Why scrap a perfectly good airplane? Whether an extremely large or reasonably small aircraft, the reasoning often is the same. Over the past couple weeks images emerged of two different planes being sent to the scrapyard that elicited significant emotional response. In both cases, however, the end of the line for the types was a driving force. It also calls attention to the challenges of recycling aircraft components, especially with newer synthetic materials involved.
The First A380 to Die
When Singapore Airlines retired its first A380s a year ago following a decade of service the secondhand market was soft. One found a new home with HiFly, running ACMI services across the globe but the second sat on the ground awaiting its fate. The frame has been chopped up now, ending any chance the plane ever had of flying again.
Looking at the components that are missing calls to attention the recycling challenges that aircraft face at end of life. The missing sections are mostly aluminum (or things like the doors that can be swapped in to other planes easily). But the aircraft’s construction includes carbon fiber, glass and GLARE (Glass laminate aluminum reinforced epoxy) for large sections. These material choices help to reduce weight and improve aircraft reliability and performance. But they also limit its recycling potential.
End of the Embraer Lineage 1000 Line
At the smaller end of the scrapping spectrum is an Embraer Lineage 1000 that barely flew at all.
It is, essentially, a brand new aircraft that never really found a place in the market. And it was not the only new Lineage 1000E to die at the end of 2019.
Flying with the registration N727EE, the plane’s main service appears to have been a trip to EBACE 2019, including a nonstop hop from Melbourne, Florida to Farnborough, UK. From there the plane sat idle, save for a quick trip to St. Maarten over the summer. It is now in the process of being scrapped in Greenwood, Mississippi. In a statement Embraer acknowledged that the plane is one of two Lineage 1000E frames being parted out:
As a result of the sunset of the production line in São José dos Campos, Brazil of new Lineage 1000E aircraft, Embraer decided to part out two new Lineage 1000E airplanes. The parts from the two aircraft will be used to support the existing Lineage 1000 and 1000E fleet. Embraer is committed to delivering the ultimate experience in business aviation, providing best-in-class, industry-leading products, services, and support. This decision was deemed best for supporting our existing Embraer customer base.
Given Embraer’s focus on smaller business jets and transitioning the production line in Brazil from the E190 (same base aircraft as the Lineage 1000) to the E2 family it makes some sense to kill off the “extra” planes that never sold to a customer. Fewer than 30 Lineage 1000s ended up with customers suggesting that the program never really hit its sales targets.
Plus, the parts still hold value and many can still be used by existing operators as spares. But the overall impact of dismantling a plane that’s only a year old is hard to fathom.
While unconfirmed, it seems likely that N726EE (line number 19000695) is the other frame that is no more.
The environmental impact
While most of the discussion on the carbon footprint of aviation focuses on the fuel burned during operations the construction and destruction process of the aircraft cannot be ignored. Operate the planes for long enough and it is easy to amortize over the long lifespan of the planes. But with a life of ten years the numbers get worse. And scrapping two essentially brand new planes is very, very bad from that perspective.
Fortunately the aviation industry has some experience with aircraft disassembly and recycling. It is very good at making sure that any components with residual value find their way to a new home and that the aluminum skin sees a new life. But the more modern planes are not just aluminum. And the industry does not have nearly the same level of recycling infrastructure available for the new materials.
Work on this front is underway. Boeing signed an agreement with ELG Carbon Fibre in December 2018 to see excess composite materials repurposed into the electronics and ground transportation industries. The process requires baking the material at a high enough temperature to melt the resin that holds the composite together, leaving behind clean material. It is not energy efficient but still likely better than just dumping the bits into a land fill.