While planes are getting more efficient, and airlines insist they are doing all they can to reduce emissions pollution, the spotlight is shifting to another eco concern – namely, what happens when machines reach the end of their lifespan?
Until the early 2000s, few considered this to be an issue. 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 ghostly, giant scrapyards.
In 2007, a French firm was created to offer a solution to the problem and at the same time take advantage of a business opportunity.
A redundant plane might no longer be airworthy but it is still full of components that can be used as spare parts for planes still flying.
It just takes the facilities, the tools and the know-how to turn grounded junk into a stock of profitable pieces. Tarmac Aerosave, based across the runway from Tarbes Lourdes airport in Hautes-Pyrénées, is a consortium owned by plane-maker Airbus, Safran, a high-tech aerospace and aircraft engine manufacturing company, and Suez, which specialises in waste management.
It is the world’s number one for aircraft and engine recycling.
When a plane reaches the end of its life, it is flown to Tarbes where specialist teams get to work on it.
They start with the soft stuff – seats, carpets and other fixtures and fittings – and gradually reduce the fuselage to a shell. Engines, meanwhile, get special treatment in a hangar set aside for precision dismantling.
The final stage is to cut the aeroplane into chunks using a special diamond saw so that the steel and aluminium can be recovered.
Every piece – from seats to the black box – is sorted and stored ready for resale. What cannot be reused is sent for recycling. The windowpanes, for example, are turned 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 aircraft. Almost 300 planes have been processed in this way over the last 14 years.