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Old planes get stripped for parts while airlines wait on new jets

COOLIDGE, Arizona – From engines to landing gear, the hunt is on for aircraft parts as airlines prepare their jets for swarms of summer travelers, with new planes from Boeing
and Airbus still in short supply.

The search for parts leads some aircraft owners here, where older, retired planes are stripped for parts that will be prepared to fly on other planes or repurposed altogether. Some parts can be turned into high-end furniture, like $42,000 desks. What’s left can be crushed into scrap and melted down.

Until they’re picked apart, the planes are stored in arid climates, like the Arizona desert, to avoid damaging weather and humidity.

The used-parts business was worth about $3 billion to $5 billion before the pandemic, according to Mike Stengel, a principal at AeroDynamic Advisory. It’s now riding a boom in global aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul, an industry that is set to expand 22% this year to $94 billion, consulting firm Oliver Wyman estimated in a report in February.

The current demand for aircraft parts is the result of the industry’s deep demand swings resulting from the Covid pandemic. In an effort to cut costs when demand collapsed amid travel restrictions, airlines raced to retire planes, only to need aircraft later when demand returned. Carriers also deferred maintenance and prioritized using engines with more time left on them.

Meanwhile, Boeing and Airbus are still trying to stabilize their supply chains and train workers after thousands left the industry during the pandemic’s slump.

One challenge is locating feedstock of aircraft. Travel demand is recovering — the International Air Transport Association last week said global air traffic is nearly 85% recovered to 2019 levels. In the U.S. it’s already past that point.

With deliveries of new jets behind schedule, airlines are holding onto planes longer, repairing or overhauling them, adding to demand for parts and labor.

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