Tarmac Aerosave.

Aircraft manufacturer Airbus estimates that more than 200 aircraft are retired yearly around the world, and that number is growing. According to Airbus background materials, in 2005 the company became “the first manufacturer to undertake a voluntary approach to develop solutions for aircraft nearing permanent retirement.” This effort took the form of a demonstration project called Process for Advanced Management of End-of-Life of Aircraft (PAMELA-LIFE), a study supported by the European Commission (EC). The study found that as much as 85 percent of an aircraft's components can be “safely and effectively reused, recovered or recycled.” In the 90-ton Airbus A300B4 aircraft used for the study, 75 percent of total weight turned out to be aluminum, a valuable resource that can be recovered and reused. The project “identified a generic methodology for handling all end-of-life aircraft, along with a set of best practices.”

Based on the results of PAMELA-LIFE, Airbus now operates a program for dismantling and recycling its planes at end-of-life through its joint venture with aircraft storage firm Tarmac Aerosave. Airbus planes are decommissioned and dismantled at a dedicated center at Tarbes Airport in France. Full dismantling of an aircraft at the facility takes about three months.

Broad aviation industry efforts are underway to help fleet owners manage end-of-life issues. For example, the Aircraft Fleet Recycling Association (AFRA), headquartered in Washington, D.C., provides detailed sets of guidelines for management and recycling of aircraft parts and components.

Best Time to Retire an Aircraft?

Airlines face a challenge in balancing the environmental performance of their fleets against the considerable capital investment required to purchase aircraft.

The lifetime of a plane can be as long as 30 or 40 years, says UPS's Mangeot. He stated that the average age of UPS's fleet is 14 years. “The range is 25 years for our oldest 757 to just off the line for our newest 767,” he added. “Capital investment is a huge factor” in decisions around retiring and replacing aircraft. He gave me an example of how capital investment, fuel efficiency and environmental performance entered into the equation at one point:

Several years ago, as part of our fleet modernization strategy, which was accelerated by the global recession that left us with more lift than we needed, we retired our classic fleet of older 747s, 727s and DC-8s. Those aircraft were over 30 and in some cases 40 years old. A key factor in retiring them was not only their age, but their operating economics. For example, a two-engine 757 burns far less fuel to carry 15 main deck positions of cargo than a four-engine DC-8 to carry 18 positions. And a two-engine A300 was even better. As a wide body, it can carry 22 positions. So fuel burn did play a factor from a business perspective with environmental benefits.
Sustainability in aircraft manufacturing center mainly on achieving better fuel efficiency, but deciding what to do with older aircraft has environmental implications as well.

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