Amazon and cargo airlines are scouring the Arizona desert for old and cheap passenger jets to fly packages

A stored Boeing 767-300 aircraft - Pinal Air Park Aircraft Storage Facility Visit
A stored Boeing 767-300 aircraft.

  • 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.

A stored Boeing 767-300 aircraft - Pinal Air Park Aircraft Storage Facility Visit
A stored Boeing 767-300 aircraft.

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.

Read More: Amazon Air’s plane-buying spree could put 95% of Americans in 1-day shipping range, a new report says

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.

Boeing 767-300ER cargo conversion
Converting a Boeing 767-300ER to a 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.”

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United just returned to JFK Airport after nearly 6 years and is rolling out one of its most luxurious aircraft to take on competitors

United Airlines JFK
The first United Airlines flight to return to New York’s JFK Airport.

  • United Airlines resumed flights from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport on Sunday.
  • Operating the flights is United’s premium-configured Boeing 767-300ER with lie-flat business class seats.
  • Only 10 weekly flights are currently offered but more will be added in the coming months.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

United Airlines is back at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport and ready to make up for lost time after a six-year absence.

Flight 520 from San Francisco touched down in a foggy New York City on Sunday afternoon, marking United’s return to the city’s largest airport since October 24, 2015. The third time proved to be a charm for the airline that had intended to return to JFK in early February but was forced to push the launch date back to late February and eventually late March due to “softer demand.”

Five weekly flights to both San Francisco and Los Angeles kick off the new service as United readjusts to JFK. It’s a far cry from the multiple daily departures that other airlines serving the transcontinental market offer but it’s indicative of United’s new trend of getting a foothold on popular routes in any way possible in order to fill seats.

United hopes to soon double the number of JFK flights to give customers two flights per day to both cities but that timetable remains up in the air. Americans have only just begun returning to the skies in earnest.

Read More: Airline workers have lower rates of COVID-19 than the general population – and airline CEOs say it’s proof that flying is safe

For now, two morning flights in the eastbound direction accompany two afternoon flights in the westbound direction. And for some travelers, it’s the perfect timing.

Allison Rutledge, a Connecticut resident traveling with her two college-age children, said she chose United over JetBlue for the cross-country flight because the former offered an arrival time an hour earlier. JFK is the more convenient for her over Newark and it also helped that United came in around $200 lower for the tickets, booked on short notice to give her kids a makeshift spring break.

Price and convenience, more so than loyalty to United, were motivating factors for many passengers on the outbound flight, some of whom had booked last-minute tickets and found the United flight to be the best and cheapest option.

A premium service from coast to coast

Welcoming United travelers back to JFK is one of the airline’s swankiest aircraft, a reconfigured Boeing 767-300ER wide-body jet in a three-class configuration including Polaris business class, Premium Plus premium economy class, and economy class. Onboard the aircraft are United’s newest seat products in all cabins, including lie-flat seats in business class.

And while business travel isn’t exactly where United execs would like it, Ankit Gupta, United’s vice president, domestic network planning & scheduling, believes the rise of wealthy leisure travelers will help fill the 46 business class seats in the front of the jet.

“I would say the business demand will take some time to come back but we’re seeing a lot of premium leisure demand too,” Gupta told Insider.

The first flight to San Francisco was completely full in all classes of service, United said. Filling the 167 seats in addition to normal travelers, of course, were United employees and aviation enthusiasts that wanted to take the first flight.

Those flying in business class on Sunday’s flight won’t get to enjoy the full Polaris experience, as airlines have been scaling back the in-flight service during the pandemic, but that’s something execs hope will return soon. Premium flyers in both business and premium economy classes will still be treated to complimentary meals, snacks, and alcoholic beverages.

Business class flyers and United elites will not, however, have access to premium lounges on the New York side of the journey. All lounges in United’s Terminal 7, including the Alaska Airlines and British Airways lounges, are currently closed. Those willing to make the journey can head to Terminal 4 and use the newly-opened American Express Centurion Lounge or one of the Priority Pass lounges open in Terminals 1 and 4.

Sunday’s “homecoming,” as David Kinzelman, United’s vice president, global airport operations, described it, was not just for United’s aircraft but for some United employees, as well. A majority of the workers servicing the first flights had been with United in 2015 when the airline made the choice to leave the airport, a move that now-CEO Scott Kirby would later call “the wrong decision,” as Skift reported.

For those employees, United’s return is personal. Kinzelman told Insider, “We were asked the question constantly, ‘When are you guys coming back to JFK?'”

They return to Kennedy after spending nearly six years at other airports around the metropolitan area including nearby LaGuardia and Newark Airports, where United concentrated the majority of its flights after ceding JFK to its competitors.

In 2015, however, United was flying as many as 14 daily flights to the West Coast. Now, the workers are coming back to service a mere 10 weekly flights, or two flights per day, until United bumps up service.

The next step will be increasing JFK service with another round-trip flight on each route. United’s current flight schedule shows an additional flight being added to each city on May 7 and both routes going daily the week of May 9.

Once the West Coast is accounted for, the airline can start looking to serve its other hubs to give New Yorkers and visitors an alternative to LaGuardia and Newark.

“We plan to be here for the long-term,” Kinzelman said.

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One of the first American tourists back in Iceland reveals what he went through to enter the country under its new entry rules for vaccinated travelers

Iceland
Iceland is open to vaccinated Americans.

  • Iceland is now letting in vaccinated Americans as of March 18, and all that’s required is the paper card.
  • Andy Luten was one of the first American tourists to visit Iceland in over a year.
  • Luten described entering the country as “nonchalant” as he easily cleared Icelandic border control.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Just 45 minutes after he heard the news that Iceland was opening to Americans, Andy Luten had a ticket booked on one of the next flights to Reykjavik.

Iceland became one of the first European countries to open to US tourists when on March 18 it began allowing vaccinated travelers to enter the country. The rules, at first, were murky and many weren’t sure if the paper Centers for Disease Control and Prevention vaccination card given to Americans would be accepted as proof of vaccination to enter Iceland under the new rules.

But Luten took a microscope to the rules and was confident enough in its wording to book his last-minute ticket. The pandemic had largely grounded Luten, a client management director in the financial services industry and founder of Andy’s Travel Blog, who had been known for his sporadic trips to distant locales on short notice.

“I’m the guy who, once, I was making plans with some friends for a Friday night in like 2016 or something and well, the plans changed so, I’m going to Hong Kong,” Luten told Insider.

Luten hadn’t seriously considered international travel during the pandemic despite the options open to him and other Americans. A Texas resident, nearby Mexico had stayed open during the pandemic and even European countries like Croatia and Serbia had been letting in Americans.

“I love Croatia but for some reason, Iceland just felt right,” Luten said, noting his feel test had deterred him from booking international trips during the pandemic.

The first stop on Luten’s Icelandic adventure was Boston, where Icelandair has consolidated its US operations with two flights per week. All three major US international airlines and Icelandair had offered non-stop flights to Iceland from cities across the US before the pandemic, including Luten’s hometown of Dallas, but those had been scrapped once the borders closed.

Checking in at Boston Logan International Airport was the first hurdle Luten had to clear. “I went to Logan and checked in with the [Icelandair agent] and when he was like ‘what’s your documentation getting you to Iceland,’ I just held up the CDC card,” Luten said.

It was the first time the agent had seen an American traveling with just the paper card. Icelandair couldn’t give Luten a definitive answer on whether the country would accept the card, with the agent simply stating, “as far as I know, it’s going to work.”

The first hurdle complete, Luten boarded the Boeing 767-300ER bound for the Land of Fire Ice and settled in for the quick five-hour journey to Europe, the first transatlantic journey he’d taken in over a year. Even if he didn’t get into Iceland, Luten explained, he’d at least have a story to tell about how he got kicked out of the country.

“The beautiful part about being a writer is that nothing really ends with you because you get to write about it,” Luten said, paraphrasing writer David Sedaris. “And I thought to myself, ‘if this works out, I’m going to end up in Iceland. If it doesn’t work out, I’m going to end up with a really good story.'”

Luten’s flight mate happened to be a former Icelandair executive that was similarly traveling with a CDC vaccination card. “You’ll be fine,” he told Luten.

Read More: Airline workers have lower rates of COVID-19 than the general population – and airline CEOs say it’s proof that flying is safe

Landing at Keflavik International Airport, 30 miles from Reykjavik, was pretty routine, according to Luten, who had been to Iceland twice prior. Despite being a major transatlantic transit hub between North America and Europe, the airport is quite easy to navigate even for a first-time visitor.

Following the lead of his Icelandic speaking flight mate, Luten was guided to the line for vaccinated travelers and the only thing standing between him and Iceland was a border officer. Luten approached the desk and handed over his passport, vaccination card, and the barcode from a pre-registration that’s now required to enter Iceland.

Within minutes, Luten was granted access to the country, and going through passport control was easier than he could’ve expected with no vaccine passport required.

“It was the most nonchalant thing ever,” Luten said, “nobody asked me a single thing about anything.”

Once he was in the country, Luten didn’t have to submit to any additional testing or quarantine. The vaccination certificate was his golden ticket to explore Iceland.

Luten soon discovered that he had visited at the perfect time as a volcano erupted on the island shortly after his arrival. All the natural attractions that were once plagued by tourists were also empty, allowing Luten to chase Icelandic waterfalls at his leisure.

“From a tourism standpoint, there has never been a better time to go to Iceland than right now,” Luten said.

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