Updated: Oct 23, 2021
By Gavin Ang
On a pitch-black night on October 5th, 2021, a convoy of vehicles silent snaked its way from Changi Airport along Aviation Park Road towards Changi Exhibition Centre. In tow: 3 aircraft skeletons for 2 Airbus A380s and a Boeing 777-200, all previously owned by Singapore Airlines, bound for the scrap heap.
(Photo by Sng Wei Jie)
So marks the end of the line for Kilo-Hotel, Kilo-Gulf and Quebec-Juliet, after many years of loyal service to Singapore Airlines, its windows witnessing thousands of successful landings and her seats home to millions of travellers bound for destinations across the world. Its definitely a strong sense of nostalgia witnessing these stripped-down giants unceremoniously left to the elements waiting for their pending destruction. But this is the fate of many airliners across the world, and with the pandemic raging on with no end in sight, many airlines find themselves with aging aircraft that nobody wants. The simplest solution: strip out all recyclable parts and the remaining to be sent for scrap. While this does seem like a bitter end for such amazing flying machines, there is a silver lining to it, for these recycled parts will eventually all other aircraft to be given a new lease of life; an odd juxtaposition of aviation cannibalism, the death of one for the long-term survival of many others.
(Photo by Gavin Ang)
The journey of the aircraft recycling process is a fascinating one, as it must pass through many stage gates before its parts are torn down. The first stage of the process is the decommissioning of the aircraft from the fleet. This will include painting over the decals and the logos from the airframe and the striking off the airframe from the airline’s register. However, at this stage most of the aircraft parts and interiors remain intact, and is sent for storage, either at the airline’s home base or sent to storage areas like Alice Springs and Mojave. There, aircraft will either wait to be picked up by a new owner or sent for recycling/scrap.
(Photo by Gavin Ang)
Once the airframe has been designated for scrap, the real process of parts removal begins with the non-destructive dismantling assembly. In this step, all the easily removable parts are taken out from the plane – the cabin interiors, seating, aircraft engines. Most of the items can find a new lease of life as spare parts for the airline, such as the flight computers, avionics, landing gears, flight control systems, engine components, interior cabin components, etc., and it may surprise some that the spare parts recovery is a multi-billion door industry. After all, for those who have travelled frequently, one will encounter a few delayed related to mechanical difficulties, and often, rectification will involve replacing spares from scrapped aircraft. Furthermore, re-using old, cannibalised parts is a good way to reduce maintenance costs for airlines, as many of these recycled parts may have long service life expectancies.
Once all the removal parts have been extracted, the airframe is left as nothing but a skeleton. From there, excavators will come in to demolish the airframe. With luck, some pieces will be preserved and made into the fabled aircraft tags and other memorabilia. The remains are then separated into different categories, such as metals (aluminium, titanium, etc.), recyclables (glass, rubber, plastics) and hazardous wastes.
There has also been a growing interest in the field of upcycling. Upcycling, or creative reuse, is a process of converting waste or unwanted parts into items of higher value. In trends with modern design and creative products, many airlines like Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines have been exploring converting their unwanted aircraft parts like doors, winglets or even seating fabric into items like artwork, clothes or even furniture pieces. Not only these initiatives offer another way of reusing aircraft scraps, but also open the doors to more opportunities for other non-aviation related businesses to tap into a large pool of materials to use into future products.
(Photo by Airbus)
It is more environmentally friendly that recycle as much of the materials from the aircraft as possible, but with the advent of composites that make up a growing proportion of all aircraft currently produced, there is a growing challenge to economically recycle such materials and the industry required to recycle carbon fibre and other composites still remain a niche industry and still relatively in its infancy. Recycling and salvaging will definitely remain a forgotten but critical part of the aviation industry, but with our dwindling pool of natural resources to harvest for aircraft parts and construction, recycling materials will undoubtedly continue to grow in importance. With the introduction of new technologies, aircraft recycling will eventually become more viable. Furthermore, as aircraft manufacturers like Airbus making the big push to more environmentally friendly methods of production, it will not be surprising that environmental sustainability of aircraft recycling will be put under the spotlight for greater improvements in the years to come. In addition, with more non-conventional designs for home living and related products, more aircraft parts may find its way into our homes or the products we use.