Jet cemetery: Where do aircraft go when airlines go to the wall?

The answer? To a Cotswolds landing strip, which has become the busiest aviation scrapyard in the world. Cahal Milmo reports

Thursday 10 December 2009 01:00

With its internal wiring hanging from the open cargo doors like the entrails of a gutted whale, passenger jet VT-EYF – the one-time pride of the Air India fleet – was yesterday just the latest multimillion-pound flying machine to come to Kemble Airfield to die.

In front of the 18-year-old Airbus, which would have cost its owners £30m new, stood the sorry remains of an identical plane, an A320 operated until this summer by Spanish airline Click. Propped up incongruously on a pile of railway sleepers, it was already shorn of the engines, on-board computers and avionics that together will fetch about £400,000 – a fraction of their original price.

Against a backdrop of the Cotswold hills, three giant Boeing 747s which had until recently been plying their trade in southern Africa as freighters, await their turn in the new year to be painstakingly stripped of anything of value, before their gleaming aluminium airframes meet the jaws of an industrial wrecking machine.

Welcome to the unlikely epicentre of one of the few booming sectors of the global aviation industry – the dismantling, recycling and crushing of aircraft that are no longer needed by airlines who find themselves with older, inefficient jets that cannot be filled or sold.

The result is that an anonymous former military airbase in Gloucestershire has become the world's most prolific aircraft boneyard, with dozens of passenger planes until recently operating in locations from the Seychelles to the Ukraine making one final, smoky flight across the globe to a fatal meeting with the cutting tools of professional dismantlers.

Kemble Airfield, a sprawling expanse of hangars and asphalt near Cirencester which was Britain's busiest RAF base during the Second World War, is the operating base of Air Salvage International (ASI), a British company which has eviscerated more than 350 jets in its short history and, in the teeth of the credit crunch, seen its scrapping business double in the last 12 months.

The phenomenon is part of a global shift in the aviation industry which will see 12,500 passenger planes around the world reach the end of their useful life over the next 20 years. That's 400-plus aircraft a year to be recycled, stripped of their usable components and compacted into scrap metal.

From business class seats being snapped up by enthusiasts for their front rooms to sections of airframe used by colleges to train would-be flight attendants, the contents of aircraft that once commanded prices up to $148m (£89m) are now being sold off for a song after being torn apart in Gloucestershire's aviation charnel house.

The steady stream of Boeings and Airbuses to Kemble Airfield is the price that the aviation industry is paying for the years during the credit boom when airlines such as easyJet and Ryanair, and bank-backed leasing companies, placed huge orders with manufacturers. The recession claimed dozens of carriers and inflicted heavy damage on the finances of many others, from British Airways to American Airlines, as they struggled to keep their fleets profitable.

As the price of new aircraft dipped and passengers stayed at home, airlines have mothballed more than 3,000 jets and turboprops, including ageing short-haul workhorses such as MD80s, Boeing 737s and Airbus A320s, in the desert conditions of America and southern Europe. Almost all are destined for the scrapyard.

Owen Geach, commercial director of the International Bureau of Aviation, an industry consultancy, said: "There is a range of aircraft which are increasingly expensive to operate and, in the current economic circumstances, their owners are reaching the conclusion that more money can be made from parting them out rather than keeping them in the air.

"There is now a healthy underbelly of activity in the industry that is the recycling and dismantling sector. Not so long ago, these were companies that just took a chainsaw to an airframe. Nowdays it is a more sophisticated industry."

With the aviation industry's environmental image battered by its contribution to the emissions that cause global warming, it has spotted an opportunity that when it comes to ending the life of a passenger jet, its methods should be eco-friendly. Boeing and Airbus have signed up to guidelines which ensure that at least 70 per cent of every plane they have produced is recycled, with that proportion rising to more than 95 per cent as technology improves.

But it is left to the likes of ASI, a founding member of the Aircraft Fleet Recycling Association, the industry body which is overseeing the rapid expansion of the dismantling sector, to get down and dirty with the unwanted jets by recovering all usable components for sale on the market in certified second-hand aircraft parts, now worth £1.2bn a year.

Mark Gregory, ASI's managing director, said: "Breaking up an aircraft is a last resort. These are multimillion-pound machines which their owners would rather not see disappear off their balance sheet if they can possibly help it. If you send an aircraft for dismantling you are looking at a 90 per cent loss on its listed value.

"But we have reached a point where there are simply more of these aircraft out there than the global market can sustain and they are worth more broken up into their parts. We have never been busier – at times we've had four or five aircraft arriving each week."

Engineers at Kemble Airfield spend anywhere between two months and 12 weeks fastidiously deconstructing each jet, testing all its systems before draining its lifeblood of fuel and hydraulic fluid, and removing and labelling each re-usable part from the rudder to the football-shaped fire extinguishers that lie in the wings.

Inside this cordoned-off aircraft abattoir, a line of engine cowlings stands beside cockpits that have been surgically sliced away from their airframes ready to be shipped to customers who will use them as flight simulators or props in colleges for trainee in-flight attendants. Faded markings attest to the previous lives of these dinosaurs of the sky – one flight deck sports a sticker for the 40th anniversary of Air India while another bears the name of the aircraft, La Belle Creole.

The company has even built up a thriving trade in reclinable first and business class seats, complete with their television screens and reading lights, which are snapped up by aircraft enthusiasts for about £300 each. They would have cost about £5,000 in a new aircraft.

Figures produced by the International Bureau of Aviation provide stark evidence of a drastic fall in prices for passenger jets, old and new. A new Airbus A320 or Boeing 737 now costs 8 per cent less than it did in 2008. Older jets have suffered an even more dramatic fall: a 20-year-old 737 now has a list price of $5.8m (£3.5m) – a drop of 24 per cent in 12 months.

Industry sources told The Independent that the going rate for super-annuated passenger planes on the open market is even less, with one 20-year-old 737 on offer to anyone with £1.5m going spare. Such is the extent of the plunge in values that a German bank last month decided to scrap the 737 it operates on lease and instead rent out the engines – by far the most valuable component of an aircraft – for £40,000 per month.

Pointing a finger towards passenger jet VT-EYF, which had been denuded of its nose cone and was awaiting the removal of its engines, Mr Gregory said: "It's actually quite sad. Some of these planes are beautiful machines in very good condition. They have been looked after to the last degree. And then they come here. The problem is they're just not wanted any more."

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