The average aircraft has about 800 to 1,000 parts that can be reused when it comes out of service. And upcycling the parts — using old materials to make something new and different — has gained traction in recent years.
Dave W. Hall got hooked by the allure of flying machines after a family friend took him up in a little Cessna 172 for his first flight when he was about 8. “I had a lot of model toy airplanes,” said Hall, who grew up in the 1970s on a small farm in Ohio. “What little boy doesn’t hold out his arms and pretend he’s flying?”
Today he is co-founder and owner of MotoArt Studios, a Torrance, California, business that sands, polishes, paints and redesigns retired airplane parts that began with an old propeller destined for the junkyard that was turned into a free-standing sculpture.
“We can’t get rid of this,” Hall recalled his then-partner saying at the time. “A light bulb went off,” Hall said. “We can preserve aviation history.”
The average life span of a commercial jet is about 25 years, and something like 12,000 of them and other aircraft are expected to reach the end of life in the next two decades. That is an average of about 600 airplanes each year, according to the Aircraft Fleet Recycling Association. What happens to all those planes when they are no longer economically viable and ready to come out of service?
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At MotoArt, fuselages become conference tables. Cowlings, the metal coverings of an engine, are made into beds. Wings are turned into dramatic, one-of-a-kind corporate executive desks. Windows are transformed into mirrors.
“We’ve been creating beautiful pieces of functional aviation art from recycled aircraft for over 18 years now,” Hall said. “Each piece tells a story.”
Prices range from $25 (and up) for PlaneTags that are made from the skin of retired planes and customized for luggage or keys to $20,000 to $35,000 for conference tables.
Upcycling airplane parts — that is, using old materials to make something new and different — has gained traction in recent years, said Henry Harteveldt, a travel-industry analyst and president of Atmosphere Research Group.
“Good design attracts the eye. It makes you think,” he said. “There’s a recognition by consumers that there are aspects of machines that lend themselves to being reused in many beautiful ways.”
Access to retired aircraft materials used to be difficult, but in recent years they have become more available. The result is a wider range of products than ever before, Harteveldt said. “It’s become a much more efficient marketplace as more companies have become socially and environmentally responsible.”
Typically, when a plane reaches the end of its life, the airline or owner may keep some parts for reuse internally in its fleet or sell the plane. Some aircraft may be converted into cargo planes. Remaining inventory is often sold to aviation-parts traders or consignment vendors who remove, sell, recycle and dispose of parts, industry experts say. Components (everything from cockpit instrumentation and the outer shell of the plane known as skin, to seats and food-service equipment) in good condition can be used to equip other planes or are recycled or upcycled into things like beverage cans, clothing, and home and office furnishings.
Jennifer Longley — a former flight attendant for United Airlines and now owner and chief executive of Planewear — sells aviation-themed accessories online and at a shop at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Among the items she carries: handbags she designed from unused vintage aircraft upholstery seat fabric that was sitting in a warehouse for more than 25 years, and wallets, handbags and duffel bags fashioned from Alaska Airlines and Southwest Airlines leather seat covers. (Many airlines now favor lightweight faux leather).
Many items are produced commercially, but unique uses abound: an old galley cart turned into a home bar, wings from an old Boeing 747 that form the roof of a private house, and first-class seats used as lounge chairs for a high-end man cave, Harteveldt said. He owns cuff links in the shape of a wing rib made from the fuselage of a Pan Am Boeing 707.
James Cobbold, global sales manager for Air Salvage International, a disassembly company based at Cotswold Airport, Gloucestershire, England, said his company had dismantled more than 700 planes in the last 22 years. Of aircraft industrywide, he said, “about 92 percent are recycled in one form or another.”
The average aircraft has about 800 to 1,000 parts that can be reused when it comes out of service. The largest assets, like the engine and landing gear, are often removed, repaired, tested, recertified and used in another aircraft in a carrier’s fleet. Aluminum, copper wiring and other precious metals go to recycling centers and back to the raw supply chain.
Interior components made of mixed plastics, like overhead bins and walls, “are currently the only parts of an aircraft that can’t be recycled,” Cobbold said.
Amy Bann, who leads environmental strategy for sustainable materials in the commercial airplanes division of Boeing, said that many interior components contain flame retardants critical for passenger safety and are required by regulators. “No technology exists today to extract that content,” she said.
Both Bann and Cobbold are on the board of directors of the Aircraft Fleet Recycling Association, which runs an accreditation program to promote aircraft-disassembly and materials-recycling procedures that are safe and responsible for the environment.
Composite materials, like carbon fiber, that are in the early stages of use in aircraft are able to be recycled today by recovering the fibers for use in products like electronics. “Boeing, Airbus and the industry as a whole is investing heavily in R&D to learn how to responsibly and cost-effectively recycle those materials,” Cobbold said.
Boeing has been involved in a variety of demonstrations that have proved the recyclable nature of composite and other challenging materials, Bann said.
For example, “We worked with two business partners in May 2018 to conduct the world’s first dismantling of a composite fuselage airplane, an early production 787 Dreamliner.” The goal is to “help the industry develop techniques for composite airplane recycling” for aircraft that will not begin to retire for at least another decade, she said.
Southwest Airlines, which removed 87 planes from service in 2017 and recycled parts of 23, has additionally taken what it calls a holistic approach. In 2013 it created a “Repurpose with Purpose” program that has upcycled, downcycled and recycled nearly 900,000 pounds of discarded leather seat covers and other materials from planes into soccer balls, shoes, handicrafts and jewelry. Some products and materials are used or sold by its vendor partners to generate income; other materials are shredded to make padding for the furniture and automotive industries.