Aviation Business News

Filing the void

As increasing numbers of aircraft reach end-of-life, industry dismantling standards are essential
photo_camera As increasing numbers of aircraft reach end-of-life, industry dismantling standards are essential

Lee Hayhurst spoke to trade association AFRA about the important work it does on standards in the aircraft end-of-life sector and pushing the sustainability agenda

Since it was established in 2006, the Aircraft Fleet Recycling Association (AFRA) has championed self-regulation as better and more effective than government intervention.

As increasing numbers of aircraft reached end-of-life, it was clear there needed to be industry standards for their dismantling and the Used Serviceable Materials (USM) market. The group was established so that regulators did not feel the need to intervene, and it developed Best Management Practices (BMPs) covering disassembly and recycling.

Brent Webb is an AFRA board member who also sits on the board of the Aviation Suppliers Association (ASA) which provides AFRA with management services and government affairs support. He is also chief executive of Aircraft Inventory Management and Services. He explains: “The original idea for AFRA was to come up with an end-of-service avenue for dismantling aircraft and engines because there was nobody that watched over that.

“What we found with the ASA is that if there’s no governing body, the government is quick to fill that void, so the best opportunity is self-governance. It also allows for expedience in that you don’t have to go through the bureaucracy of governmental bodies lobbying for what’s best for the environment.

“AFRA created BMPs back in 2006, looking at the best ways of dismantling aircraft in environmentally friendly ways and still being commercially viable. It’s no good being a big environmental steward if all it does is drive you into bankruptcy. The goal is to make you a steward over and over again, not just once or twice.”

Webb says that, as well as a lack of regulation, AFRA was established to counter concerns about negative perceptions related to how the sector dealt with decommissioned aircraft. “There was a lot of stuff coming out in the news about abandoned aircraft,” he says. “They’d be parked at an airport and sit and, for the lack of a better term, rot.

“The impetus was to put together an organisation that would make sure we weren’t seeing aircraft becoming skeletons of themselves because if passengers are sitting on an airport runway looking out of the window at aircraft falling apart that erodes confidence.

“The truth is they were not falling apart, it was just they were serving the used serviceable marketplace, parts were being recycled, but it was not a good image for passengers.”

Walter O’Connor, AFRA interim executive director, says: “We created the BMPs to ensure organisations had a methodology to qualify their processes as they performed disassembly.

“What we did not want to do was erode the faith and trust that the public had in aircraft that had reached end of service. People, generally, don’t understand USM. They know a car is worth more in pieces than whole, but that’s also true of aircraft. Just because the asset has been retired does not mean there are not valuable items that can be retrieved off it.

“However, you don’t want someone who has just set up a pop-up shop, who has no clue how to disassemble an aircraft, then trying to get that material back into the market. There’s always a concern if you don’t have any oversight in an industry you can’t guarantee it isn’t being managed to a certain level by every single player.

“AFRA felt it prudent to define our own destiny as opposed to leaving it up to a government to regulate, because then it becomes much more difficult.”

Walter O'Connor
Walter O’Connor, AFRA interim executive director

O’Connor says that from the outset AFRA has had good global reach, and that could soon become even more true if Chinese regulators agree to accept its BMP accredited organisations. Asia is already a growth area for members, but the CAAC appears poised to endorse its standards on tear down and disassembly so it can access the USM market for parts.

“The Asian China market is a huge market of potential growth over the next decade, but they have their own specific requirements,” says O’Connor. “We are in negotiations with the CAAC to accept our BMP disassembly accredited organisations to potentially be granted a CAAC145 certification limited to disassembly only. The Chinese really want access to USM but want to make sure they’re not receiving fraudulent parts. That would be a major step forward for AFRA and for the industry.”

AFRA will release latest figures on the number of aircraft that are recycled at end of life at its annual conference that will be held in Orlando in June. It’s estimated there are around 11,000-15,000 aircraft globally reaching the end of their serviceable life.

Pre-Covid, Webb says a “bow wave” of 3,500 aircraft were expected to be recycled in a single year. However, the pandemic delayed aircraft deliveries and decreased demand so carriers’ focus switched to revenue and keeping aircraft flying longer by recycling their own parts.

He explains: “I know a couple of airlines looking to dismantle their own aircraft so they can consume the parts internally. They also want to limit the amount they distribute externally.

“Before, carriers would turn the leases back in or sell aircraft off, now they look at them as having potential to extend the life of some of their sunsetting aircraft. You’re starting to see that across the industry, not just with the low cost carriers but some of the majors.”

One of the key issues facing aircraft recyclers is how to deal with new composite material like carbon fibre used on more recent aircraft to reduce weight and increase efficiency. AFRA has a Research and Development committee currently working with recyclers EirTrade and ecube in Europe and the National Manufacturing Institute of Scotland to find a solution.

EirTrade received the first two 787s for tear down and, through negotiations with Boeing and the owners, AFRA has taken possession of some of the composite parts. These have been moved to the National Manufacturing Institute of Scotland where the wings are stored as part of a project on how best to recycle them. At the end of May, AFRA was due to take the fuselage of one of the 787s, to be stored at ecube’s facility in Wales.

O’Connor recalls how he and Webb spoke to aircraft manufacturing giant Boeing’s ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) group about composite materials two years ago. He says: “This industry is great at making aircraft, but what about once they leave service, disassembly and recycling, and controlling items going to landfill? The manufacturers realise we have to identify how to disassemble and reuse or recycle and repurpose new and existing material.

A decommissioned aircraft can provide up to 2,500 parts for future use
A decommissioned aircraft can provide up to 2,500 parts for future use

“We are really concerned about the impact on the environment and we really need to understand at the design phase what impact that material is going to have. We can’t just think about that when that aircraft is decommissioned because by then it’s too late.

O’Connor continues: “We know of one airline that has gone back to all its suppliers requiring them to supply the breakdown of everything that goes into their aircraft. From an ESG and environment standpoint, they want an aircraft that’s green, they want to be able to tell people ‘We understand what’s going on and this is the part we are playing.’ Both Boeing and Airbus are taking part, and I think this is something you are going to see more and more airlines recognising and pushing forward with their own initiatives.”

For Webb, this focus on sustainability is nothing new in aviation and, although the sector gets a lot of attention from climate activists, it is everyone else who is playing catch-up. He says, “There’s always been a huge push to be more green. The industry makes up 2 per cent of the world’s carbon pollution but is under the most scrutiny when it comes to its carbon footprint.

“Before ESG was a term, aviation was constantly focused on making itself a leader in being environmentally sound. The world’s catching up with where aviation has been for years.”

O’Connor adds: “We’re stewards by de facto in this. We realise we have only one planet and that we have to ensure that the sustaining of this planet goes on as long as possible.”

At the core of this ethos is a push to be more transparent about aircraft recycling and for AFRA to provide more data and insights into what’s really going on in the industry. A decommissioned aircraft can provide up to 2,500 parts for future use but accurately assessing how much of any aircraft material is recycled is fraught with complexity.

The association says it does not endorse impressive-sounding claims of percentages in the high 90s of material that is recycled or the amount saved from going to landfill. Alongside its BMPs, voluntary Key Performance Indictors (KPIs) give organisations something to aim for and AFRA is collecting data to develop reliable industry performance metrics.

Webb says: “It’s not about competing with each other because the benefit is for the whole world. For each aircraft, you are looking to keep as much out of landfill as possible. Transparency is important. It really is about self-improvement. If we look internally about how we self-improve we really do make the world better for everybody. Showing we have the ability to improve is one of the biggest things in our legacy over the last five years.”

Meanwhile, AFRA continues to fly the flag for self-regulation. It is awaiting the final outcome of a European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) review of the sector. AFRA was invited to be involved, and a year ago raised concerns about some of the commentary in an initial report commissioned for EASA, says O’Connor.

“They had concerns that the industry is something that’s not being regulated. We wanted to make sure that the information they had was factual. We were very concerned EASA was potentially considering ways to regulate end of service. That’s why we spoke up for the industry, to say we do already have something in place.”

This feature was first published in MRO Management – June 2023. To read the magazine in full, click here.

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