Flight Plan

Clean and green: Shopping for second-hand plane parts

Ashwini Phadnis | Updated on November 10, 2020 Published on November 10, 2020

Recovery of parts from old planes   -  iStockphoto

Recycling of aircraft is a robust industry involving over 100 aviation disassembly and recycling companies around the world. It also promotes sustainable manufacturing. Ashwini Phadnis reports

With recycling being the new mantra, can the aviation industry be far behind? No, as a civil aircraft can bring as much economic benefit to its owners when it is retired as it does during the days it is busy flying people and cargo around the world.

For example, dismantling a plane can provide up to 6,000 parts. Patrick Lecer, CEO of TARMAC Aerosave, says that more than 90 per cent of an aircraft’s parts can be recycled. TARMAC Aerosave is a subsidiary of Airbus, Safran Aircraft Engines and Suez, which focuses on the entire life cycle management of an aircraft. It has recycled 160 aircraft and 150 engines since its inception in 2007.

Recycling of aircraft is a robust industry that has over 100 aviation disassembly and recycling companies around the world, which dismantle airplanes for parts and material recycling.

According to Salil Gupte, President, Boeing India, about 600 airplanes a year were being recycled before Covid-19.

Besides aircraft that are retired, there is “an unknown but low number of other aircraft that are abandoned or sent to graveyards. Airlines, lessors and banks typically arrange for decommissioning of their aircraft. Owners typically do this when the airplane has reached its end of useful life and maintenance is no longer economical,” Gupte says.

“The aircraft parts are resold to operators for their in-service fleets under strict regulations enforced by the US Federal Aviation Administration and the European Aviation Safety Agency,” Gupte adds.

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Four basic steps

According to Lecer, an aircraft is made of several materials. “Our job is to sort out each kind of material: metals, textiles, plastics, wires and liquids. We also take care of the segregation of dangerous and non-dangerous waste before sorting out each sub-category of waste,” Lecer says.

There are four basic steps at play in recycling an aircraft’s parts. The first step involves dismantling the components. The company responsible for the recycling takes care of the parts for its clients before transferring the ownership. “If the client wants to keep certain high-value parts, we remove and store them,” says Lecer.

Next comes sorting out all the material types and dismantling the cabin. Then the process of cutting the airframe, wings, etc., is followed and the removed and cuts parts, once segregated, are sent to dedicated recycling centres.

On average, an aircraft is sent for product recycling after around 15 years of service. This typically happens if the aircraft has reached the end of its economic life or if the owner does not find a customer for the aircraft, thus preferring to sell its parts. “It is mostly a matter of offer and demand (value of the asset) between the market of used spare parts and an airline’s operations,” explains Lecer.

Boeing treats recycling aircraft as a part of its business and also as a contributor to a healthy environment. Hence, as a part of its efforts to improve sustainable manufacturing, Boeing provides excess carbon fibre material from the airplane assembly process to a recycler based in the UK.

“This first-of-its-kind partnership with ELG Carbon Fibre Ltd prevents about 1 million pounds of waste a year from going to landfills. That represents the majority of our excess composite material from all 10 of our US manufacturing sites and our composite facilities in Winnipeg and Melbourne,” Gupte says. In particular, Boeing works with partners accredited by the Aircraft Fleet Recycling Association on disassembly projects to ensure that safety and environmentally best practices are followed.

However, it is difficult to figure out which is the cheapest and most expensive part of an aircraft that is recycled. Typically, the most expensive parts are the engines as they can make another aircraft fly again, followed by landing gears.

Why recycle?

Ashwani Khanna, a professional engaged in the aircraft recovery business, says that an aircraft is like a car and just as when a car gets very old it gets more expensive to maintain and run, so it is with an aircraft. If the tyres, wheel assembly and the breaking systems are good, they can be reused. In the same way, there are certain control systems, for example; when the pilot moves something in the cockpit, some other thing on the wing or tail moves. They are all connected through cables, through hydraulic pipes, etc. All these are taken out as these are useful components.

“Whenever you retire an aircraft, all the documents related to the aircraft are available to the buyer to go through and see how many components have still not reached end of life. On this basis, there are people who put a value to the aircraft, more commonly known as salvage value,” Khanna says. Once they know there are many components that have good useful life they will be willing to pay more than what they will pay for the metal of the aircraft.

When a part is recycled there are certification requirements that have to be met before it can be used again. Parts can be reused in the aerospace industry after recertification by the aviation authorities and also used for “upcycling.” However, the refurbished parts must meet strict regulatory requirements of the FAA, EASA and other agencies.

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Published on November 10, 2020
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