From MD-87 twin jet aircraft in Madrid to Boeing 747s in Malaysia: Why planes are abandoned and what happens to them

Cars get abandoned. So do dead washing machines and mattresses that appear mysteriously overnight outside apartment blocks. I occasionally can be seen shuffling around cavernous parking stations when I forget where I parked my car – but an MD-87 twin jet aircraft? Seemingly abandoned and unloved at Madrid Barajas Airport? Left for several years, and now with a parking ticket for millions of dollars? Airport officials want it gone, but there's a mystery – who owns it?

First flown in 1990 wearing the logo of Iberia, Spain's national carrier, the aircraft was later acquired by a charter airline that soon went broke. In 2010 it ended up in the hands of Saicus Air, a freight operator which attempted to transition to a passenger carrier using the MD-87. That lasted for just a month before Saicus Air ceased operations in December 2010. Images exist from that month showing the aircraft on the tarmac at Madrid Barajas Airport, and that is where it has sat ever since.

Airport director Elena Mayoral has issued a notice in Spain's state gazette asking for anyone with information to come forward. As required by law, that notice will run for three months, and if the owners have not been found the plane will be auctioned off.

Whoever the rightful owner may be, they have probably made the calculation that 10 years' worth of parking fees and whatever else Saicus Air might owe to creditors is far greater than what the aircraft might fetch at auction. That could be around $2 million, although Globalair.com currently has the same aircraft listed for sale at $US4.8 million, but in this case the owner has decided to keep schtum. No surprise really, since to keep an aircraft airworthy requires certification. After it's been sitting around for a while, getting it back into the air is going to cost major bucks.

See also: Owner sought for abandoned plane in Madrid

Why aircraft get tossed

Abandoning an intact aircraft is far from common, but it happens. Sure, there are aircraft graveyards where decommissioned aircraft are parked, most famously the Mojave Air & Space Port in California, but who parks an aircraft, shuts down the engines and walks away, never to return? As it happens, it's not that uncommon.

The reality is that commercial jet aircraft depreciate faster than a BMW M5. Maintenance and certification requirements are a big cost item for airlines and new models are constantly evolving that offer lower cost per passenger-mile performance. Whether to stick with an existing fleet and wear ever-increasing costs for aircraft that are steadily depreciating or shell out to invest in newer, more efficient aircraft is a constant juggling act for airline managers. Delay too long and you might end up with an aircraft that no one wants, that's too expensive to operate and market forces make the decision for you. You're left with an aircraft that's headed for the boneyard. Or you might strip out whatever's saleable and walk away, which is what happened when Athens opened a new international airport in 2001.

The former airport, Ellinikon International, was abandoned, and a few things got left behind. Including a Boeing 747-200, minus engines and bearing the colours of Greek national carrier Olympic Airlines and the name "Olympic Eagle". Also a Boeing 727 and 737, also wearing Olympic Air colours, plus a Hellenic BAC-111 and miscellaneous light aircraft that once belonged to now-defunct carrier Athens Airways. There they sit, tyres flat, avionics stripped out, luggage compartments gaping.

Malaysia's abandoned 747s

As Oscar Wilde might say had he still been alive, "To lose one 747 may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose three looks like carelessness". But that's exactly what happened in 2015 at Malaysia's Kuala Lumpur International Airport. After three 747-200s had been parked there for more than a year, management began to wonder who owned them, and then there was the small matter of parking fees.

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The trail of ownership began with aircraft leasing corporation Air Atlanta Icelandic, owner of one of the world's largest B747-400 fleets, but according to AAI, the aircraft were sold in 2008. Since then the 747s had been on-sold several more times, passing to a Turkish operator and China-based Yangtze River Express until the trail of ownership became opaque.

In the absence of any identifiable owner, and in accordance with Malaysia's Civil Aviation Act on 1969, airport management published a notification in the country's newspapers in December 2015 to the effect that the aircraft would be sold if not claimed within 14 days. That notice aroused curiosity, the curious started digging and soon revealed that the last owner of the aircraft was MASkargo, the cargo arm of Malaysia Airlines.

Suddenly, up pops SWIFT Air Cargo, under the command of an expat American pilot named Blue Peterson, protesting innocence, maintaining the aircraft were the rightful property of SWIFT and claiming the operator had been holding meetings with Malaysia Airports Holdings Berhad as recently as two months previously.

Eventually the question of ownership was decided in court and the three aircraft,  once worth tens of millions of dollars – minus their engines and many of their more valuable electronic components, were sold at a public auction for RM800,000, equal to less than $300,000, and broken up for scrap.

See also: Malaysian airport search for owners of two abandoned 747s

See also: The most surprising ways to earn frequent flyer points, without flying

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