- Cargo carriers such as Amazon’s Prime Air are searching the American Southwest for former airliners stored in the desert.
- Arizona is home to Pinal Air Park, where between 40 and 50 jets have been bought by cargo carriers.
- Older passenger planes were bought at a discount during the pandemic and converted to freighters.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
When consumers turned to Amazon to buy more goods during the pandemic, Amazon turned to aircraft storage facilities in the desert to buy more cargo planes.
The rise of pandemic online shopping and e-commerce caused a cargo industry boom in the past year. While passenger airlines found themselves with too many airplanes, cargo airlines had too little and went shopping for planes being stored in the American Southwest.
“80% of all the stored aircraft worldwide are stored basically in the Southwest,” Scott Butler, chief commercial officer for Marana, Arizona-based Ascent Aviation Services, told Insider. Ascent is responsible for storing most of the aircraft at Pinal Air Park in Marana on behalf of airlines and aircraft leasing companies.
While some might know these facilities as the places where aircraft go to die, they’ve been keeping airliners alive by preserving them through the pandemic. More than 400 aircraft from airlines around the world were stored in Marana alone during the worst of the crisis.
They’ve also been veritable shopping malls for cargo carriers and startup airlines looking to purchase planes on the cheap.
Between 40 and 50 aircraft left Marana bound for cargo airlines since the start of the pandemic, with Boeing’s 737-800 and 767-300ER being the most popular. Aircraft sales didn’t occur straightaway after March as airlines contemplated whether to hold on to the planes until aircraft values recovered from the nosedive they took in the pandemic’s early days.
“[Airlines] didn’t want to sell an aircraft that had multiple years of use left,” Butler said, “but as pandemic dragged on, the need to convert assets into cash became necessary.”
Airlines were losing billions each quarter and shedding aircraft was one way of stopping the bleeding. Amazon was a major customer and bought 11 Boeing 767-300ER aircraft from Delta Air Lines and Canada’s WestJet to power its Prime Air fleet.
Once purchased, the former passenger jets still need to be converted into freighters, a process that’s only performed in a handful of facilities around the world. And there is a backlog of aircraft waiting to be converted.
Israel Aerospace Industries is one of Amazon’s conversion partners of choice. The Middle Eastern firm is a long-time player in the conversion realm with experience on Boeing jets and is also working on converting the world’s largest twin-engine passenger plane into the world’s largest twin-engine cargo plane.
Conversions take between 90 and 120 days, depending on the aircraft, and can cost between $13 and $14 million for a Boeing 767-300ER, almost the cost of a second-hand 767 itself. There is a wait, though, and Israel Aerospace Industries’ Yossi Melamed told Insider in February that the firm is booked through 2022.
Some cargo carriers that had planes stored in Marana were quick to get them flying again. Atlas Air was one that reactivated four Boeing 747-400F cargo planes to handle the increase in demand, Air Cargo News reported.
“We had three 747-400s on-site for National Airlines for an extended period of time and when cargo picked up last year, they put them back into service,” Butler said, adding that it wasn’t a cheap endeavor to restore the planes to flying service but the airline likely saw more value in having the planes flying than sitting on the ground.
The modern-day gold rush in the Arizona desert, however, has largely dried up as Marana’s best aircraft have been bought off. But that doesn’t stop airlines from trying.
“I get calls, still, from people looking for cargo aircraft in the desert and they just don’t exist right now,” Butler said. “Anything that has storage capacity, has some good engines on it, and has some time on it left, [cargo operators] are utilizing the aircraft far more than passenger operators were.”