Gallery: How dead airplanes get a second life
Airplane crews have retirement plans, but disposing of retired airplanes is a bit more difficult.
After all, you can't just chuck a 43,090-kilo airplane into a garbage can.
With up to 12,000 aircraft likely to be decommissioned by 2020, according to the Aircraft Fleet Recycling Association (AFRA), and replaced by newer models, aircraft owners must find ways of dealing with the retirees.
For aircraft at that awkward stage when they're no longer safe to fly, but still too sturdy to demolish, there are airplane limbos like the storage facility at Marana Aerospace Solutions in Arizona or the Mohave Air and Space Portin California.
But as with limbo, the idea is that it's all temporary.
"If an aircraft is out of service, it may simply become cost-prohibitive to keep it in storage," says Terrance Scott, environmental communicator for Boeing Commercial Airplanes. While Boeing is not actually in the aircraft recycling business, it plays a significant role as a co-founder of AFRA.
"(Upon decommissioning), an owner may decide to sell it to a leasing company or prospective buyer or they may decide to sell it to a 'scrapper' and recoup a portion of their investment based on the price of metals and materials."
According to Scott, some parts actually make it back onto an airplane, but in different forms.
"Boeing is also looking at potential uses of recycled materials for aircraft interior parts, such as galley carts, seatback trays, seat components and overhead bins," says Scott.
Dismantling planes is another option, but expensive and difficult.
In an interview with Flightglobal, Phil Donohoe, director of sales and business development at UK-based P3 Aviation, a company that specializes in airplane parts, said that a Boeing 737 takes three to four weeks to dismantle properly.
So, what are some better, greener options for recycling an airplane?
Let us count the ways, courtesy of the following visionaries.
The unquestionable leader in this admittedly niche industry is MotoArt, a California-based company that's been designing sleek, sexy beds, tables, chairs and sculptures constructed from deconstructed airplanes for nearly 12 years.
"We have over 100 designs and have produced thousands of pieces that you find nearly in all parts of the world, from the Dubai Burj, to the Sears Tower, and even as far away as the North Pole," says managing partner Dave Hall.
Germany's bordbar, the first company that thought to revamp airline trolleys as multifunctional and decorative furniture, customizes trolleys.
This can mean incorporating butterfly patterns or corporate logos, transforming the trolley into a filing cabinet or mini-bar, complete with shelves, glass front and remote-controlled LED lighting.
The bordbar trolleys start at €979 (US$1,300).
"We sell our products around the globe, with approximately 220 wholesalers," says bordbar co-founder Valentin Hartmann. "There is definitely a market for trolleys."
The market is also competitive.
German company Skypak also specializes in glammed-up airline trolleys, selling luxurious, attention-grabbing designs like the Pure Gold trolley, decorated with 24-karat gold leaf.
The company's star product, the Luxury Crystal trolley, is covered in 82,000 Swarovski crystals.
Skypak's trolleys start at €1,380 (US$1,833), but luxury trolleys go for anywhere from €3,900 (US$5,180) to €27,800 (US37,000).
Lay some floor. Or wall
Aircraft aluminum isn't like the aluminum most of us know.
Because of the alloys that make it sturdy and fit for flight, it's also difficult to recycle.
You can't crush it like used foil and pack it into a recycling bin.
But it can shine in other ways.
Bio-Luminum, a building material from U.S.-based Coverings ETC, is made from completely recycled aircraft aluminum.
"The energy used in recycling aluminum is five percent of what would be used during the first generation of aluminum production," says Jennifer Ryan, business development director for Coverings ETC.
The best part is that Bio-Luminum is itself recyclable.
"So if you ever desire to change your decor, Bio-Luminum can be removed and used over again," says Ryan. "It is truly a cradle-to-cradle product."
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Build a boat
Planeboats, or "flying boats," are rare (the Japanese Imperial Navy developed a fleet during World War II), but a former 1939 Boeing 307 Stratoliner converted into a boat that can reach up to 13 knots occupies a remarkable place in recycled plane lore.
The boat in question has an unforgettable name: the Cosmic Muffin.
The Cosmic Muffin has an equally turbulent and exciting history. It belonged to aviation pioneer Howard Hughes in the 1940s. Re-christened by pilot Jimmy Buffett, current owner Dave Drimmer purchased it in 1981 to live aboard.
"The original aircraft controls in the cockpit are now used to drive the boat with both the pilot and co-pilot controls," says Drimmer. "This is what makes the planeboat so unique and novel; you sit where Howard Hughes used to fly the plane to drive the boat."
Jealous? Intensely curious? The Cosmic Muffin is open for tours and charters. Click the link above for information.
Build a home
Architect David Hertz's design, the Wing House, a Malibu mansion constructed from an entire Boeing 747, manages to be striking and graceful, even without the knowledge that it was built on ecologically sound principles.
Via his website, Hertz compares the process of converting the 747 into a house to the way "the Native American Indians used every part of the buffalo."
The most obviously aerial feature is the curvilinear roof, constructed from the wings of the former plane.
Working with a smaller budget, but no less entrepreneurial, Oregon resident Bruce Campbell's Airplane Home is an ongoing project. Campell logs most of his (mostly metaphorical) journey on his website at www.AirplaneHome.com.
Campell's Boeing 727-200 is structurally untouched. From the outside it looks like a complete aircraft, though the insides have been gutted and furnished.
Then there is Joe Axline's ongoing "Project Freedom," involving two airplanes, an MD-80 and a DC-9-41, which will eventually be converted into a home.
According to his website, the original idea for the project came from a 1973 show in which Bill Bixby, as a playboy philanthropist, solves crimes from his headquarters -- a Boeing 720 jetliner.
Build a hotel
It's difficult to imagine a traveler disembarking from an airplane wanting to spend a night in one.
But if the number of hotels built into airplanes is any indication, such travelers do exist.
Costa Verde, a luxurious hotel nestled in a Costa Rican rainforest, is a recycled Boeing 727.
Despite its clipped wings, from the exterior it looks like an aircraft emerging from the jungle ready to fly out over the Pacific.
The fuselage that encases the two bedrooms of the "727 Fuselage Home" suite is intact. Apart from the distinctive shape of the portholes and curved ceiling, however, the interior feels more woodsy bungalow than aircraft.
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Meanwhile, Stockholm's Arlanda Airport has budget accommodation Jumbo Stay, a hostel built into a Boeing 747, popularly known as a Jumbo Jet.
"I financed and built the whole hostel," says owner Oscar Diös. "We wanted to be unique, but not discriminating toward anyone with a smaller budget."
This welcoming attitude may be why the cockpit has served as the setting of several weddings, and why former 747 pilots are regular visitors.
"Jumbo Stay is a place for everyone," says Diös.
And finally for €350 (US$465) a night, there's the Airplane Suite for two in the Netherlands.
Built inside a decommissioned Ilyushin Il-18, it comes with amenities you couldn't have on a private jet -- Jacuzzi, sauna, flat-screen TVs and basic kitchen equipment, not to mention a mini-bar and DVD collection.
Make an artificial reef
Most airplanes try to avoid submersion in large bodies of water. That sort of thing is usually called an "accident."
But if the airplane is empty, then sinking it into the sea to create an artificial reef, like the
Artificial Reef Society of British Columbia (ARSBC) did with a Boeing 737, -- well, it might actually be a good thing, as they become homes for, and thus promote, local marine life.
"The 'passenger list' of creatures that now inhabit the reef has grown to over 100 species," says Deidre Forbes McCracken, director of public relations at the ARSBC.
Make everything else
An airplane isn't just grease and metal. Recycling an airplane means recycling the interior as well.
Australian retailer Rushfaster stocks laptop messenger bags fitted with former airplane seatbelts as straps -- a good gift for university freshmen who need to lug around several kilos of textbooks.
Then there's British retailer Worn Again, with its Worn Again Virgin line. Though often out of stock (recycling depends on the availability of discarded materials), the company stocks a line of bags, clothes and accessories made from recycled Virgin Atlantic interiors.
"Recycled aircraft materials frequently do find their way into consumer goods such as mobile phone shells, automobile parts, roller blades and golf clubs," says Boeing's Terrance Scott.
Realistically, it's not feasible to turn all of the tens of thousands of decommissioned aircraft into hotel suites, classrooms and coffee tables. But equally certain is that the products mentioned above represent a fraction of the possibilities.
European architectural firm LOT-EK has ambitious concept designs for a library of more than 200 stacked Boeing fuselages; Sky Tram presents the idea of converting fuselages into futuristic supertrains that would run on tracks suspended several stories above the ground.
Sure, these innovations don't actually exist.
But people laughed at airplanes, too, until they really took off.
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