The Ground Handling Blog

Mototok's blog for Hangar Professionals

Written by Mototok on May 27, 2021 // 3:00 PM

What has become of all the grounded airliners in 2020?

Grounded Airlines 2020

The early part of 2020 left us all with images that we could never have imagined beforehand and hopefully will never be experienced again. Perhaps the most iconic imagery of the year were endless rows of grounded airliners, sitting static and mothballed as there were no travelers to speak of the world over. We know that while sitting static, routine maintenance did not take a break; aircraft still had to be powered on, have fuel cycled, and even have tires rotated to prevent the formation of flat spots. But in the bigger picture, what has happened to all of those aircraft in the past year? Are they all back to work since aviation has been recovering? Or are there still some parked? Let's take a look at the aftermath of this existential crisis.

What is the Status of Grounded Jets

According to Aviation Week Fleet Discovery, there are currently 22,287 airliners in active service. There are 2,188 parked/ reserve status on the flip side, 3,400 are parked, and over 6,000 mothballed.

At the height of the virus crisis, Delta had parked nearly 500 airplanes. This amounts to over 54% of their fleet, with their aging 757-200 fleet feeling the impact the most out of the narrowbodies, with 46 out of 100 parked. Delta cut their widebody fleet with 42-of-56 B767-300ERs parked and 12-of-21 B767-400ERs chocked as well.

Fort Worth-based American Airlines, the world's largest airline, took similar action on its fleet of roughly 900 jets. American took the opportunity to retire about 100 of their aging aircraft, namely B757 and B767s, and A330-300s. They also parked their A330-200 fleet until at least next year.

Basically, about half of the world’s airliners were grounded during the lowest points of the pandemic last year. As the world is returning to normalcy, we are seeing many of the parked/reserve status jets being pulled back into service. Here is what we are looking at now:

Delta Airlines

Delta is currently operating about 90% of its fleet right now, with only a shade over 100 airplanes sitting standby out of a fleet of nearly 1,100. Delta has been a holdout on opening up blocked middle seats. Still, with those opening up on May 1st, they will substantially increase their overall capacity, so it is highly unlikely that they will posture themselves to park jets again. Considering the difficulties that airlines and their travelers have suffered over the years, it seems like a stretch to think that the airlines would voluntarily subject themselves to another crash.

American Airlines

Like Delta Airlines, American is back to nearly full fleet utilization again. After a very dark year in the industry, the world has basically unanimously agreed that global commerce and exchange is still very much a requirement for good order and basically for the sake of humanity.

The narrowbody fleet and commuter fleet were the first to get back into full swing, but widebody jets still remain a sticky point for the major air carriers since they have very little use in domestic air travel; widebody jets are the most likely candidates for retirements, and the pandemic is a catalyst to do just that. As previously stated, it was aging widebody jets and the largest single-aisle jets that Americans took the opportunity to downsize jets that were the end of their ability to generate considerably more than their cost to operate.

American has already “pulled the lever” on dramatically increasing capacity by reopening middle seats, which is one step closer to operating at total capacity. In addition to reducing restrictions and ramping up capacity, American is signaling that they will be resuming hiring pilots this summer. All of the legacy air carriers participated in the form of early retirements and voluntary force reductions a year ago, so with air travel pushing back towards pre-pandemic levels, the demand has returned for maintenance techs (many mechanics retired before retirement age). The requirements for social distancing in the workplace have not diminished, so airlines should invest in ground support equipment that facilitates the changing work environment.

Lufthansa Group

Lufthansa mandated face coverings very early on, but they could leverage this measure to open up their middle seats very early. With that being said, though, the struggle has been no-notice controls being implemented last-second between countries, which has thoroughly stifled air travel.

It is difficult to get a good number of how many aircraft they may currently have parked, but it is a small number. It appears that all of the legacy carriers have their whole commuter and single-aisle fleets back in service. Lufthansa announced several months ago that they would be retiring their entire A380 fleet, as well as their aging B747-400s. This will leave them with just B747-8Is and a few A340s for their widebody quad-engine fleet. This is a recurring trend, though; before the pandemic, several legacy air carriers were already looking at retiring their A380s just because it was so difficult to turn a profit with that airframe.

Emirates Group

The flag airline of the Middle East, Emirates has struggled significantly within the wake of the pandemic. Emirates specializes in widebody intercontinental travel, and this is the exact model of travel that was decimated by global travel restrictions. In fact, a year into this, Emirates is still suffering lost routes as they have had to recently cancel routes to Hong Kong and Dhaka as well as Johannesburg.

These setbacks are predictably causing them to bleed cash, and they may have to request yet another infusion of money from Dubai to stay afloat shortly. They are not speaking openly about retiring their fleet, but since they operate on so many long-haul routes, the days ahead seem difficult for Emirates. With their cash flow crisis, it appears that their B777X requests may very well be delayed for some time. This pushes back standard retirement cycles of their A380 aircraft.  

What Will Happen to the Grounded Aircraft Not Returning to Service?

After reviewing the list of airlines as a representative sample, a simple question still remains: What happened to all of those grounded jets from one year ago? Well, that is not such a simple answer, as it turns out.

The real answer is that most of them were maintained, standard checks were performed while they were parked to make sure that they would be ready to return to service, and then they were. But to be perfectly truthful, the articles which were everywhere we turned a year ago highlighting the apocalyptic nature of the world's jets being parked were turned off just as quickly. Like so much a contagion, the story disappeared because there just was not much story when the world quietly started turning again. Now, hundreds of jets are being retired, which has already been covered, which is routine. They will be stripped down for parts to be resold on the MRO marketplace and then ultimately dismantled for scrap to the highest bidder. Such is the life of the jet-setting jet.

The hidden story is that the industry faced a manpower crisis long before COVID was in our lexicon. Airlines were encouraging and then forcing their support staff to resign, retire, or furlough, and only a portion of those will return to working in the industry. The turnaround time to create an FAA-licensed airframe and powerplant mechanic is presently about 36 months for both certificates, so there is no quick fix for this crisis.

The bright side of this angle of the story is that technology has never allowed people to do more with fewer resources. The ability to use drones for inspections will free up manpower. It is utilizing automated guided vehicles (AGVs) as much as possible to reduce further workforce constraints for the movement of aircraft, components, and cargo wherever possible is a tremendous asset. Using remote-controlled tugs to reduce manpower is another excellent solution. Unfortunately, though, technology only aids so much, and we must have skilled and experienced craftsmen available to keep these fleets flying. This is especially important now because it takes very little time to get an airliner back in flying condition after it has been parked, but it takes years to bring up a mechanic.

Conclusion to grounded airliners

At the beginning of this article, the question was basically, "where are all of the jets that were parked in 2020?" and there is no one clear answer. Mostly it is because they were quietly pulled back into their respective fleets and are back on line duty. Most, if not all, airliners that had jets reaching the end of their service lives took the opportunity to spend no additional monies on their aging members of the fleet and went ahead and retired those airframes. But an epidemic of missing mechanics is going to rear its ugly head as fleets return to service capacity, which is right where they are headed. To supplement your fleet operations which may be short-handed, explore the options available from Mototok for remote-controlled tugs and automated guided vehicles to take some of the burdens off of your mechanics.

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