(Editor's note: The sharp decline in air traffic has likely meant an urgent need to lay up many of the GSE fleet at short notice. IATA has drawn up guidelines regarding the parking or storage of GSE which can be accessed in the Quick Reference for Ground Handling during COVID-19.)
As growing numbers of passenger aircraft are grounded by coronavirus-related travel restrictions, airlines are grappling with a new problem—where to park them.
According to IATA, 98% of revenue-earning routes across the world are now subject to “severe” travel restrictions, including border closures, partial travel bans, and quarantine measures.
In Europe, seat capacity is forecast to be slashed 90% in the second quarter of 2020. Capacity in the Middle East is expected to tumble 80%, while the United States and Asia will see 50% drops, according to the latest IATA figures
Almost 10,500 aircraft, representing 40% of the global fleet, have been grounded already and that number is only likely to increase.
Close to home
With the unprecedented number of aircraft grounded globally, the question is where to put them. Naturally enough, airlines are trying to keep the grounded planes close to home. Taxiways, maintenance areas, terminal areas, and in some cases even runways, are being used at airports throughout the world.
“Airlines want to keep their aircraft as close as they can to their hub airports because they can maintain them and get them back into the air relatively quickly,” says Sergio Fernandez, IATA’s Europe Regional Director of Airport, Passenger, Cargo and Security.
In the United States, Delta Air Lines and American Airlines have announced plans to ground more than 1,000 planes combined.
Delta’s biggest hub at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in Atlanta, Georgia, is normally the world’s busiest gateway, but grounded aircraft now are parked on taxiways at one of the airport’s five runways. Smaller airports are no less affected. For instance, the airport at Tulsa, Oklahoma in the United States is now home to a growing fleet of grounded American Airlines planes.
It’s the same story across the rest of the world. From London Heathrow to Dubai to Singapore, airports have become giant parking lots.
Europe is home to about 500 airports, including 150 which process more than five million passengers a year. That is enough room to park a grounded European fleet, according to Fernandez. But not all airlines are taking the same approach. Swiss, for example, is parking its planes at a military base near Zurich, an active operational aerodrome and close to the airline’s operating base.
Ready for action
Once the decision has been made to ground an aircraft, a lot remains to be done. Much depends on how long the plane is likely to be grounded—from a couple of days where very little maintenance is needed to a couple of months and longer where preservation of the aircraft becomes necessary.
Cabins must be cleaned before being sealed for security, fuel tanks and oil lines drained—and perhaps replaced with other liquids—and exposed chrome surfaces including in the undercarriage have to be protected from corrosion.
The preservation process varies depending on the length of time that the aircraft is likely to be out of service.
And then there is weekly maintenance if the plane is grounded for one or two months: regular checks and testing of avionics, hydraulics and other operating systems, and keeping the cabin sanitized and dry. Manufacturers provide maintenance manuals on exactly what needs to be done and when.
In some cases, engines must be rotated to ease pressure on bearings, and the wheels moved to protect the tires.
Parking costs must also be considered. Some airports, including Heathrow and Charles de Gaulle Paris, are waiving fees but many others are not. IATA has written to transport ministers around the world requesting that airports help cash-strapped airlines by cutting parking fees.
Aircraft parking charges account for less than 2% of airport revenues in a normal year, but it could be the make-or-break for some airlines under the current circumstances.
And the sooner airlines can recover, the sooner airports will as well.
Elsewhere, older aircraft are expected to be retired early and sent to boneyards in the United States and Europe for long-term storage or scrapping.
American and Delta are both considering moving forward their plans to retire their older inefficient aircraft and KLM has brought forward the retirement of its remaining Boeing 747 fleet.
Other airlines are adopting a strategy of rotating their aircraft to keep them airworthy.
However, the longer aircraft stay on the ground, generally the longer it takes to ready them for a return to service. It gives airline management a tricky problem as they must be ready for the rebound in global travel -- when it happens.
As they say in business, timing is everything.