Innovative French airline recycling and storage service

It’s not just the pandemic that has dampened air travel – growing concern over the environmental impact of flying is putting additional pressure on airlines.

As planes become more efficient and airlines insist they are doing all they can to reduce emissions pollution, the spotlight turns to another environmental concern – namely, what is happening when the machines reach the end of their lifespan?

Until the early 2000s, few saw this as a problem. Old planes that could no longer be kept in working order were disposed of like used cars – either crushed and buried or left to rust in giant ghostly junkyards.

In 2007, a French company was created to offer a solution to the problem and at the same time take advantage of a business opportunity.

A redundant aircraft may no longer be airworthy, but it is still full of components that can be used as spares for aircraft still in the air.

All you need is the facilities, tools and know-how to turn scrap into profitable parts stock. Tarmac Aerosave, located opposite the runway of Tarbes Lourdes airport in the Hautes-Pyrénées, is a consortium owned by aircraft manufacturer Airbus, Safran, a high-tech aerospace and aircraft engine manufacturing company , and Suez, which specializes in waste management.

It is the world’s number one in aircraft and engine recycling.

Aircraft components at Tarmac Aerosave

When an aircraft reaches the end of its life, it is transported to Tarbes where specialized teams get to work.

They start with the soft elements – seats, carpets and other fittings and accessories – and gradually reduce the fuselage to a shell. The engines, for their part, benefit from special treatment in a hangar dedicated to precision dismantling.

The final step is to cut the plane into pieces using a special diamond saw to salvage the steel and aluminum.

Each part – from the seats to the black box – is sorted and stored ready to be resold. What cannot be reused is sent for recycling. Windows, for example, are transformed into fleece jackets.

The whole process, from the plane’s final landing to the recycling bin, can take as little as two weeks, depending on the size of the plane. Nearly 300 aircraft have been treated in this way over the past 14 years.

Patrick Lecer, CEO of Tarmac Aerosave, said: “We reuse around 60% of the components, all carefully checked by engineers.

“In total, we can recycle 90% of an aircraft. One day, we hope it will be 100%. Currently, only carbon, foam and certain types of plastic cannot be recycled. »

This is just one of Tarmac Aerosave’s activities: it provides another service to airlines, which has come into its own during the pandemic.

Last year, air transport practically came to a standstill. The sudden drop in flights has forced around 5,000 passenger planes to be withdrawn from service and stored indefinitely.

Tarmac Aerosave operates the largest aircraft parking facilities in Europe: 15 km of apron, or tarmac, at four sites.

In addition to Tarbes Lourdes, there is a large long-term storage area in Teruel, Spain, where the same dry mountain air that is used for curing hams helps reduce paint and metal deterioration.

The other two sites are in Toulouse and Vatry, in northeastern France.

In total, the company can store 280 aircraft, from the smallest short-range models to jumbo jets and double-decker Airbus 380s.

“Parking” is the wrong term, as a stationary aircraft needs constant monitoring and maintenance to maintain its safety certification. Much of Tarmac Aerosave’s employee time is spent verifying that every system on an aircraft is in working order.

On a more mundane level, every aircraft needs to be protected from damage from the elements and nesting birds.

Even without a pandemic, planes need to be put in storage for a variety of reasons, including transitioning from one carrier to another or in reserve until seasonal demand puts them back in the air.

Recent events may have shaken the industry, but will air travel return to how it was before the pandemic, I asked Patrick Lecer?

“Yes,” he told me. “It may be a little reduced but the demand is still there.

“I’ve spent my entire career in the industry and it’s doubled in size every 15 years or so.

“Maybe from now on it will only double in size every 20 years.”

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