Asia

COVID-19 grounded thousands of planes. Heres what happens to them

SINGAPORE: At airports round the world, the bustle of travellers and constant sound of planes taking off have been replaced by silence and perhaps the occasional bird chirping on the runways.

The COVID-19 pandemic has all but decimated commercial passenger flights. And with nowhere to go, thousands of planes are out of work.

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But while these planes are grounded, work goes on for the army of engineers whose job it is to keep an eye on the aircraft and make sure they remain in good shape.

As the show Grounded finds out, many things need to be considered: From where to park the planes, to how to keep out birds (and the tiniest of insects) and even what would happen if window shades are not closed. (Watch it here.)

Here are some interesting facts about protecting grounded planes.

Like putting a jigsaw together, with the planes as the pieces to be positioned.

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1. PARKING PLANES AT AIRPORTS IS LIKE SOLVING JIGSAWS

Think of where to find planes, and the instinctive response would be the airport. But airlines have run out of the usual space to store them.

“Airports are designed to keep aircraft in constant motion rather than stationary,” said aviation industry expert Simin Ngai from travel data and analytics company Cirium.

For example, there is not enough space for AirAsia, with Malaysias biggest fleet, to park all its planes at Kuala Lumpur International Airport 2, said AirAsia aircraft maintenance engineer Yap Sheng Lin. Some must be parked at the cargo terminal.

“In Bangkok, theyre even parked in the taxiways, and some of them are sent to Phuket and Pattaya International Airports,” he added.

AirAsia's Yap Sheng Lin.

Taxiways, which connect runways to terminals, are being used in Singapore too.

“In the history of Changi, the only other time weve parked planes on the taxiway was during Sars in 2003,” said Singapore Airlines engineering division quality manager Abel Li.

“But it was only for a short while and for a few aircraft, unlike 2020, when we have more than 90 per cent of our fleet being grounded.”

READ: The outlook for Singapore Airlines has gone from bad to worse — a commentary

Finding the space is one challenge, but positioning the planes can be another. Extra precautions must be taken when parking them on the taxiways, said Li, because there is no clearly demarcated location to put the aircraft.

They also need to be kept 25 metres apart so that when the engines are started up, dust or exhaust is not blown onto the aircraft behind.

Like a jigsaw puzzle, fitting planes into a crowded space not meant for parking planes requires a real team effort and co-ordination on the ground, particularly when the wingspan of some planes can be the width of a football field.

WATCH: What happens to planes grounded during COVID-19? (4:45)

2. THE BEST PLACE TO STORE PLANES IS THE DESERT

Humidity can wreak havoc on grounded planes. The jet fuel planes use, for example, can absorb moisture, resulting in water forming in the fuel tank.

“Water can breed microbes, and these contaminants can cause damage to the fuel tank and to an aircraft, which then impacts safety,” said Li.

This is why the arid desert environment is the best place to store planes. SIA, for example, stores some of its largest planes at Alice Springs Airport, which Ngai described as “one of the key choices in the region”.

“Its dry, so its better for maintaining the equipment,” she said. “By putting it in a more conducive environment for long-term storage, youre looking at less damage eventually, when the aircraft returns to service.”

Some of SIA's largest planes are at Alice Springs Airport, in Australia.

One facility in Arizona, Ascent Aviation Services, has seen a 600 per cent increase in its storage business since COVID-19 began. Its president, Dave Querio, said it currently has more than 400 aircraft in storage, from six continents.

3. GROUNDED PLANES MEAN SILICA GEL BAGS ARE IN DEMAND

For planes that remain parked at boarding gates, taxiways and runways, particularly in humid Southeast Asia, the most important part to protect from moisture is the engine, which can cost more than US$25 million (S$34 million) each.

“When the aircraft is on the ground for an extended period, these engines arent turned on as frequently as we want,” said Li. Humidity could then corrode the engines parts.

This is why SIA, for example, runs each grounded planes engine periodically — every month or every three to six months, depending on the aircraft, engine type and the planes mode of parking.

SIA's Abel Li (right) with his team, about to check a plane's fuel tank.

“Running the engine burns any water content thats in the oil,” said Li.

“This is what drives the aircraft, so its very important to protect the engine, to make sure its rust free, its well-oiled … in good condition and safe to fly.”

Between engine runs, other measures are in place to keep engines safe from moisture and rust.

Aircraft engineers use silica gel bags, which Yap described as “the same as those tiny silica gels that we find when we unpack our household items”, but larger. At least 15 packs are needed per plane, he said.

Silica gel bags being placed in an engine.

These packs are also needed for the planes cabin. With cabin doors closed, humidity can rise, and moisture can cause mildew to damage leather on plane seats, carpets, curtains and the galleys, according to Li.

With so many planes grounded round the world, these bags are in great demand. “Every airline needs this for corrosion prevention, so its very hard for us to procure,” said Yap. “Were working day and night trying to procure (them).”

4. EVEN THE TINIEST PEST CAN POSE A SERIOUS THREAT

Even though grounded planes are not in service, the to-do list for maintenance is long. If he were to print out the manual, said Yap, it would “easily run to over a hundred pages”.

Of the many guidelines, one of the key ones is to keep wildlife out of the planes. With airports quieter than ever, planes have become a perfect nesting ground for creatures of all shapes and sizes.

Birds could make their nests in nooks and crannies such as this one.

In Bangkok, some AirAsia engineers found a birds nest under the wings of one plane, Yap recalled. “We had to safely remove the birds nest so that the birds werent harmed,” he said.

Besides the wings, engineers must check spaces like the landing gear — and even crawl into them to ensure that no creatures have made a home there.

“You may find birds or maybe small rodents crawling in here, which may damage all these electronics and the hydraulic lines in the aircraft,” said Philippine Airlines senior aircraft technical specialist Manuel Quizon Jr.

Overlooking even the tiniest of pests could prove catastrophic. He pointed to a 1996 plane crash: The pilot had received inaccurate information from one of the planes tubes for measuring airspeed — because nest debris from an insect was stuck inside.

Philippine Airlines' Manuel Quizon Jr.

So even “the littlest things”, such as small sensors, must be taken care of and covered. “We need to always ensure that these covers are in place and … not blown away by the wind,” said Quizon.

“We have programmes in place to have them inspected on a daily basis.”

There are also numerous other little tasks to be done, such as closing the thousands of window shades on all the planes. This, said Li, blocks sunlight and UV rays, preventing damage to the interior furnisRead More – Source