As you gaze into the sky and look about the horizon, an ascending airplane catches your eye— you marvel in its magnificence and can’t help but to feel inspired by the wonders of flight. The aircraft travels so effortlessly from afar, almost as if it can fly forever. As flawless as it might seem, there comes a time when every plane must be decommissioned. So, what determines the lifespan of a plane? Where do they go after they can’t fly anymore?
The determined aircraft lifespan is established by the manufacturer. It is not measured in total years of service; instead, it is calculated by the amount of pressurization cycles it endures. This refers to the amount of time that the aircraft is kept under pressure from flight, and the amount of stress put on the fuselage and wings. Short-haul flights often grant shorter lifespans while long-haul flights allow for longer lifespans. Shorter flights lead to more pressurization cycles, shortening longevity. A Boeing 747 can withstand approximately 35,000 pressurization cycles—roughly 165,000 flight hours. Airlines must decide on when to retire an aircraft based on profitability and public safety.
Airlines are continuously upgrading their aircraft due to changing tastes of consumers. There are planes that are capable of flying for several decades, however, commercial airline passengers wouldn’t be willing to pay top dollar for them without integrated advancements. Manufacturers commonly offer upgraded features which leads to a decrease in demand of older model aircraft, which also contributes to its lifespan. Airlines with the newest planes tend to have more customers flying at a given time because of increased customer satisfaction.
Decommissioned aircraft eventually make their way to the southwestern American desert that includes parts of California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. Massive aircraft storage sites house these planes in arid climates which slow down the rusting process, allowing the spare parts to be used or sold later. Secondhand aircraft parts are hot commodities as most of them still function and are significantly cheaper than new ones. Almost every part of an airplane can be recycled for use in newer planes.
Engines are in high demand because their turbines contain rotating blades that must be swapped out regularly to stay in compliance with safety regulations. Trading out these blades for used ones can cost upwards of two million dollars, roughly half the price of buying new parts. Once an aircraft has been stripped of all of its usable parts, the metal frame is melted down and used as scrap. In some cases, the raw materials are repurposed. Multiple recycling operations in the US and Europe specialize in this processing. The next time you drink from an aluminum can, consider that what you’re holding may have flown across the skies at one point!
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