The Unemployment Line

Where airliners go when they’re out of work.

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AL SHARIF PULLS HIS ASHTRAY-SCENTED SEDAN over to the side of the ramp and parks. “I call this place Alcoa,” he says, blowing a jet of smoke through his open window and into the mild desert air.

Just beyond the car lies a hobbled early-series Boeing 737; its landing gear struts have been stripped off, and it’s been left to totter ignobly on its belly. Further on sits a fuselage from some wide-body, neatly scythed up like a piece of summer sausage, with seats and overhead baggage bins still in place.

A piece of machinery that would look at home sinking trenches clatters up to the fuselage of a DC-10 and, with a mechanical claw, begins tearing into the smooth skin as easily as if it were made of foil. Nearby, another machine, with an arm wielding what appears to be the world’s largest bolt cutters, works over a portion of a wing. As we watch, the machine snaps through a stringer, producing a loud thock. Sharif chuckles and turns to me. “Pretty cool, huh?” he asks.

For most of the great airplanes, this is the way the world ends, not with a bang (thankfully) but routinely, beneath chromium blue desert skies.

Watching the scene, I’m reminded of the time I stood on the Las Vegas strip to toast the destruction of the landmark Sands Hotel & Casino. As the demolition charges rippled through the building like a string a firecrackers, another of the grand dames of the Vegas skyline vanished from the earth, the victim of obsolescence and changing tastes.

Commercial jetliners occupy a similarly rarefied niche. Jets are among our most enduring icons of progress, modernity, and escape. Yet despite the meanings we have attached to them, they, like casinos, are also just simple commodities. The jets arrayed before us have had every last ounce of value wrung out of them, and all they’re worth now is the scrap value of their aluminum hulls (about $30,000 for a 747, Sharif tells me).

This is one solution to “excess fleet capacity”—an industry euphemism for too many seats for too few butts—and it’s what I’ve come to see on this pleasant spring morning at the Evergreen Air Center: what happens when airlines cut flights by 20 percent, the result of an economic slowdown and the kick in the industry’s groin delivered on September 11.

Set amid the gray-green creosote and mesquite 50 miles northeast of Tucson, Evergreen is one of a handful of dry-climate MROs—maintenance/repair organizations—qualified to perform heavy maintenance on big jets. Sharif is Evergreen’s manager of heavy maintenance sales. Lately, though, maintenance has been on the wane, while the centers’ other functions—storage and scrapping—have spiked. According to Airclaims, a London-based group that keeps tabs on the world airliner population, the number of jets in storage has increased from around 1,300 on September 10 to 1,986 as of press time. At Evergreen, the population of parked airplanes has increased from a pre-attack total of 130 to almost 170 today, with another 20 expected before things level off. The other desert storage centers—in Mojave and Victorville, California, and in Roswell, New Mexico—have experienced similar upsurges.

I feel fortunate just to be here. None of the other MROs would grant me access, and the officials with whom I spoke were maddeningly skittish. After all, their biggest clients are major airlines, who are understandably anxious about the public’s perceptions of their safety and stability, so any discussion of parked or—heaven forbid!—old jets is decidedly taboo. I’ve been allowed to see this place only on the condition that I not identify any of the airlines whose airplanes I see.

These big jets, far from the bustling ramps at busy airports, seem incongruous here, with their silent engines, foil covers (to keep out birds and dirt), and wrapped tires and windows (to protect against ultraviolet light). Storing an airliner costs from $1,000 a month on up, depending on its size and the amount of attention it needs, says Robert McAndrew, Evergreen’s vice president for marketing. Keeping a 747 in flyable condition runs $5,000 a month, with 15 to 20 percent of that going for parking alone.

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