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Coronavirus banishes planes to the desert

Andreas Spaeth
May 14, 2020

About 17,000 aircraft or more than 60% of all planes are currently grounded due to the coronavirus pandemic. Some have turned the scarcity of parking spaces for jets into a brisk business.

Planes parked in Alice Springs, Australia
Image: Steve Strike

On any given day, most of the wide-body jets — those with twin passenger aisles — that take off from Germany's Frankfurt airport, head for the top main long-haul routes of Dubai, New York and Shanghai.

Since the coronavirus pandemic erupted, however, Lufthansa's giant Airbus A380 planes are making one-way trips to a rather odd destination. On Wednesday morning, flight LH9924, which was not listed on any timetable, was the latest to make the voyage to a location not even the most seasoned travel expert knows about: Teruel.

The city of 35,000 inhabitants is located in Aragonia province in eastern Spain, about half way between Madrid and Valencia. Besides its old town's architecture being a UNESCO world heritage site, hardly any tourists ever visit, especially during the coronavirus lockdown.

COVID-19, however, has put this tiny town on the map for the aviation industry at least. A company called Tarmac Aerosave is seeing a huge surge in demand right now for its long-term parking for passenger jets, complete with a full maintenance schedule to ensure they stay airworthy.

Planes parked at Frankfurt Airport
Waiting for the resumption of post-coronavirus air traffic: Lufthansa planes at Frankfurt Airport in GermanyImage: Imago Images/M. Lorenz

Big name clients

Lufthansa has transferred seven A380s here but also half a dozen of its four-engine A340-600s, which are currently not required while the German flag carrier's fleet is downsized. Air France also parks a few of its obsolete A380s here while British Airways has sent five Boeing 747s.

Currently there are about 115 jets that have almost filled the available parking spaces to capacity. The airport proudly announced the landing of LH9924 on Wednesday in a tweet in German, alongside the video to prove it.

"We never had so many aircraft here," Pedro Saez, plant director of Tarmac Aerosave, told DW.

"Now we have set up additional parking lots in a dirt field by placing metal sheets on the ground," said Saez. That should be enough space for another 20 to 25 aircraft, as the site is the size of about 140 soccer fields. 

Expansion plans revealed

Plans are now afoot to double the available space, as there is plenty of free land in the semi-desert landscape. The expansion of Teruel has already been approved by regional leaders. However, it will take a few years to complete.

But with many aircraft expected to be permanently taken out of service, the airport could benefit long after the coronavirus crisis has subsided. Tarmac Aerosave also  specializes in the breaking down and recycling of surplus aircraft.

Spain's often dry weather is a bonus as dry conditions are a prerequisite for aircraft storage, to minimize the threat of corrosion of the aluminium. Ample space is, of course, also essential due to planes' wing spans and the sheer number of jets being grounded during the health emergency.

Planes at Lourdes airport in France
A seemingly endless line of planes parked on the tarmac of Tarbes-Lourdes airport in southwestern FranceImage: picture-alliance/AP Images/B. Edme

Out of 26,000 passenger jets operating daily, which usually make a total average of 102,000 flights a day, carrying six million passengers, means half a million people are normally in the air at any given time. But that's all changed at the moment. Estimates by industry portal Cirium suggest that by late April almost 17,000 planes of all sizes had been grounded, about 64% of the total global fleet. The emergency measure has prompted a scramble among airlines to find enough storage space.

US 'boneyards' too far away

The biggest and most well-known "boneyards" are located in the southern US, at Davis Monthan Air Force Base and Marana, both close to Tucson in Arizona, as well as in Victorville in California. However, such a long distance isn't currently an option for European carriers.

Initially, many made do with the temporary closed runways at the main European airports that carriers operate out of, but amid their worsening financial health, airlines have rushed to find cheaper alternatives.

"Frankfurt is very expensive," claimed Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr recently. One major problem is that it's hard to predict when many of the planes will be needed again.

Airlines hope that travel restrictions will be eased in the next few weeks, allowing them to take a staggered approach to restarting their operations from July. The mass-groundings have posed numerous challenges, such as where to park aircraft, how to keep them secure and airworthy and where they can be retrieved quickly when demand picks up.

Planes parked in the desert near Alice Springs, Australia
Planes from Singapore Airlines parked in the desert near Alice Springs, AustraliaImage: Steve Strike

France sees demand upswing

After Teruel, Europe's second-biggest facility is Tarbes-Lourdes-Pyrenees airport in southwestern France, where storage, maintenance and recycling is also run by Tarmac Aerosave. The airport has also seen a big increase in aircraft numbers and is preparing for more long-term storage demand by putting fresh asphalt on runways and taxiways. Photos from Tarbes went viral in aviation circles last year, showing its team breaking up the first two decommissioned A380s from Singapore Airlines.

British Airways is parking its A380 fleet in France as well, while Swiss has parked a large part of its fleet at Dübendorf military airfield, close to its home base airport Zürch-Kloten, while some Airbus jets requiring longer-term storage have been sent to Jordan's capital, Amman.

The biggest upswing for aircraft parking has been seen at Alice Springs airport in the Australian outback. The facility was only founded a few years ago by Tom Vincent. The former Deutsche Bank analyst wanted to pursue a personal dream of becoming an entrepreneur by offering aircraft storage. Since 2014 his company Apas had received 40 jets, but the coronavirus crisis gives his fledgling business a jump start.

Big deals possible

Alice Springs is the only aircraft storage facility within easy reach of the Asia Pacific region, which has recently witnessed an aviation boom. Vincent revealed a 13- month contract to look after just one Boeing 777 brought in €300,000 ($324,000) in revenues."

My phone hasn't stopped ringing, demand has exploded," Vincent recently told the Financial Times. His biggest coup so far has been to provide storage for Singapore Airlines' four newest A380s over the past month.

"We have the go-ahead for an expansion before the end of the month so we can accommodate 70-80 planes," he said.