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Passenger aircraft may be slowly returning to the skies, but “a significant proportion may never return”, according to FlightGlobal.
The consultancy estimates that, over the next decade, up to 17,000 aircraft may be decommissioned, with four-engined aircraft likely to be most affected.
Global head of consultancy Rob Morris said: “The passenger [Boeing] 747 is probably at the end of its line. The [Airbus] 340-600 is also threatened.”
But what will happen to aircraft destined for the boneyard? Currently, some 85% to 90% of an aircraft is recycled, according to Sven Daniel Koechler, managing principal and general manager of North American Aerospace Industries Corporation (NAAI), which is investing $100m in a new aircraft recycling facility in Kinston, North Carolina. But he aims to get this up to 100%.
Aircraft owners, manufacturers and others already re-use decommissioned aircraft parts, but Mr Koechler argued that the remainder should be “upcycled”, instead of going to landfill.
“We can give those materials a new life, which in turn will help give a new life to those in need.
“In the US alone, there are over 38m Americans, many of them children, living in poverty, based on the last US Census in 2018. They don’t have proper clothing or housing. There’s no reason why remaining materials from retired aircraft can’t be recycled to produce footwear, clothing, hats, coats, gloves and even tiny homes for those in need.”
Mr Koechler said there had not been enough emphasis on meeting social needs through aircraft recycling, as the focus had been on commercial applications including art, furnishings and luggage.
“An average commercial aircraft has 800 to 1,000 parts that can be recycled. The most valuable are the engine, landing gear, avionics and electronics. Once these are removed, overhauled, tested and re-certified, they can be repurposed back into aviation,” he explained.
“The remaining materials, including aluminum, copper and various alloys, can go to recycling facilities and returned to the raw material supply chain.
“That leaves many interior components, such as seating, overhead bins, cabinets and walls, which are largely comprised of composite materials such as carbon reinforced polymers. These can be responsibly recycled to meet critical social needs.
“I challenge the industry to start thinking and acting to create a more sustainable and socially minded view of aircraft recycling.”