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Old Commercial Jets: Reuse, Recycle, Dispose

by Pauly Penny

What do you do if you operate a commercial airline and one quarter of your fleet is no longer required? Idle planes do not make money. At the same time, you don’t want to get rid of aircraft you may need in the future. Well, it turns out that old commercial jets may be stored for a while, but if long-term storage turns into a money pit, airliners send their old planes to dismantling centers.

When it comes to commercial airliners, there are three options for dismantling: reusing parts, recycling unusable materials, and disposal. Dismantling an unused jet typically results in all three. That way, as little material as possible actually ends up in a landfill.

One Quarter of the Fleet Idled

Upwards of 60% of all commercial aircraft were idled during the height of the COVID pandemic. Thankfully, that number has been reduced to about 25% today. Still, commercial airlines really don’t want 25% of their fleets stuck in long-term storage. Storage costs money and planes have to be maintained. So if it looks like some planes are destined to never fly again, they go to be dismantled.

Parting Out Planes

Your typical dismantling operation starts by removing any and all parts that can be reused. Dismantlers are not fussy. Any part that has not sustained significant damage and can be refurbished to meet aviation standards is harvested. Dismantlers refurbish the parts and sell them to airlines.

Everything from tires to instrument panels is up for grabs. Once all valuable parts have been taken, the dismantler turns to recycling. All sorts of metal and glass can be recycled. So can cabin fabrics, interior furnishings, and virtually anything made of wood.

Recycling the Plastics

The one thing that gives dismantlers trouble is plastic. These days, cabin interiors are often made with a mixture of traditional plastics and composites, like carbon fiber. There is no viable means of recycling these materials. They typically end up being landfilled.

Seraphim Plastics is a Tennessee company that recycles commercial plastic waste. They say that airline plastics could theoretically be recycled but doing so is not cost-effective. Separating plastics from contaminants requires too much time, effort, and money. It is easier and cheaper for manufacturers to buy new plastic.

There is hope that a cost-effective means of recycling carbon fiber will be found in the coming years. Carbon fiber is one of the chief manufacturing materials in aerospace today. Everything from fuselage panels to cabin parts are ideal candidates for carbon fiber because the material is tough yet lightweight.

At any rate, removing all of the salvageable parts and recyclable materials essentially leaves the dismantler with an aircraft shell and non-recyclable plastics. The plastics go to a landfill while the shell is reduced to scrap metal.

Most of the Plane Is Recovered

Dismantling unused commercial aircraft has been turned into a science. After decades of doing it, dismantlers have developed a process by which most of a plane is recovered in some way, shape, or form.

Reusable parts are refurbished and installed in other planes. Recyclable materials are recovered and sold to the highest bidder. In the end, only a small portion of what goes into a commercial airliner ends up in a landfill.

How aging aircraft are disposed of is proof that, at least in some industries, we can probably recycle and reuse more than we do. Perhaps the airline industry could teach other industries a lesson or two. In the meantime, dismantlers are gearing up for a new influx of planes as commercial airlines ramp up their disposal efforts.