Storage Plateaus in U.S. Desert

Marana, Arizona
Credit: Ascent Aviation

Stored aircraft volumes have largely stabilized at two major U.S. desert storage sites, but decisions on cargo conversions and teardowns are being made or will be very soon.

New Mexico’s Roswell International Air Center was storing a record volume, 486 aircraft, at the end of September, having received 330 aircraft since the COVID-19 crisis began. Center Director Scot Stark says the big jump came early, with arrivals slowing to only a couple of aircraft per day beginning in May. “Summer months have seen some return to service with a slight increase in arrivals in August and September.”

The most common aircraft stored at Roswell are Boeing 737s, 757s, 767s, 777s, Airbus A319s, A320s, A321s and A330s and CRJ200s. And the big increase in maintenance work on stored aircraft has meant Roswell had to add about 200 new mechanics and other employees. 

Stark says it’s hard to tell how many of these grounded planes will be torn down. AerSale just acquired 24 757s for conversion to cargo. “So those will fly away. Most likely, many of the oldest A330s, A319s, 757s, 767s and 777s will be torn down.” The Roswell exec predicts new teardown orders will begin to arrive later this fall.

Stark continues to hear about the need for more aircraft to be stored as leasing companies and airlines decide what they will do with aircraft. “It is very fluid,” he says. “But we don't expect a drop in demand for storage space any time soon. We do expect to see more of the currently stored aircraft return to service as we near the holiday season.”

AerSale bought those 24 757-200s along with their Rolls-Royce RB211-535s and 16 spare engines that had been stored at its own MRO facility at Roswell. The company notes it is storing almost 500 commercial aircraft at Roswell, New Mexico, and Goodyear, Arizona, for airlines, financial institutions and lessors. At these sites AerSale offers storage, light and heavy aircraft inspections, cargo conversions, avionics and other modifications and aircraft painting. 

AerSale has targeted the 757 as feedstock for the growing freight market because “there is a shortage of dedicated freighter aircraft for the foreseeable future,” says Craig Wright, president of aircraft and engine management. Global cargo capacity in August was down 29% from year-ago levels, according to IATA.

Not all 24 757s will be converted. A portion of the 757s and their spare engines will be disassembled for parts for AerSale customers that carry express packages.

Far to the west of Roswell in Arizona’s Pinal Air Park, Ascent Aviation Services offers both maintenance and storage. Chief Commercial Officer Scott Butler says Ascent’s MRO is seeing some pockets of recovery for certain aircraft types. “Freighters have continued to see steady work throughout the pandemic. We’re also seeing an uptick in regional and narrowbody low-cost carrier work.”

But Ascent’s storage arm has experienced a huge increase in lease return and transition aircraft. Since March, Ascent has seen a quadrupling of stored aircraft, about the same proportionate increase as at Roswell. Total storage held steady in August and September, as about the same number of aircraft were reactivated as were inducted.

The most common types stored by Ascent are the smaller narrowbodies, A318s, A319s, E170s and E190s and older widebodies 757s and 767s.

These are a mix of temporary and long-term storage. “Most aircraft are now going into long-term storage, up to one year,” Butler says. “Some aircraft are being transitioned to freighter conversion, 737NGs, 767s, and others going into teardown.”

Ascent is beginning to see an increased demand for teardowns, which implies that demand for used parts will be strong in recovery as customers look for low-cost solutions.

In any case, Ascent has been busy. “Due to large storage demand, we’ve had to increase our staffing over 25% during this pandemic,” Butler says. “Maintenance and teardown lines are now picking up as well, and we are continuing to hire.”

The MRO clearly expects more work. Ascent recently announced plans to expand to Roswell, adding to its facilities and employment needs.