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Maintenance crews remove engine covers from a JetBlue aircraft (Photo: AirlineGeeks | William Derrickson)

Inside Look: How an Airliner is Returned to Service After Being in Storage

Aviation is an ever-evolving industry, more so now than ever. Airlines are changing schedules by the day and placing aircraft into storage as the sector has taken an unprecedented tumble due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The jarring slump in air travel demand has left aircraft around the world virtually empty and airlines struggling to keep staff employed. No passenger air carrier is immune from the coronavirus’s effects, even as recovery glimmers on a distant horizon.

During this period, there simply isn’t enough passenger demand to keep all commercial aircraft flying. Thus, most air carriers have opted to place a large chunk of their fleets in storage programs where the aircraft will sit idle.

According to Cirium data, 13,963 commercial mainline aircraft were in storage in mid-April. This number has declined since to approximately 10,454 jets as of June. In the March-April timeframe, during the arguable COVID-19 peak worldwide, more commercial airliners were in storage programs than in active service.

Parked JetBlue aircraft at Pinal Airpark in Marana, Ariz. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | William Derrickson)

Since then, these numbers have shifted and more aircraft are now flying. Cirium data reported approximately 11,466 active aircraft in June.

“While the recovery of the active fleet is a positive development, the average utilization for those aircraft that are back in service is still more than 35% down over the start of 2019,” according to Cirium Economist Peter Morris, speaking to Flightglobal.

Getting Back to the Skies

After a commercial aircraft has been sitting for several months, it must undergo several maintenance tasks and safety checks before it can fly passengers once again. As the old industry saying goes, “an airplane on the ground doesn’t make money.” In this case, these sitting jets are more-than-likely bleeding money.

New York-based JetBlue has placed 75 aircraft into a so-called “active storage program” at Pinal Airpark in the largely rural Marana, Ariz. Most of these aircraft have been sitting in the desert since April, awaiting their next mission.

JetBlue aircraft in Marana, Ariz. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | William Derrickson)

The 75 JetBlue aircraft sitting in Arizona couple with the dozens of other aircraft JetBlue has idled around its network. Ferrying these jets to the desert simply makes room at space-contained airports such as the airline’s hubs in New York or Boston. Plus, the desert climate is highly conducive to long-term aircraft parking.

“There’s actually a specified set of tasks that are part of reactivation from storage. The storage program starts with an induction program and then repetitive checks as you’re going on,” says Dave Querio, President of Ascent Aviation Services, which manages the majority of the property at Pinal Airpark. JetBlue selected Ascent to aid in storing its aircraft and maintain upkeep.

A JetBlue A320 aircraft is prepared to go back into service (Photo: AirlineGeeks | William Derrickson)

It’s not just as simple as dropping off an airliner and letting it sit, either. Periodic checks are conducted by maintenance crews to ensure airworthiness standards are met. If an operator needs an aircraft back in service, the reactivation process only takes a few days, assuming the jet was kept up. But if it hasn’t been, the ensuing process could take weeks or more.

“The airline may have additional maintenance requirements over and above the storage activities that we needed to do that they chose to do…but if none of those were due, it would be ready to deploy into service,” added Querio, who is also a licensed aircraft mechanic.

Lots of Landings, But Too Few Takeoffs

Ascent Aviation Services has seen more aircraft going back into service over the last three months. Its team works with carriers to reactivate the stored airliners. At one point in April, the small airpark was nearing capacity and making room for more storage space.

JetBlue’s ‘Blueprint’ special livery sits idle in the desert (Photo: AirlineGeeks | William Derrickson)

The company added over 200 aircraft to its storage line-up during the March-April timeframe. This number has trended downwards since then.

“I’d say we were the third busiest arrival airport in Arizona,” noted Querio. “You know, I’ve been in this industry for 35 years. I hate to see it depressed.”

While the market for air travel may be significantly depressed, Pinal Airpark bustled in the Spring, sometimes adding upwards of seven jets per day to its line-up. That dynamic has changed a bit, though. Now, two to three aircraft leave Marana on average per weekday.

A JetBlue A321 is pushed back for departure from Pinal Airpark (Photo: AirlineGeeks | William Derrickson)

JetBlue’s presence at the single-runway airpark has dwindled too as the airline returns more airplanes to active service. The number of JetBlue aircraft parked there has dropped to less than 40.

“While demand has improved materially from the lows we saw in April, bookings remain choppy, and we remain focused on addressing changing trends as we progress through the summer,” said JetBlue CEO Robin Hayes in the company’s second-quarter report.

The airline is joining other U.S. carriers matching an increase in demand with more aircraft returning to service, including American and Delta. Each has placed dozens of jets back into service since the demand trough in April.

A JetBlue A321 departs Pinal Airpark’s 6,000-foot runway to return to active service (Photo: AirlineGeeks | William Derrickson)

With a heavy domestic footprint, JetBlue is relatively well-positioned to weather the COVID-19 crisis, since international travel demand is next-to-none. This has been highlighted in recent weeks with the carrier’s strategic shift to Los Angeles from its long-time Long Beach hub and inking a new codeshare partnership with American Airlines.

Since its April trough, demand for air travel had been increasing worldwide until a July plateau, likely due to higher case counts in the U.S. and subsequent government restrictions imposed as a result. But as restrictions begin to loosen and case numbers begin a slow drop, increased air travel will almost undoubtedly follow. And when it does, the onus will once again fall on airlines to help get passengers back into the skies.

Ryan Ewing
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Ryan Ewing
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