Sustainable afterlife


At more than 90,000 accrued flight hours, Finnair has phased out its first owned aircraft. In this case, where does an aircraft go when it retires? As environmentally responsible flying is a cornerstone of Finnair, the same foundation applies when dismantling one of its fleet.  

Aircraft retirement age and depreciation cycles typically vary between 12 and 25 years, depending on the owner. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) estimates that approximately 16,000 aircraft will reach their end-of-lifecycle over the next 20 years. 

One of these is OH-LQA (A340-311, MSN 58), affectionately nicknamed “Olga” by Finnair. In June 2016, Olga reached its Design Service Goal (DSG) after 21 years of age. Preparing for the hand-off of an ageing aircraft takes several months of work: the process includes a full final maintenance, and the consolidation of all documentation pertaining to the aircraft’s service and operating history. Finnair Technical Services (FTS) conducted a careful study to evaluate the most suitable option for dismantling. Alternatives ranged from performing an in-house dismantling to outsourcing the entire process to a service supplier with the needed expertise. FTS also assessed various options for reselling the valuable parts and recyclable materials. 

End of the line in Roswell, New Mexico 

Dismantled pieces of an aircraft are not viewed as waste as such, but rather a sum of very different parts of waste. As the dismantling of Olga was Finnair’s first, Finnair Technical Operations calculated the risks in project management rather carefully and turned to a New Mexico-based service provider to perform a controlled and sustainable dismantling process of the aircraft. 

Heidi Heikkilä, who is head of Fleet Management Projects at Finnair and the person responsible for phase out projects, clarifies: “By outsourcing to a member company of Aircraft Fleet Recycling Association (AFRA), we mitigate environmental risks that could occur if something goes wrong, for example, the removal of hazardous materials.” 

Target: 95% of weight re-used or recycled

Dismantling of an aircraft is a reverse engineering process. In the disassembly process, the re-usable parts such as engines, auxiliary power units (APU) and landing gears are the most valuable components of the aircraft. Dismantling, in turn, results in the valorization of fluids, fuselage, wings, tail, systems, wirings, etc. The entire process targets 95 percent re-use or recycle ratio of the aircraft weight, with the remaining five percent of materials ending up to non-recovered waste, such as cabin and cargo linings and insulation materials. 

Heikkilä adds, “It’s very likely that some of the parts of this aircraft make their way back into our fleet." 

Following the material identification and analysis, the dismantling process requires compliance with relevant regulations associated with health, safety, environment and airworthiness. 

The majority of Olga’s materials will be re-used or recycled. Here’s the three-step process:

1. Parking and Storage where the decommissioning takes place. The aircraft is cleaned and decontaminated, all tanks are drained and airplane maintenance manual (AMM) safety procedures are implemented. 

2. Part-Out where the engines and landing gears, equipment and parts are removed. In phases 1 & 2, the aircraft may remain Part 145 compliant and thus keep its airworthiness status. 

3. Deconstruction and Valorization where the plane’s status change is irreversible – it becomes waste. All materials will go through careful diagnosis and categorization. Hazardous materials are removed, and all categorized extracted materials are forwarded to different waste treatment streams like recycling and valorization channels. 

Text by Outi Merilä

Published August 10, 2016

Category: Corporate Responsibility