News, Culture & Society

Passenger planes remain mothballed in boneyards despite burgeoning demand for air travel

Scorpions and rattlesnakes are among the barriers major airlines are facing as they return mothballed planes to service and scramble to hire crews to meet a surging demand for air travel as pandemic travel restrictions ease.

But despite airlines nearly pre-pandemic levels ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday – when 4.2 million people are expected to travel by air – dozens of passenger planes remain stranded in the Mojave Desert, where they’ve been stored since the pandemic began crippling the travel industry early last year.

Meantime, chaos has erupted at airports throughout the nation this year as airlines grounded thousands of flights, blaming staff shortages with some speculating COVID-19 vaccine mandates were to blame. 

American Airlines, for instance, said on October 30 that it canceled more than 1,200 flights over a single weekend due to staff shortages and unfavorable weather conditions. 

Aerial photos show Delta, United, and numerous international commercial jets hibernating at the Southern California Logistics Airport in Victorville, just one of the boneyards that continues to be used for commercial plane storage.

Earlier this year, Qantas revealed its mechanics have used ‘wheel whackers’ – repurposed broom handles – to spook away rattlesnakes and scorpions sheltering in the wheel wells of planes grounded in Victorville.

Aerial photos taken on November 6 show numerous cargo and passenger planes grounded at the Southern California Logistics Airport in Victorville, California

Qantas airplanes are seen in protective covering. An airline mechanic said earlier this year that crews have encountered rattlesnakes and scorpions while maintaining the planes

Qantas airplanes are seen in protective covering. An airline mechanic said earlier this year that crews have encountered rattlesnakes and scorpions while maintaining the planes

‘The area is well known for its feisty ‘rattlers’ who love to curl up around the warm rubber tyres and in the aircraft wheels and brakes,’ Tim Heywood, a Los Angeles-based Qantas engineer manager, said in a June release.

‘…We’ve encountered a few rattlesnakes and also some scorpions, but the wheel whacker does its job and they scuttle off. It’s a unique part of looking after these aircraft while they’re in storage and it’s another sign of how strange the past year has been.’

While Qantas’ A380s would seldom say a day on the ground while in service, the airline said the fleet could now remain parked for years as it waits for international travel demand to return to pre-pandemic levels.

Scores of FedEx planes are among those grounded in the desert as some planes prepare to return to domestic and international service

Scores of FedEx planes are among those grounded in the desert as some planes prepare to return to domestic and international service

Experts say extensive safety measures are being taken to protect the integrity of grounded jets, such as the Delta plane pictured here in Victorville, California

 Experts say extensive safety measures are being taken to protect the integrity of grounded jets, such as the Delta plane pictured here in Victorville, California

The airline made the forecast before the Australian government this month lifted its overseas travel ban for its vaccinated citizens and permanent residents.

It joins a number of airlines that plane to keep at least some jets parked until least next year, despite travel nearly returning to pre-pandemic levels.

The American Automobile Association is forecasting 4.2 million air travelers for the Thanksgiving holiday, up from the 2.2 million passengers who travelled by plane for the holiday last year.

Although the figure represents an 80 percent spike in air travel, it is nine percent lower than it was in 2019, when 4.6 million people reached their Thanksgiving destinations by plane.

International airlines, including China Airlines, are also using the desert boneyard for storage

International airlines, including China Airlines, are also using the desert boneyard for storage

Experts say planes are stored in the desert because of its dry heat that prevents moisture from corroding the aluminum

Experts say planes are stored in the desert because of its dry heat that prevents moisture from corroding the aluminum

Pictured: Commercial jets remained grounded in California desert as scorpions, venomous snakes, and staff shortages curtail efforts to return planes to service

Pictured: Commercial jets remained grounded in California desert as scorpions, venomous snakes, and staff shortages curtail efforts to return planes to service

Pictured: airplanes from various airlines are parked at Southern California Logistics Airport

Pictured: airplanes from various airlines are parked at Southern California Logistics Airport

The American Automobile Association is forecasting 4.2 million air travelers for the Thanksgiving holiday

The American Automobile Association is forecasting 4.2 million air travelers for the Thanksgiving holiday

The US Commercial Safety Aviation Team – which works to reduce aviation-related fatalities – developed an extensive list of safety elements to help guide operators through pandemic-related challenges including plane storage, a Federal Aviation Administration spokesperson said.

‘The safety elements include ensuring equipment such as engines and pitot tubes are properly covered to prevent contamination during storage by insects, water, or other foreign objects; and checking for animals nesting in stored aircraft,’ Maria Njoku told DailyMail.com.

Airlines for America, a lobbying group that represents major North American Airlines, said its members follow rigorous protocols before dusting off grounded jets for takeoff.

‘[The] airlines follow comprehensive storage procedures provided by the aircraft manufacturers and conduct extensive post-storage inspections as part of the process of returning aircraft to service,’ spokesman Carter Yang told DailyMail.com.

Staff shortages appear to be hampering efforts to return some planes to service. 

Southwest Airlines’ chief operating officer Mike Van de Ven told employees last month that a ‘staffing cushion’ was necessary to prevent schedule reductions during the winter, Business Insider reported.

 The executive in early October said staff shortages contributed to the mass cancellation of nearly 2,000 weekend flights.

Some airlines have said they're struggling with staff shortages

Some airlines have said they’re struggling with staff shortages

United Airlines did not respond to a DailyMail.com request for comment, but said in its third-quarter earnings report that returning grounded planes to service would help fuel growth next year.

It plans to bring its Pratt and Whitney-powered Boeing 777s back to its fleet next year to meet anticipated record demand for worldwide travel.

The Boeings were grounded earlier this year over faulty engine design.

‘From the return of business travel and the planned re-opening of Europe and early indications for opening in the Pacific, the headwinds we’ve faced are turning to tailwinds,’

United Airlines chief executive Scott Kirby said in a statement.

‘We believe that United is better positioned to lead the recovery than any airline in the world.’

Ted Gablin, president of the Redlands Airport Association, said two-thirds of Southwest Airline’s fleet was at one point grounded at the Victorville boneyard; a spokesperson for the airport confirmed that most of its planes are now back in service.

Maintenance crews take numerous measures to preserve planes and keep freeloading creatures out while they’re grounded, he said.

Deserts are considered a preferred location for long-term aircraft storage because they’re notoriously dry, Gablin said.

‘Believe it or not, the primary metal used in aircraft is aluminum and it does corrode just like steel does,’ he said. ‘The magic ingredient for that is moisture.’

***
Read more at DailyMail.co.uk