16.000 planes hibernate on the ground in the middle of spring

Nearly two out of three commercial airline aircraft worldwide remain parked at airports or aeronautical logistics centres awaiting the recovery of global air traffic
Airplanes of the Spanish airline Iberia at the Adolfo Suárez de Barajas airport, Madrid, on March 20, 2020

AFP/JAVIER SORIANO  -   Airplanes of the Spanish airline Iberia at the Adolfo Suárez de Barajas airport, Madrid, on March 20, 2020

About 16,000 planes are on the ground, with empty seats, engines stopped, lights off, and no prospect of filling their passenger cabins and taking off any time soon. Aircraft of all models and sizes belonging to hundreds of airlines from countries on all five continents, the same ones that for decades have transported hundreds of millions of travellers around the planet and that now pile up at airports and aeronautical logistics hubs waiting for better times.

They are parked outdoors, side by side, in places under the scorching sun of extremely hot areas or under intense cold, snow or rain that never ends. They are the direct result of the almost total shutdown of regular passenger air traffic imposed by governments to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, the consequences of which have been a gigantic economic fiasco for airlines around the world, but also a huge logistical problem.

Las restricciones al tráfico aéreo y la casi total ausencia de pasajeros han llevado al cierre o descenso drástico de la actividad de la mayor parte de los aeropuertos del mundo
PHOTO/San Francisco Airport - Air traffic restrictions and the almost total absence of passengers have led to the closure or drastic decrease in activity of most airports in the world

Of the 23,000 passenger and cargo aircraft that specialist aviation data analysis companies such as Ascend and Cirium estimate are serving the world's airlines, the fact that 16,000 are parked means that around 70% are out of service.

In Europe, the German airline Lufthansa - with around 350 aircraft - has around 300 unemployed; British Airways, with a total of 274 aircraft, provides service with barely 75 units; Air France is flying with only 40 aircraft out of a total of 225; the Alitalia group has 42 of its 133 aircraft in the air; and the Spanish carrier Iberia and its subsidiaries, with just over 80, only has a dozen in flight.

The major airlines in the Arab countries also reflect the withdrawal of aircraft from service. Emirates, with a fleet of 269 aircraft, has 81 in service and 188 parked, including all of its more than one hundred huge Airbus A-380s. Saudi Arabia has 167 aircraft, but 29 are flying and 138 are stationary. Something similar is happening with Ethihad, which with 102 aircraft, only 36 are in flight and 66 are parked, with all its ten A-380s on the ground.

Impedidos de volar y a la espera de la vuelta a la normalidad del tráfico aéreo, las aerolíneas mantienen en tierra los aviones que no prestan servicio
PHOTO/BOEING - Airlines keep aircraft that are not in service on the ground, preventing them from flying and waiting for air traffic to return to normal
Looking for long term parking lots all over the world

The three major American airlines, American, Delta and United Airlines, with just over 3,000 aircraft combined, have half of their fleet on the ground, all of which is dedicated to intercontinental flights and some of which is used for domestic flights. The fact is that, unable to fly and waiting for domestic, regional and intercontinental air traffic to return to normal, the main alternative envisaged by the airlines' managers to safeguard their expensive fleets after the brutal dry run of flights is to keep the planes that are not in service on the ground.

They park them at their own facilities, at airports in their respective countries where costs are lower, or at logistics hubs where they park aircraft that are out of service for maintenance, modification or scrapping. Other measures they have taken include bringing forward the decommissioning of less profitable aircraft and early retirement of older ones. The aircraft most affected by the air transport crisis are so-called wide-body or double-aisle aircraft, the most representative of which are the mythical Boeing 747 Jumbo and the luxurious Airbus A-380. 

Finding the right space and conditions for 62% of the world's aircraft and keeping them in flightable condition has suddenly become the top priority, or rather a "nightmare", says a senior executive of a Spanish airline who prefers to remain anonymous. The search for space at airports or in storage facilities that can accommodate aircraft for long periods of time continues, especially in arid and dry places such as the Australian outback and the Mojave Desert in the United States. 

Imagen satélite del 16 de marzo del aeropuerto internacional de Hong Kong, en el que se distinguen el gran número de aviones estacionados
PHOTO/Maxar Tech - Satellite image of March 16 at Hong Kong International Airport, showing the large number of aircraft parked
Spain's Teruel airport is one of the most sought-after in Europe

Because keeping a passenger or cargo plane parked has its cost, in the order of 1,000 euros a day.  In addition, all aircraft require continuous maintenance of their onboard equipment, either by time or by flight hours. All aircraft have to be certified as having undergone regular maintenance, whether it is for their engines, flight control systems, hydraulic equipment or even their wheels. 

In Spain, Teruel airport is the only one that specialises in receiving aircraft for long stays, either because "they do not provide service on a temporary basis, are close to being taken out of service or are waiting to be delivered to a customer", assures its general manager, Alejandro Ibrahim. Teruel does exist on the world aeronautical scene since, in addition to parking aircraft, among the services it provides is that of carrying out maintenance work on all the equipment on board, which is assumed by a specialised company holding the concession.

La importante compañía norteamericana Delta Airlines tiene aparcados más de 500 aviones de una flota cercana a los 900
PHOTO/Delta Airlines - The important North American company Delta Airlines has more than 500 planes of a fleet close to 900

Considered the largest in Europe and located in a cold but dry climate area, Teruel airport has the capacity to house 125 large aircraft. It currently has 90 aircraft on its apron, including five Airbus A-380s, to which around ten more will be added over the next few years. Due to their enormous dimensions - 80 metres in wingspan and 73 metres in length - they have difficulty parking at conventional airports, like their big brother, the Boeing 747 Jumbo, which is similar in size but somewhat smaller.

Such is the current demand and future demand that the Governing Council of the Aragonese airport, in its meeting of 27 April, approved an investment of around 23 million euros to extend the parking apron by 200 hectares. It means multiplying by 2.5 its current surface area to be able to have "in two or three years a capacity to accommodate between 225 and 250 aircraft", stresses Alejandro Ibrahim.

El sector está dando muestras desde finales de abril de una ligera recuperación, a tenor de la flexibilización de las medidas de aislamiento
PHOTO/Cirium - The sector has been showing signs of a slight recovery since the end of April, in line with the relaxation of isolation measures 

Since the end of April, air traffic has been showing a slight recovery, especially in China, where domestic flights are on the rise due to a relaxation of the rules imposed by Beijing. This is also apparent in other countries, in view of the relaxation of isolation measures, which means that the global passenger aircraft fleet may have passed the lowest point of its flight operations and aircraft parking lots are gradually being emptied.