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Airline crisis stokes boneyard boom

  • Story Highlights
  • Aircraft storage centers are experiencing a period of unprecedented growth
  • Success here signals decline in the aviation industry
  • The boneyards store, maintain and dismantle abandoned aircraft in the desert
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By Emma Clarke
For CNN
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- The carcasses of hundreds of abandoned planes scattered across the arid lands of southwest United States are a stark sign of how much the global airline industry is hurting.

Business is booming at the Evergreen Maintenance Centre in Arizona.

Business is booming at the Evergreen Maintenance Centre in Arizona.

In the U.S., American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Northwest Airlines and United Airlines are all grounding jets to offset high fuel costs and falling demand for seats. Clickair from Spain, Ryanair in the UK and Qantas in Australia also have plans to park some of their fleet.

The resting place for these jetliners are the maintenance and storage centers -- the so-called aircraft boneyards -- that line the deserts of Southern California, Arizona and New Mexico in the United States. And business here is booming.

The Evergreen Maintenance Center in Arizona sprawls across the sun-scorched Sonoran Desert, north-west of Tuscon. Spanning 1,600 acres, the facility holds a 6,800-foot runway, three hangars and maintenance facilities that can handle up to 400 parked aircraft.

This summer alone, 30 jetliners joined the ranks of abandoned planes. The majority of these were narrow-body airplanes from U.S. domestic carriers, including three Boeing 767s surrendered by MAXjet Airways, the all-business carrier that went bankrupt last December.

There are now 165 airliners in storage, says Steve Coffaro, vice president of Evergreen Maintenance Center. But he expects up to 50 more to arrive in the next three to six months.

Mike Potter who oversees operations at another aircraft graveyard in the Mojave Desert north of Los Angeles has brought in 15 this year. And more are expected. "If the airline industry keeps on going in the direction that it is heading, there will be a couple of hundred airplanes here in the next 12 to 18 months," he says. Video Watch CNN Business Traveller in the Mojave Desert. »

Owners of the aircraft, usually leasing companies and banks, prefer the monthly rates at these desert storage centers over the daily rate fees charged by national airports. The desert also provides the perfect environment for aircraft storage: plenty of space to park and dry air to protect the aircrafts' metal frames.

The number of stored aircraft acts as a useful barometer for the health of the airline industry. But so does the measure of what happens to the aircraft once they arrive at the boneyards.

When times are good for global aviation, EMC is busy performing the necessary maintenance work to get planes back in the air under new ownership, usually in developing countries. One year ago, says Coffaro, demand outstripped supply for aircraft from start-up airlines in Russia, Central and South America, and some African countries.

But when demand for second-tier aircraft falls -- and at the same time as U.S. carriers ground their fleet -- the maintenance side of business declines, and storage and disassembly goes up.

Until now, 80 percent of EMC's business has been on airframe maintenance, with 20 percent spread across storage and recycling services. But those percentages could easily switch if the global industry does into decline.

At the moment, Coffaro is optimistic that demand for remodeled aircraft will continue. "It is still up in the air who will buy aircraft and who will not. But for the time being at least we expect 20 to 30 percent of the aircraft that are coming in to be re-marketed."

Part of this demand will come from air cargo firms, he says, that want to replace old freighters with remodeled commercial aircraft such as the Boeing 757. FedEx, for example, is looking for up to 90 aircraft over the next five to eight years, he says.

The picture at other aircraft storage centers is less hopeful for aviation's prospects. The Mojave boneyard saw its greatest influx of planes in the early 1990s following the bankruptcy of Eastern and Pan American. Back then, more than 50 percent of the 200 airplanes that flew into the Mojave Desert soon went back into operation to South America or straight back to the United States.

Today, only the newest and most efficient aircraft go back into operation. For the rest, the boneyard is their final resting place. Here commercial airlines sit in long-term storage providing backdrop for movie sets, or they are dismantled so engines, parts and materials can breathe new life into new planes.

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As retired pilot Mike Potter tells CNN on this month's Business Traveller, the Mojave Desert is a resting place for old airplanes and a site of nostalgia for retired pilots. "It brings tears to my eyes because most of the planes here I have flown. They come in fully dressed up for flight but end up with just a skeleton left of a plane." Video Watch the show. »

His comfort, however, will come in the knowledge that as the airline industry flounders, business can only boom at the boneyard.

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