Why retired planes are still worth millions of dollars

The utilitarian design and the rivets that hold everything together can make it feel like airliners are built to last forever. Despite this illusion of longevity, a commercial airliner can expected to last around 27 years in service. But when they leave an airline’s fleet, millions of dollars worth of components are still hidden in the fuselage. Now, a new report from CNBC has broken down what makes the remains of an aircraft so expensive.

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When an airline is in the market for a new aircraft, they are likely to spend somewhere between $90 million and $300 million for a brand new aircraft from Airbus or Boeing. So they are looking to their old crafts to recoup some of the costs needed to upgrade and replace aging fleets.

When an airline finishes one of its planes, it may try to find a buyer that has a use for older airlines, such as cargo fleets and firefighting companies. But if this is not possible, it is sent to the Arizona desert where it joins hundreds of other planes waiting to be destroyed. As it says, the boneyards of Arizona currently has more than 4,400 aircraft in various stages of disrepair.

An image of jet engines.

Engines can be repaired and sold again.
Photo: In Pictures Ltd./Corbis (Getty Images)

According to a CNBC report, the first step in extracting as much value as possible from an old aircraft is to remove it big money parts, such as engines and landing gear. The chips can be overhauled, rebuilt and sold for use in service again. Others can be used to train budding mechanics on how an aircraft engine works.

This side of the industry, CNBC says, is booming thanks to delays in deliveries from new aircraft from both Airbus and Boeing, and an increasing number of flights to meet growing demand for travel around the world. Because of this, more parts are salvaged from old aircraft to keep newer models in service longer.

But how many parts can be salvaged from a 30-year-old aircraft? Well, according to CNBC, there could be a wide variety. On a traditional narrow body plan, you may find only 200 parts that can be repaired and reused. In contrast, a widebody aircraft may have up to 2,000 parts that can be salvaged and resold.

An image of the controls in an airplane cockpit.

Controllers can be used to train new pilots.
Photo: Ramin Talaie/Corbis (Getty Images)

Sure, engines and landing gear are the big bucks, but CNBC says nearly every airplane part is expensive, so everything from wing flaps to drinks carts can also be fixed and whipped to other operators.

But it’s not just airlines that buy parts from aging airlines. Some components, such as chairs, can be reused and resold as seating for people’s offices and homes. Controls from the cockpits of some aircraft can also be removed and used to train the next generation of pilots.

Parts that cannot be salvaged and repaired for use on other aircraft are upcycled, discarded and recycled. In fact, as much as 95 percent of a retired aircraft can be recycled — either as whole parts or as scrap metal and other materials.

After this, just tear the remains into shreds. Once dismantled, metals and non-metallic parts are separated for recycling, and the broken hull is sold to a smelter to be melted down and turned into something completely new.

Why airplanes are still worth millions after they stop flying

It’s a fascinating process, and the need to pull it all off comes down to the aging airline fleets around the world. Supply chain shortages mean that the number of aircraft requiring maintenance is increasing, while the number of new parts required for such maintenance is decreasing. As such, used parts are now much more valuable than they were a few years ago.

The entire film is a great watch, and if you have ten minutes to spare, I highly recommend it going here to check it out.

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