It was a hot summer day in North Carolina, and it was a much younger me when I decided to drive to the small local airport and take a discovery flight. I remember paying my fee, filling out the forms, and walking out to a white and red Piper PA-28. Little did I know at the same time, the lesson had already begun with the pre-flight inspection. The flight was short but exhausting in the heat and excitement of it all, a checklist for preflight, a checklist for starting the engine, a checklist for before take-off, checklist after take-off, a checklist for cruise, a checklist for before landing, a checklist after landing, a checklist for parking. I had never seen so many checklists before but deep down inside I understood why and was glad they were there.
In short, the point of the checklist on the ground is to ensure the aircraft is in airworthiness condition before the flight and again after landing to ensure the aircraft is stored to maintain airworthiness condition. These checklists/walkarounds are performed before every flight on small aircraft as well as commercial airliners to ensure the aircraft is safe and airworthy and alert any coming issues that may arise in the future. This along with regular maintenance cycles and inspections ensures we have a safe air transportation system.
The Results of Aircraft Parking
So, what happens when we park aircraft for an extended time? Well…we follow the checklist. Storing aircraft is a complicated ordeal. When an aircraft is in service it is continuously maintained and checked for airworthiness issues. The procedure for storage might differ between aircraft type, the airline maintenance manual, or regulatory factors but in all the ideas are the same. Typically, there are two different types of aircraft storage services provided, Active Parking and Long-Term Storage. The type of storage chosen will depend on several factors other than the amount of time. Airlines may consider the age of the aircraft, commonality with aircraft still in service, size of the aircraft, and available cash.
With Active parking, the aircraft is minimally preserved and kept in airworthy condition. The engines are started on a regular basis and run for a specific amount of time, the aircraft is rolled or moved back and forth to keep the tires from getting flat spots, the interior is inspected and treated to keep away mold and insects, avionics and other systems are regularly turned on and inspected to ensure they are working and regular maintenance is still performed. While active parking ensures the aircraft can be returned to revenue service quickly, it comes with a higher monthly cost and manpower requirement.
Alternatively, there is the option of long-term storage, a longer process, and checklist for protecting the aircraft for an extended amount of time, typically 120 days or more. This can take up to two weeks or more to complete and includes things like sealing all gaps, covering all ports and probes, additives are added to the engine and hydraulic systems, the interior is treated to prevent mold or insects, windows and landing gear are covered with protective coverings, and the aircraft is moored and grounded to the earth. With the aircraft being put into long term storage, the return to service checklist is much longer and time-consuming as well. In addition, the maintenance clock continues to count down. Even though the maintenance usually doesn’t have to happen while in storage, all items that came due during the storage period must be performed before it can be returned to service. While there is a cost to perform this type of storage, the reoccurring monthly costs when compared to active storage are much less so this might appeal to airlines struggling with cash.
The Effect of COVID-19 on Airplanes
With the COVID-19 scare bringing historically low demand in flying causing airlines and private fleets to ground large percentages of their aircraft, either in Active or Long-Term Storage, what does this mean for the recovery and the future of air travel? It’s getting hard to say. The most recent example would be 9/11 when air traffic was grounded for 3 days, right now we have aircraft that have been grounded for over a month. Granted the recovery post 9/11 was slow and some aircraft remained on the ground for some time. I suspect we will see a slow return to service for passenger flying but a sharp increase in maintenance events to return the parked aircraft to service.
Any aircraft in active parking should see a shorter return to service time but it isn’t a flip the engines on and fly out kind of deal. It will still take days or weeks to ensure they can return to service safely. The aircraft in Long term storage could take hundreds of man-hours to return to service and some will remain in storage for much longer. There is also the older aircraft put in storage that may never fly again. Airlines may opt to only return the younger more fuel-efficient aircraft to service as they look to reduce costs. Those older aircraft will most likely be disassembled for parts and scrapped.
I expect the flying public will be ready to fly once the lockdowns are lifted and we have a grasp on the COVID-19 recovery, I know I will be ready to fly again. As demand goes up, it will create a rush to get the aircraft back in the air, and parts will have to move to make this happen. To move these parts, a knowledgeable and capable expedited logistics partner will be paramount in the quick return to service of aircraft. In all, it will most likely take months for airlines to return their fleets to service, even if the demand returned overnight.
So, what does your checklist look like for “return to service”? It doesn’t matter if you are in the airline industry, retail, or the medial industry. COVID-19 has affected us all and we must focus on the return to service moment at some point. Wouldn’t a checklist be a good idea to make sure you are efficient and timely in our response to the recovery efforts? If Airspace Technologies is not a part of your checklist, reach out to us, and have a discussion on how we provide the most advanced technology and tracking in the expedited logistics industry.