What happens to a plane when an airline retires it?

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June 4 2008 6:14 PM

Jumbo Jet for Sale

What happens to a plane when an airline retires it?

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

United Airlines announced Wednesday that it will remove 100 jets from its fleet, including all 94 of its Boeing 737s, a popular single-aisle jet. What do airlines do with planes they don't need anymore?

They sell them or send them to the desert. An airline might be able to sell off an older model like the 737 to smaller overseas carriers who are trying to upgrade and expand their fleets. In recent years, former Soviet Bloc countries and parts of Asia have been the most avid buyers of used aircraft from the United States. While a few domestic startup airlines have also purchased aircraft from larger carriers, these sales make up a small fraction of the total.

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To put a plane on the market, a carrier typically advertises in an industry newsletter like SpeedNews or Jetmark. United won't be responsible for selling all of its retired planes, though, because it may not own all of them—about a third of all commercial planes are leased by the carrier. Any loaners will be returned to their owners and then presumably sold or leased out to another company.

If a plane is sold to another carrier immediately, it's likely to go straight to a maintenance facility where it will be refurbished for its new owner. Otherwise, the airline flies it to a storage facility somewhere in the southwestern United States, where it's parked until it gets sold, cannibalized for spare parts, or converted into a cargo plane.

Unused and unsold commercial jets often end up at the Mojave Air and Space Port, a storage facility—or "boneyard"—for defunct aircraft in Southern California. The dry desert climate is ideal for preventing corrosion, and the hard soil can support heavy loads. The area does have its hazards, though: One aircraft remarketing consultant told the Explainer that, years ago, some MD-80 jets in storage in the Mojave Desert sank into the mud during a strong rainstorm and then baked in place in the next day's sun.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer Bob McAdoo of Avondale Partners, John Mowry of SH&E, and Pete Seidlitz of Bristol Associates.

Chris Wilson is a Slate contributor.

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