Arizona airpark became safe refuge for many airplanes during COVID-19 pandemic

The COVID-19 Pandemic impacted a lot of businesses, and among the hardest hit, was the airline industry.

Air carriers lost billions when travelers couldn't fly, and many of those empty jets landed in Arizona, at the Pinal Air Park in Marana.

It's an area known to some as a plane boneyard, but hundreds of these giant jumbo jetliners are very much alive, and they are getting ready to fly again.

Planes flocked to airpark at start of pandemic

For much of 2020, the world was at a standstill, with COVID-19 changing the way people work, and the way they travel. Less passengers means less flights, and in just the first month of the pandemic, the number of passengers travelling both domestically and abroad fell by as much as 92%, when compared to 2019.

The pandemic continued for more than a year, costing air carriers more than $370 billion. So, companies began storing their empty planes at the Pinal Airpark in Marana, located just off the I-10, 30 minutes north of Tucson.

Pinal Airpark is the largest commercial aircraft storage facility in the world. It is filled with several hundred, mostly wide-body aircraft, everything from Airbus A330's to Boeing 777s. While a small fraction of the planes that land at the airpark never see the skies again, many do, and it is due, in large part, to the work being done by crews at Ascent Aviation.

"You know, every day is different, every airplane's different. You find different things on different airplanes," said David Querio, President and CEO of Ascent Aviation Services.

Querio says business has always been steady, but in 2020, flights into Marana more than doubled.

"Over a span of 60 to 75 days, we took on 275 airplanes," said Querio. "We were the third busiest airport for arrivals in Arizona anyway, and had zero departures."

About a dozen aircraft were arriving each day, from customers all around the world.

"Some of the countries I've got to go look at a map on to see where the heck they are," said Querio.

Not all planes stay at the airpark for the same amount of time

For some of these planes, their stay in storage is brief. Others will have much longer layovers.

"We've had aircraft in that came in for as a result of COVID that left within 90 days, and we've had aircraft that came in for COVID that if they leave, it'll be multiple years before they leave," said Querio.

While the planes are at the airpark, parts of it are covered to protect it from the elements, and their components need to be checked regularly.

"We protect the pilot's static systems to keep any bugs from crawling up in there," said Querio.

Metal fatigue is one of the largest costs associated with maintaining these aircraft, And Arizona's dry climate makes for a perfect storage spot.

"Humidity and moisture on metal is never a good thing," said Querio. "The drier the air, the less moisture that can contact that metal, the less opportunity you're going to have for downline corrosion, corrosion of the metal."

It can take crews a couple of weeks or even a couple of months to get a plane 100% airworthy again.

More planes are leaving the airpark

This past summer, departures at Pinal Airpark increased, meaning more planes are being brought back into service. Aviation attorney Michael Pearson says it is a mixed bag ahead of the holiday travel season.

"If you need to get from Point A to Point B over the holidays, I hate to be a bearer of bad tidings for those that are planning on using the national airspace system, but I certainly would arrange alternative transportation," said Pearson. "I do believe that you're going to have flight crews, cabin crews, basically the human assets of the airline need to run the system in mass, saying they're not going to participate if, in fact, the mandates continue to go through. I think it's. It's just a fact of life."

Both Pearson and Querio say the real test for the airline industry will come after the holidays, and whether carriers can keep flights in the air, despite the staffing issues.

Nevertheless, Ascent Aviation will be ready, and they are even expanding by building a new facility in Roswell, N.M., that will be just as big as the facility in Marana.

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