The Unemployment Line

Where airliners go when they’re out of work.

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Airliners are designed to fly, not sit. Aluminum corrodes, rubber dries out, engines rust, and electronics fry in the heat. Keeping an airliner airworthy requires regular inspections, engine runups, taxi checks, and the cycling of all major systems to ensure pneumatics, hydraulics, and avionics remain in working order. All of these routines are mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration. Airlines may opt to simply park a jet and have it brought back to life when necessary, and of course that option costs less. But McAndrew says long-term parking necessitates a lot of extra maintenance at a later time. “It’s a question of ‘pay me now’ or ‘pay me later,’ ” he says.

McAndrew says his firm houses only about 30 jets whose owners aren’t interested in returning them to service, and points out that Evergreen recently passed on housing 65 727s retired by a major U.S. carrier that had no plans to fly them.

Sometimes, McAndrew says, Evergreen finds itself in the uncomfortable position of nudging owners toward the idea of scrapping their aircraft. He points to a string of 747SPs parked at Evergreen. Right now, the only potential customers for the SP—a short-body, long-wing, long-range variant that has fallen out of favor among airlines—are heads of state, or anyone else with the cash to buy one and convert it into an airborne equivalent of a yacht. “There’s about 30 more SPs out there than there’s a market for,” McAndrew says with a “What are ya gonna do?” shrug. “It comes down to a few thousand dollars a month to store what they think could be a several-million-dollar asset, and right now they’re still willing to take that gamble. It’s when this goes on for six or seven years that you have to start wondering.”

It’s not just old stock that winds up idled. Storage yards have recently seen the arrival of factory-fresh aircraft whose would-be operators either canceled their orders or postponed acceptance until the industry recovers. At the Southern California Logistics Airport in Victorville, I peer through a chain-link fence at 800-series 737s straight from Boeing sitting alongside 600-series 747s recently pulled off the line by United. “They still have the new plane smell,” says airport manager Peter Soderquist.

For all the newer stock at Victorville, though, I also saw a billion beer-cans-in-waiting in the form of old 727s and L-1011s, 150 of which were idled there even before September 11.

According to Airclaims’ data, 727s in storage have nearly doubled in number, from pre-attack levels of 233 to 415 today. Aging British Aerospace VC10s and DC-9s have also been sent into storage as part of the thinning of the herd that often accompanies downturns in the airline industry.

Back at Evergreen, we leave Alcoa behind as Sharif continues the tour of the 1,600-acre center, weaving expertly under wings and around low-hanging engine nacelles. Outside my window, jets of all sizes and descriptions flash past, everything from towering 747s (Evergreen is home to 60 of the monsters, including the ones used by NASA to piggyback space shuttles around) to MD-80s and 737s that seem diminutive in comparison.

We pass a pair of MD-90s, each of which has around 5,000 hours on it—practically brand new by airliner standards. The jets, owned by a leasing corporation, still sport the colors of ProAir, a now-defunct low-fare regional carrier based in the southeastern United States. “They didn’t make it,” Sharif says. “September 11th killed ’em.” We continue on, past a major U.S. carrier’s retired DC-10, whose crazed appearance causes me to do a double take.

“What the—?”

“They’re signatures,” Sharif tells me. Writ large along the airplane’s fuselage are hundreds of signatures—some must be as high as two or three feet. The airline’s employees had them scanned into a computer and turned into stencils, which were then transferred onto the airplane. “That was the last DC-10 they flew,” Sharif says. “I guess they wanted to give it a big sendoff.”

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