Airlines and coronavirus: Where are airlines putting all their grounded planes?

If you happen to live anywhere near a flight path in one of our major cities, the silence is unusual – and ominous.

Shortly after they slashed domestic flights by up to 60 per cent, Qantas and Virgin Australia have warned of even deeper service cancellations. This came to pass on Wednesday, when Virgin grounded 90 per cent of its flights and suspended Tigerair operations completely.

In March 2019, Sydney Airport reported average daily aircraft movements for the month at 918. On 23 March 2020, Flightradar24 reported 244 tracked departures at the airport. Assuming the same number of arrivals, that suggests air traffic at Sydney Airport has shrunk by almost half as a result of the crisis. Other airports around Australia have seen even greater falls.

Overseas, Delta and American Airlines are cutting international services by 70 and 75 per cent respectively. Air France is slashing international and domestic flight capacity by up to 90 per cent. For Singapore Airlines the cut is 96 per cent of capacity through April. Thai Airways is the latest of a number of airlines that have announced the cessation of flights to Australia, with international airlines across the board whittling services.

The United Arab Emirates has announced a two-week shutdown of all passenger flights into and out of its seven member emirates, starting from March 25. This amounts to a total shutdown for Emirates and Etihad airlines. Qatar Airways will be the sole remaining airline flying between Australia and the Gulf State ports.

There are going to be a lot of very expensive aircraft sitting idle for weeks at least, more likely months, and possibly for the rest of the year in some cases. Those aircraft might end up parked at a city airport awaiting a return to service, but they might also be destined for a specialised aircraft parking lot.

The world's airparks

The world's biggest aircraft parking lot is the Pinal County Airpark located in the US state of Arizona. Established as a US Army air base for pilot training during World War II, Pinal Airpark is one of several located in the US Southwest, and there are factors that make this an ideal place to stow an aircraft for a couple of months, or even long term.

The main reason is climate. The warm, low-humidity, salt-free desert air mitigates corrosion. It's also a lot cheaper to park an aircraft here than at a regular airport.

Pinal Functions primarily as a boneyard, where aircraft are "parted out", broken down and stripped for components that can be recycled, but during crisis times when passenger air travel suffers a dramatic slowdown, it becomes a storage facility for aircraft surplus to requirements.


Pinal Airpark is a favoured storage location for Delta Air Lines, and the airline recently announced that it will be grounding over 600 aircraft. Over the past few days the airpark has also received a number of aircraft from Canadian airlines and from Ireland's Aer Lingus.

Australia has its own boneyard/airpark, the Asia Pacific Aircraft Storage (APAS) facility located adjacent to Alice Springs' airport. Of the approximately 150 aircraft that Qantas and Jetstar have removed from service, most will be held at capital city airports for the time being, but a few are heading for the APAS parking lot, joining the aircraft of Brisbane-based Alliance Airlines.

According to a Virgin Australia spokesperson, "The Virgin Australia Group is currently working through the requirements of parking its grounded aircraft. We are considering airport locations in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane and we are consulting our airport partners on this to arrive at a suitable outcome." At the moment VA has no plans to park aircraft in Alice Springs, but this may change.

What happens to aircraft when they're grounded?

Storage protocols differ, depending on whether it's short or long-term. Long-term storage might require the engine to be sealed and fitted with moisture-absorbing desiccant pouches, while many aircraft in for the short-term might have their engines started once a week and left at idle to disperse any moisture and to activate flight computers and the auxiliary power units.

Some aircraft are moved from time to time to avoid tyres flat-spotting. In the deserts where the airparks are located summer daytime temperatures can soar to over 40 degrees. Inside a metal aircraft fuselage the temperature can be much hotter, and doors are sometimes left open to allow air to circulate and prevent damage to the cabin. The Boeing manual requires flaps, rudder and other control services to be exercised every 90 days.

At the moment APAS can accommodate around 30 aircraft but according to APAS Managing Director Tom Vincent, the facility is ramping up its expansion plans that will enable it to more than double that number. For several months now APAS has been home for a number of SilkAir's Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft, grounded a year ago in the wake of a second disaster involving the aircraft, blamed on a failure in the MAX 8's manoeuvring characteristics augmentation system.

The worldwide fleet of 737 MAX 8 aircraft was expected to take to the air in March 2020, but Boeing has recently announced a delay until mid-year at the earliest. With dramatic oversupply in the industry as a result of coronavirus, airlines are no longer pushing hard for their MAX aircraft to return to the skies.

See also: Airlines change cancellation policies in wake of travel bans

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