He had arrived at this small, remote airport, about 250 kilometers west of Barcelona, a few months earlier. Its operator, Atlas Air of New York, had parked it there due to lack of demand in the cargo sector – until the coronavirus pandemic occurred and turned the world upside down.
Lleida-Alguaire, and other industrial airports like this one, is the place where the planes that have been decommissioned are waiting in pre-trial detention. For some, like this 747, there will be a reprieve. For others, it’s Death Row.
The Boeing 737 Max has been immobilized for over a year now, but the plane was still out of the assembly line in the summer of 2019.
With hundreds of undelivered planes piling up and space in its facilities starting to run out, the American manufacturer has transformed one of the employee parking lots at its Paine Field facility near Seattle into a temporary depot. planes.
Boeing 737 MAX aircraft are stored in employee parking lots near Boeing Field on June 27, 2019.
Stephen Brashear / Getty Images North America / Getty Images
For those already delivered to airlines around the world, the solution was less obvious.
There was an urgent need to find alternative storage places for them.
Where Europe keeps its 737 Max
One of Icelandair’s 737 Max.
It is at this stage that remote industrial airports come to the rescue.
In Europe, Lleida-Alguaire is the airport that currently maintains the largest number of Boeing 737 MAX aircraft in stock.
Considered a white elephant since its inauguration in 2010, the lack of regular commercial traffic (before the current crisis, it handled a few regular flights per week, plus occasional charter) offered this small airport a chance to specialize a little . known but essential segment of the aerospace industry.
Two Nordic companies – Norwegian and Icelandair – have sent their MAX fleets to be stored at Alguaire, a total of 10 new brilliant aircraft. Some of them literally left the factory: they just had time to record a few chargeable flights before being immobilized.
This is where the analogy ends with parking.
Planes that are temporarily stored but are scheduled to return to service follow an intense daily program to protect and preserve them for the day they are due to resume flight.
There are careful processes to avoid corrosion and to ensure that all systems remain in perfect working order.
Motors, always particularly sensitive equipment, are subject to special attention and are constantly monitored.
Humidity is an enemy, with sensors in different locations that take measurements and transmit them to engineers in real time.
“We aim to keep humidity below 40%. We use dehumidification bags and specialized devices that suck in moisture from the air, ”explains Miguel Martín, technical director of Servitec Aircraft Maintenance, the firm that deals with MAXs stationed in Lleida. Alguaire.
This time in life
As owners of classic cars are well aware, engines must be started from time to time – and the same goes for airplanes after they have been idle for a while.
“Not all planes need it. It really depends on the program they’re on, but, yes, we also start the engines and run them for a while to make sure when they’re called up. flying again everything works. “
This is something that all visitors to Alguaire will not be able to do, as this airport also serves as a termination point for old aircraft that are retired from service.
In fact, many of these devices are still perfectly airworthy. What is happening is that they have reached the point of their operational life where it is no longer economical to invest in their maintenance. In fact, the parts and spares they contain are worth more than the plane as a whole.
It’s sad to see the mighty Queen of the Skies, the Boeing 747 Jumbo, broken down and turned into scrap, but that’s exactly what’s going on in Alguaire.
The rupture of an aircraft is a specialized process.
Once the decision to remove an aircraft has been made, an inventory of all its parts and spare parts is drawn up. Many of them will eventually find their way to other planes.
The plane is then flown to an industrial airport, such as Lleida-Alguaire or Teruel, in Spain, Tarbes in France or Victorville, in California. There it is inspected and tested before being disassembled.
The first elements to move are mobile elements such as fire extinguishers or ramps. Fluids, oils and other chemicals are also eliminated. A very specific protocol must be followed to avoid any environmental or security risk.
Engines are usually the most valuable item. Once the pods are removed, the engine itself is completely disassembled, leaving the internal mechanisms intact.
“Death of the plane”
This cockpit will no longer be able to accommodate pilots.
With the engines gone, it’s the turn of the panels, which protect key areas of the plane. The structure is laid bare so that technicians can access the most internal systems of aircraft and recover the parts of interest.
“When we cut the power, it is the official death of the plane, there is no possible return”, explains Miguel Martín de Servitec, before adding that on an Airbus A330 being dismantled, they managed to extract more than 4,600 different coins.
Each item that is removed from the aircraft is cataloged, cleaned and processed so that the owners of the aircraft can take them where they are needed.
Visitors to the airport can see how carefully different parts are stacked all around the aircraft as it undergoes this classification process.
If the aircraft is owned by an airline with a larger fleet of the same type, it can use these spare parts internally, but very often this is not the case. There are companies that specialize in purchasing end-of-life aircraft for the purpose of dismantling them and selling their parts and spare parts in what is called the aftermarket – where the spare parts and equipment are exchanged.
In most cases, these parts cannot go directly to another plane, because by the time they are struck from the plane, they become technically unusable (even if they are in perfect condition). They must be transferred to an authorized repair workshop to undergo a new certification.
Even if produced in series, components of a specific type are not always the same. Some of them have experienced a certain degree of customization at the request of operators and manufacturers often also introduce small modifications. This is why each part must be identifiable individually.
Each part that enters an airplane must be traceable, explain Alex Duran and Jasin Kolar, co-founders of Nexspares, a Zurich-based consultancy that helps airlines plan their spare parts supply strategy. There must always be a written record.
Once the cell has been removed from all valuables, it is literally cut for scrap.