American Airlines is putting its parked airplanes back in the sky
As the COVID-19 travel slump ends, the airline with the world's largest fleet is preparing its aircraft to carry passengers again. It can take 1,000 hours of work per plane.
Kent GermanFormer senior managing editor / features
Kent was a senior managing editor at CNET News. A veteran of CNET since 2003, he reviewed the first iPhone and worked in both the London and San Francisco offices. When not working, he's planning his next vacation, walking his dog or watching planes land at the airport (yes, really).
When air travel plummeted due to the COVID-19 pandemic early in 2020, airlines around the world had to find somewhere to store their empty planes. It was a complicated effort, not just because a commercial airliner needs a big parking space, but also because a machine worth around $375 million (a Boeing 777's list price) needs constant care while it's on the ground.
It all made for a busy year for Ed Sangricco, the managing director of American Airlines' aircraft maintenance base in Tulsa, Oklahoma. At the depths of the travel slump, he had to care for 70 unused planes, regularly checking their parts and interiors to keep them in shape for a brighter future when they'd be flying again.
"Our primary business isn't storing aircraft, it's flying aircraft," Sangricco says of American, the largest airline in the world when it comes to fleet size with 851 planes. "It was a real culture shock when we had to start parking them, because we had to develop a maintenance program for storing them."
Months later, thanks to a rapid vaccine rollout in the US and the lifting of most lockdowns measures, air travel is soaring again. For the week beginning April 11, there were 138,541 domestic flights across the US, more than double the same period in 2020. It's not quite back to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics' baseline number for flights in the middle of April (180,484), but it's welcome news for American and other airlines like United rushing to make their aircraft passenger-ready again.
For Sangricco, this is no time to rest. Just as storing a plane is a big job, so is putting it back in the air -- as much as 1,000 hours of work for one plane.
When we talked over the phone last month, the Tulsa base had brought back all but eight of its 70 stored aircraft. "When you have an aircraft in storage, there is no one single thing that you're doing," he said. "You want to make sure that everything is working properly and safely before we put it into service."
Downtime in Tulsa
Sprawling over 330 acres on the other side of the runway from Tulsa International Airport's passenger terminals, American's facility is the largest commercial aircraft maintenance base in the world. In "normal" times, its 5,500 employees service about 900 aircraft per year, performing both simple tune-ups and longer overhauls when the plane is torn down to its shell.
That real estate and built-in expertise made Tulsa an ideal place to store airplanes when passengers stopped flying. (American also stored aircraft at its base in Pittsburgh and at the Roswell International Air Center in New Mexico.)
"[Airplanes] were littered all up and down the taxiways and all on our ramp," Sangricco said. "Anywhere we can find pavement, we added aircraft."
Sangricco's crews also are reactivating planes stored at Roswell, and they performed the FAA-mandated repairs to American's original 24 Boeing 737 Max aircraft, which were grounded for two years following crashes in 2018 and 2019 that killed 346 people. (In December, American was the first US airline to resume Max flights.)
The first step to putting a plane back into service is making sure to care for it properly while it's stored. Regular tasks include moving the aircraft to keep the tires rotated, lubricating the flight control surfaces, covering external openings to keep out animals and debris, closing the window shades, putting desiccant bags in the cockpit and passenger cabin to absorb moisture, and running the engines, hydraulics, air conditioner and Auxiliary Power Unit.
Aircraft going into storage longer than a year receive extra attention such as carefully preserving the engines, a plane's most expensive and important part. (According to our sister site The Points Guy, jet engine manufacturers don't release per-unit cost, but a typical engine for the Boeing 787 can cost around $42 million.)
"When aircraft are being stored, they still have to be worked," Sangricco says. "You can't just park them, cover them up and forget about them until you need to use them."
Then it's go time
When the lucky call comes for an airliner to resume its rightful place in the sky, mechanics basically reverse the storage process. They remove any warning streamers, purify the water system, check the fuel tanks and lines to clear any algae, remove engine preservation, freshen the cabin, and uncover the windows, engines, ports and pitot tubes.
Crews also use an aircraft's downtime to complete needed cabin overhauls like installing new seats, carpet or overhead bins. And even though it's not flying, a plane also gets any regular checks on its maintenance calendar while it's stored.
"Nothing gets skipped," Sangricco says. "Not only are we returning the aircraft to its normal flight configuration, if there are any checks that are due, they need to be done."
The final step before a plane reenters service is a maintenance verification flight. Pilots fly the plane without passengers while running through a checklist to ensure that the aircraft is performing as it should and that all outstanding maintenance tasks on its calendar have been completed. Anything that still needs attention will be put on a list, which crews will have to clear.
"There are certain things we cannot do on the ground," Sangricco says. "We ensure that there aren't any outstanding maintenance tasks associated with that airframe or the engines prior to releasing it."
You'll never know
Once a plane gets the green light and is added back into American's schedule, a flight crew will ferry it to an airport to receive its first load of passengers. Typically it starts its new life at one of American's hubs like Dallas, Chicago, Miami or Phoenix. As domestic flights are rebounding faster than international flights -- American's passenger levels are at 80% of pre-pandemic levels -- its narrow-body planes are coming back quicker than its wide-body models. Still, larger aircraft like the Boeing 777 and 787 have been busy flying cargo, as well as COVID-19 vaccines.
But no matter when an aircraft returns, Sangricco has a goal in mind. Between an updated interior and a freshly washed and polished exterior, he wants passengers to be impressed without knowing it was parked for months.
"As a passenger, you would not know if it was just returned to service," he said. "We really don't want them to have a musty smell … I like to think that whenever the public gets on the aircraft, they'll be pleasantly surprised."