The past two years have been uncharted territory for the world, at least the living generations. We have had to stare down infectious diseases,
and the ever-emerging details of a global pandemic have kept us on our toes. In the aviation world, we have had to adapt on the go to conditions we have never seen before. For example, there has never been a time in the history of a commercial flight that entire fleets of aircraft have been placed in extended non-flying status. Now that we are just shy of two years since the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the world, we know a lot more about what happens to fleets of aircraft when you pull them out of long-term storage. Also, we have seen a radically expanded importance of GSE in keeping jets ready to be pulled from storage and placed back in line rotation.
About the Grounded Jets
A lot of the world has gotten back in the air; in the U.S., the figures obtained from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) look pretty similar to those two years ago. Mind you, the concern of the most recent variants is taking a stab at the numbers, but it is clear that the world is moving around.
With that being said, long-term storage facilities are still more full than you would expect with so much of the world open and moving. Places like Pinal Airpark in Arizona still have many aircraft in long-term storage, although a lot of them are not U.S.-flagged.
What Fleets Were Impacted the Most?
Answering this is more than a one-part question, to be honest. In the beginning, all airlines were affected equally because governments leveled the playing field across the globe. There wasn’t anywhere that remained open or “normal” as they had been. But two years later, the global map is a mismatch of policies.
Some countries are as though nothing had ever happened, while other countries are locked down hard with very little travel in or out.
For instance, Australia, New Zealand, and China all remain entirely closed to the world and several other Pacific countries. Not surprisingly, their fleets of large jets are primarily parked. Single-aisle jets are the mainstay of travel in-country and have long since been pulled out of storage, but we still see fleets of jets parked that are intended for oceanic routes.
What Fleets Still Have the Most Out-of-Commission?
For the most part, the U.S.-based air carriers are back to their pre-pandemic fleet levels and enplanement figures. However, despite rising fuel prices, average fares remain below pre-pandemic 2019 levels, allowing travelers to get back in the air.
We can be sure that freight fleets are not at any apparent risk of being grounded again; they hit all-time highs in 2020 and then smashed those in 2021. We have no data to support this claim at the moment, but 2022 probably will not slump in freight movements, nor will any successive years. The Boeing Commercial Market Outlook predicts an overall increase of 70 percent in the global freight fleet through 2040, so Pinal Airpark won’t be housing these jets anytime soon.
The power brokers of the freight world (Amazon) have been combing the desert storage facilities looking for cheap jets to convert to freighters. We see a tragedy; the market sees an opportunity.
How Are the Regions of the World Recovering?
Again, the global recovery will vary widely from one country to the next, with so many different responses that are not in concert with each other. But, as the old saying goes, “follow the money.” So, again, looking at the past few months of financials is the best indicator of what is going on inside a company, and in this case, inside of entire regions.
The Asia-Pacific region has been critical in the global aviation market, mainly because the pandemic originated from the region.
The Asia-Pacific region is home to roughly 55 percent of the global population, making it a key player in the aviation market. Also, with Japan, Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, and China all having closed borders, air carriers are in rough shape.
Qantas is headed quickly for a 6-month low, which is not surprising considering the state of hard-lockdown they are dealing with. As a result, you can expect their fleet of A380s to continue to be used somewhat sparingly.
China Eastern Airlines, a top-ten size airline globally, has been on erratic courses up and down. So it’s tough to say what will happen with their fleet, although they certainly have plenty of intercountry territories to keep them employed, especially narrow-body jets.
Roughly one-quarter of all world air travel is conducted within Asia, so it is tough to see how detrimental the last couple of years has been. It also should be noted that the two major airlines in China are state-owned, so they are less impacted by the ups-and-down.
By and large, North America is on a steady trajectory back to pre-pandemic levels. The overall feel in the U.S. is that normalcy is on the move; the global economy is too powerful to stay on hold forever.
With that being said, the recent variants have been playing havoc with the major carriers; it has been up and down, although there is no word that they will be putting any jets back into storage. But unfortunately, we are seeing that the major carriers are cutting routes to reduce costs while they try to ride out the latest wave of hysteria.
We don’t know whether or not any European air carriers are putting jets back into long-term storage, but we know they are flying nearly empty jets yet again. Considering that we are now two years into this pandemic, seeing empty airliners again does not bode well for the future of commercial air travel across Europe.
If we take a quick look at the markets, it appears that the ups and downs coincide with the advent of new variants. So, for example, Air France is dipping as Omicron moves through society, as they also dipped hard during Delta.
What We Have Learned From Jets Being in Long-Term Storage
So, COVID forced the world into a strange situation. See, active jets do not sit for very long, ever. At most, a week or two during their required maintenance check cycles. But these cycles are very detailed and planned out for other jets in the line to shift and pull the weight while a given jet is in maintenance.
We have witnessed companies scrambling to meet mandates that had honestly little forethought into the long-term economic impacts, and the ripples are still making waves. The airlines did their best to bring jets quickly out of storage, although some remain, although hard numbers are hard to pull.
We know for sure that jets are designed to be flown, so long-term storage has a net degrading effect on them.
For one thing, the rubber must not sit. Seals, fuel cells, tires. You have to get oil moving, hydraulic fluid moving, tires rolling, and jet fuel moving through the systems. Systems also are not designed to have fluids pooling long term, and especially the fuel system is not intended to remain static. Fuel cells dry out, seals crack.
We have also learned that parking jets for the long term is far from cheap. It is very maintenance-intensive! The jets have to be moved periodically, or the tires have to be condemned (flat spots develop).
The batteries need to be charged, and the systems are turned on and run. It will take dedicated maintenance teams to keep fleets in flyable status, with dedicated MRO equipment to keep the parked fleets airworthy.
What Does the Future Hold?
It is anyone’s guess what the future holds for the world's airlines. However, we can probably accurately guess that it will continue to mean the demise of the fleets of super-jumbo jets. This may not end up being all bad, though.
Super-jumbo fleets are unbelievably costly to maintain, so the past couple of years have given some major air carriers an impetus to focus their finances towards modernizing their fleets. Fleet modernization is not limited to aircraft, either.
One direction you may want to take your business is modernizing your fleet of GSE, especially as we continue to see shortages of available staff in the aircraft maintenance disciplines. It can be the difference between making your deadlines or missing them. Using our remote-control tug can free up three or four personnel on many routine maintenance movements, allowing you to employ them much more effectively.
Are you ready to update your GSE fleet? If so, give us a call, and we will get you squared away!