Airline Planes Out of Storage for Post Covid Travel Rebound : The Indicator from Planet Money People are flying again. But so many airplanes are still parked in storage. Getting them in the air again isn't always so simple.
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It’s Time To Fly

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It's Time To Fly

It’s Time To Fly

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SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

DAVID GURA, HOST:

Just out of curiosity, Sally, I wonder how long it's been since you've taken a trip, since you've packed your bags and gone to the airport and gotten on a plane.

SALLY HERSHIPS, HOST:

Oh, my God. Actually...

GURA: (Laughter).

HERSHIPS: I have to admit it was not too long ago, but it was my first trip since the beginning of the pandemic, like at least a year, maybe more.

GURA: I get the sense that there are a lot of us who are fantasizing about flights, about doing something that used to be so totally normal.

HERSHIPS: Oh, yeah. The build-up in my house before this flight was so big. We were, like, counting down the days on my calendar.

GURA: That's a big deal. Well, airlines are betting there's a lot of pent-up demand. In 2020, there were 60% fewer passengers than the year before, and the industry lost about $120 billion. I called up Richard Evans. He's an aviation consultant.

RICHARD EVANS: We all still want to travel. I've been speaking to people today saying, I'm desperate to go somewhere. We're all getting bored sat at home, not traveling, not seeing friends and relatives, not going to somewhere nice and sunny for a holiday.

GURA: There's the boredom. That's one thing. There's the wanderlust. That's another. But there are also these other factors, right? We can get vaccinated now, and the government has said that if you've been vaccinated, it's fine to travel.

HERSHIPS: So airlines - they are getting ready. They're changing their schedules. They're adding flights. They are doing everything they can do to get passengers back. And they're also - and I want to say this is no small thing. They are making sure they have enough planes to keep up with demand, which sounds important.

GURA: Yeah. Airlines made a decision during the pandemic to put thousands and thousands of airplanes in storage to take them out of service. They were worried. They didn't know how long this was going to last. Richard Evans, that consultant, told me that at the peak of the pandemic, there were almost 17,000 planes in storage.

HERSHIPS: That is about eight times as many planes as are usually in storage. Most of them have been parked at these special storage facilities. They're in Spain. They're in Australia. There are some big ones out west, where 400 planes are parked nose to nose. I would like to see that.

GURA: (Laughter).

HERSHIPS: The rule of thumb is if you're going to put a plane in storage, try to park it someplace that is hot and dry.

GURA: So airlines have paid to put them there. And now there are people like you and me, millions more who are vaccinated and feeling comfortable with the idea of traveling. And this means the airlines have to get most of those planes back online and quickly. The problem is it's not exactly a quick process.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HERSHIPS: This is THE INDICATOR. I'm Sally Herships in for Stacey Vanek Smith.

GURA: And I'm David Gura. On today's show - what it takes to bring an airplane out of storage and back online.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GURA: When you're taking a plane out of storage, the first thing you're going to do is give that plane a once-over.

DAVE BUSCHI: If it's in a humid environment, I can tell you it's going to smell different.

GURA: Dave Buschi (ph) ran operations at two major airlines. He was the president of a regional carrier. And he says when a plane goes into storage, workers are going to litter its cabin with bags of desiccate. Think of those packets of silica that are in your seaweed snacks that capture moisture. Once the plane is aired out, it's time to make sure that nothing is damaged.

BUSCHI: You know, have you had any infestation of anything - bugs, rodents? You do not want a mouse or family of mice chewing at your wires.

HERSHIPS: Nobody wants a mouse chewing up their wires...

GURA: (Laughter) That's true.

HERSHIPS: ...Or a family of mice. There is a lot of prescribed maintenance, and the storage facility is going to try to seal up everything, including the engines, to keep stuff out. You also don't want any birds' nests growing in your plane's engine.

BUSCHI: I've seen airplanes parked that, you know, are aviaries in many respects.

GURA: Aviaries, he says - well, you see, parking a plane is not like parking a car.

BUSCHI: So you replace fluids, drain fluids, seal up all openings. And anything that can be hurt by UV, especially your windows and stuff, you're going to mask over. And then your avionics are another thing because your avionics - you're going to start pulling all your computers out where you can because they don't like heat.

GURA: Avionics are the plane's electronics, so there's a lot of stuff to reverse. And storing a big plane is not cheap. You pay an induction fee of anywhere from 20,000- to $30,000. Then you pay by the month anywhere from 5,000- to $15,000. And if a plane has been in storage long enough, you're going to pay for more maintenance. And some of this can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. All this gets to the calculus that airlines went through. When demand dropped, they were trying really hard to conserve cash. One thing about flying - the margins are really thin.

BUSCHI: You've got to start the meter in every airplane (laughter). It's just like a taxi, so it does have to fly a lot to make money.

HERSHIPS: Yeah, and it has to be full - Dave says more than 80% - which is why carriers started to panic as COVID spread. Some airlines started flying more freight to bring in money.

GURA: Dave says it's important to remember that storing a plane is not just about storing the actual plane. Storage also affects staffing. You no longer need pilots and flight crews and maintenance technicians. So when you store one, you have to think about what will have to happen when you bring that plane back online. You're going to need that staff, and a lot of them will require training before they're able to fly again.

BUSCHI: And you've got your supply chain issues.

HERSHIPS: Airlines have relationships with lots of parts suppliers. They're buying parts regularly. The carrier doesn't want those companies to go out of business while their plane is in storage. Again, they're going to rely on those companies when their planes are back in service, so an airline is often going to continue to order parts even if a plane is in storage. They'll stockpile them.

GURA: The last year has also given airlines an opportunity to assess what planes they want to keep flying going forward. Storage can lead to retirement of planes that were maybe too old or planes that burned a lot of fuel. In airline lingo, they've decided to divest themselves of some planes and rationalize their fleets.

HERSHIPS: Today those same managers who decided to put some planes in storage are looking at the numbers again, and they're trying to figure out what the airline needs.

BUSCHI: Again, the planning and scheduling guys say, look; our crystal ball tells us that four months from now, we're going to need these aircraft back in service, either a whole fleet or part of a fleet.

HERSHIPS: And they're going to start bringing them back as if they were receiving deliveries of new aircraft, not all at once. Getting a plane ready to go back into service can take anywhere from a few days to a month if it's been in storage for a while.

GURA: What's tough is it's hard to predict just how much demand there's going to be. There's no playbook here. Who can say how many people are really going to be willing and ready to start cramming into crowded airports and planes and traveling to unfamiliar places? Richard Evans, that aviation consultant, says airlines can do a lot of planning on their own, but they need help. They need information about when countries are going to allow international travel again.

EVANS: We can't just suddenly start flying 100% of our fleet tomorrow. We need to be given some guidance by governments as to when we can start flying again.

GURA: If you look at planes stored as a barometer, it seems like they're confident they're going to get that information. Richard's consultancy keeps track of how many planes are parked, and that number has been cut in half since the peak of the pandemic.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HERSHIPS: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Jamila Huxtable with help from Gilly Moon. It was fact-checked by Sam Caiand edited by Dave Blanchard. THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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