The Unemployment Line

Where airliners go when they’re out of work.

AL SHARIF PULLS HIS ASHTRAY-SCENTED SEDAN over to the side of the ramp and parks. “I call this place Alcoa,” he says, blowing a jet of smoke through his open window and into the mild desert air.

Just beyond the car lies a hobbled early-series Boeing 737; its landing gear struts have been stripped off, and it’s been left to totter ignobly on its belly. Further on sits a fuselage from some wide-body, neatly scythed up like a piece of summer sausage, with seats and overhead baggage bins still in place.

A piece of machinery that would look at home sinking trenches clatters up to the fuselage of a DC-10 and, with a mechanical claw, begins tearing into the smooth skin as easily as if it were made of foil. Nearby, another machine, with an arm wielding what appears to be the world’s largest bolt cutters, works over a portion of a wing. As we watch, the machine snaps through a stringer, producing a loud thock. Sharif chuckles and turns to me. “Pretty cool, huh?” he asks.

For most of the great airplanes, this is the way the world ends, not with a bang (thankfully) but routinely, beneath chromium blue desert skies.

Watching the scene, I’m reminded of the time I stood on the Las Vegas strip to toast the destruction of the landmark Sands Hotel & Casino. As the demolition charges rippled through the building like a string a firecrackers, another of the grand dames of the Vegas skyline vanished from the earth, the victim of obsolescence and changing tastes.

Commercial jetliners occupy a similarly rarefied niche. Jets are among our most enduring icons of progress, modernity, and escape. Yet despite the meanings we have attached to them, they, like casinos, are also just simple commodities. The jets arrayed before us have had every last ounce of value wrung out of them, and all they’re worth now is the scrap value of their aluminum hulls (about $30,000 for a 747, Sharif tells me).

This is one solution to “excess fleet capacity”—an industry euphemism for too many seats for too few butts—and it’s what I’ve come to see on this pleasant spring morning at the Evergreen Air Center: what happens when airlines cut flights by 20 percent, the result of an economic slowdown and the kick in the industry’s groin delivered on September 11.

Set amid the gray-green creosote and mesquite 50 miles northeast of Tucson, Evergreen is one of a handful of dry-climate MROs—maintenance/repair organizations—qualified to perform heavy maintenance on big jets. Sharif is Evergreen’s manager of heavy maintenance sales. Lately, though, maintenance has been on the wane, while the centers’ other functions—storage and scrapping—have spiked. According to Airclaims, a London-based group that keeps tabs on the world airliner population, the number of jets in storage has increased from around 1,300 on September 10 to 1,986 as of press time. At Evergreen, the population of parked airplanes has increased from a pre-attack total of 130 to almost 170 today, with another 20 expected before things level off. The other desert storage centers—in Mojave and Victorville, California, and in Roswell, New Mexico—have experienced similar upsurges.

I feel fortunate just to be here. None of the other MROs would grant me access, and the officials with whom I spoke were maddeningly skittish. After all, their biggest clients are major airlines, who are understandably anxious about the public’s perceptions of their safety and stability, so any discussion of parked or—heaven forbid!—old jets is decidedly taboo. I’ve been allowed to see this place only on the condition that I not identify any of the airlines whose airplanes I see.

These big jets, far from the bustling ramps at busy airports, seem incongruous here, with their silent engines, foil covers (to keep out birds and dirt), and wrapped tires and windows (to protect against ultraviolet light). Storing an airliner costs from $1,000 a month on up, depending on its size and the amount of attention it needs, says Robert McAndrew, Evergreen’s vice president for marketing. Keeping a 747 in flyable condition runs $5,000 a month, with 15 to 20 percent of that going for parking alone.

Airliners are designed to fly, not sit. Aluminum corrodes, rubber dries out, engines rust, and electronics fry in the heat. Keeping an airliner airworthy requires regular inspections, engine runups, taxi checks, and the cycling of all major systems to ensure pneumatics, hydraulics, and avionics remain in working order. All of these routines are mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration. Airlines may opt to simply park a jet and have it brought back to life when necessary, and of course that option costs less. But McAndrew says long-term parking necessitates a lot of extra maintenance at a later time. “It’s a question of ‘pay me now’ or ‘pay me later,’ ” he says.

McAndrew says his firm houses only about 30 jets whose owners aren’t interested in returning them to service, and points out that Evergreen recently passed on housing 65 727s retired by a major U.S. carrier that had no plans to fly them.

Sometimes, McAndrew says, Evergreen finds itself in the uncomfortable position of nudging owners toward the idea of scrapping their aircraft. He points to a string of 747SPs parked at Evergreen. Right now, the only potential customers for the SP—a short-body, long-wing, long-range variant that has fallen out of favor among airlines—are heads of state, or anyone else with the cash to buy one and convert it into an airborne equivalent of a yacht. “There’s about 30 more SPs out there than there’s a market for,” McAndrew says with a “What are ya gonna do?” shrug. “It comes down to a few thousand dollars a month to store what they think could be a several-million-dollar asset, and right now they’re still willing to take that gamble. It’s when this goes on for six or seven years that you have to start wondering.”

It’s not just old stock that winds up idled. Storage yards have recently seen the arrival of factory-fresh aircraft whose would-be operators either canceled their orders or postponed acceptance until the industry recovers. At the Southern California Logistics Airport in Victorville, I peer through a chain-link fence at 800-series 737s straight from Boeing sitting alongside 600-series 747s recently pulled off the line by United. “They still have the new plane smell,” says airport manager Peter Soderquist.

For all the newer stock at Victorville, though, I also saw a billion beer-cans-in-waiting in the form of old 727s and L-1011s, 150 of which were idled there even before September 11.

According to Airclaims’ data, 727s in storage have nearly doubled in number, from pre-attack levels of 233 to 415 today. Aging British Aerospace VC10s and DC-9s have also been sent into storage as part of the thinning of the herd that often accompanies downturns in the airline industry.

Back at Evergreen, we leave Alcoa behind as Sharif continues the tour of the 1,600-acre center, weaving expertly under wings and around low-hanging engine nacelles. Outside my window, jets of all sizes and descriptions flash past, everything from towering 747s (Evergreen is home to 60 of the monsters, including the ones used by NASA to piggyback space shuttles around) to MD-80s and 737s that seem diminutive in comparison.

We pass a pair of MD-90s, each of which has around 5,000 hours on it—practically brand new by airliner standards. The jets, owned by a leasing corporation, still sport the colors of ProAir, a now-defunct low-fare regional carrier based in the southeastern United States. “They didn’t make it,” Sharif says. “September 11th killed ’em.” We continue on, past a major U.S. carrier’s retired DC-10, whose crazed appearance causes me to do a double take.

“What the—?”

“They’re signatures,” Sharif tells me. Writ large along the airplane’s fuselage are hundreds of signatures—some must be as high as two or three feet. The airline’s employees had them scanned into a computer and turned into stencils, which were then transferred onto the airplane. “That was the last DC-10 they flew,” Sharif says. “I guess they wanted to give it a big sendoff.”

We draw up beside a 300-series 747 that came to Evergreen last year. The airplane, which had spent two years on a ramp in Singapore, illustrates what can happen when aluminum meets salt air. When Evergreen’s mechanics inspected the 10-year-old airframe, they found it so riddled with corrosion it made better sense to cannibalize the airplane for parts than to try repairing the damage. “It’s a shame,” Sharif says. “That plane still had a lot of life left in it.”

With the right care, airliners can soldier on for an amazingly long time. Sharif leads me up inside a 200-series 747 that came to Evergreen for a C check, an inspection it must undergo every two years in which an army of airframe-and-powerplant mechanics spend 5,000 to 6,000 man-hours checking chiefly for corrosion and structural wear and tear. Long retired from its glamour days transporting passengers across the seas, the 25-year-old airframe has been stripped of its seating, carpeting, galleys, and overhead bins, which allows us to see it for what it really is: a vast, pressurized tube.

I follow Sharif up a rickety ladder leading from the main cabin to the flight deck. Technicians test its systems, causing the instruments, running off ground power, to hum. I take in the smell—the same you’d find in any old cockpit: stale sweat, spilled coffee, metal, and oil. I look at the captain’s yoke, its black enamel finish worn down to bare aluminum. The instrument panel has a softball-size attitude indicator and rows of old-school “steam gauge” indicators. There is no “glass”—computerized displays that in more modern cockpits take the place of the older instruments. This 747, so seemingly modern when viewed from the ramp, already belongs to a different era, one in which even the biggest jets came equipped with avionics not much more sophisticated than those found in today’s trainers.

This airplane has spent close to 100,000 hours—11 years—in the air. First it delivered hundreds of thousands of passengers, then it became a freighter, carrying countless tons of cargo. The airline that owns it has decided that the potential usefulness of the 747 is worth the cost of another overhaul. But one day, probably not too far off, someone will decide that another inspection is just not worth the expense. With air traffic—both passenger and freight—slacking off as it has, the date with that beer can manufacturer may be just around the corner.

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