Where do aircraft go to retire?

Where do aircraft go to retire?

Finnair bid farewell to its oldest A340 aircraft, affectionately nicknamed “Olga,” which joined the fleet in 2006. Read about what gets reused and what gets recycled.

The story of Olga, a recently retired Airbus A340, shows how Finnair works to ensure that aircraft are safely dismantled after reaching the end of their useful lives, with their constituent materials and parts responsibly reused and recycled.

Finnair’s technical staff often apply female nicknames to their beloved planes. Olga – officially known as OH-LQA (A340-311, Manufacturer Serial Number 58) – was made by Airbus in France in 1994, though she only started flying for Finnair in 2006. She was taken out of service in June 2016, after flying for nearly 100,000 hours, travelling some 80 million kilometres (equivalent to more than 100 return flights to the moon), mainly on Finnair’s Asian routes.

“It always feels sad to let a perfectly working aircraft go, but at least we know she’ll be replaced by a more efficient and sustainable aircraft,” says Heidi Heikkilä, who heads Finnair’s fleet management projects. “With aircraft you can’t keep using them until the end of their lifecycle like a car or a bike!

“It also helps to know that aircraft like Olga are carefully and safely dismantled – and that as much as 95 per cent of an aircraft can be reused and recycled,” she says.

Aircraft have as many as 3,000 numbered and traceable constituent parts. Their most valuable components – engines, landing gear, and auxiliary power units – are sold off for reuse in their entirety or as replacement parts. Valuable metals from an aircraft’s fuselage can be sold as scrap. Rubber tyres and glass or plastic windows can also be efficiently recycled.

Retired aircraft go through various stages of disassembly at the site known as the “aircraft graveyard.”

End of the line

After making her last flight, from Finland to the US, Olga is now being disassembled at an “aircraft graveyard” in Roswell, New Mexico. Heikkilä explains that such sites are often located in desert regions with large areas of hard, flat ground and little moisture to corrode metals. “Olga’s landing gear and engines have already been dismantled, and her aluminium fuselage will soon be stripped for recycling,” she says.

Some of a retiring aircraft’s components and fittings, like ovens, fire extinguishers, and flight control computers may be reused by Finnair. “We also try to find creative uses for certain materials like textiles, by giving them to charitable recycling schemes. For instance, we have sent blankets to the Red Cross for emergency relief,” adds Kati Ihamäki, Finnair’s Director of Corporate Sustainability.

The only non-recyclable parts of an aircraft are oils, hydraulic fluids, some wiring, and certain cabin fittings. Some of these materials are classed as hazardous wastes. “It’s important to ensure that end-of-life aircraft are safely disassembled in line with the aviation industry’s global standards,” says Heikkilä. “Olga has gone to one of the largest and most respected aircraft dismantlers, who follow the best practices set out by the Aircraft Fleet Recycling Association.”

Olga is the first aircraft to be retired while still under Finnair’s ownership. Previous planes that reached the end-of-lifecycle with Finnair were returned to leasers or sold to other airlines for further use.

The global aviation industry as a whole faces the herculean task of retiring large numbers of ageing aircraft. “Sustainable flight operations are a cornerstone of Finnair’s operations, and we see this as also applying to the dismantling of our aircraft,” says Ihamäki. “The whole process must fully comply with regulations on health, safety, and environmental impacts, as well as airworthiness.”

Text by Fran Weaver Photos by Jukka Muller

This story is published in Under the Northern Skies – 100 Stories Celebrating Flying, Finnair’s jubilee publication celebrating Finland’s 100-year anniversary.