Nobody has ever kept so many aircraft in short term storage for so long, and many airlines have aircraft types and engines that have never faced such a situation.
In short, the airlines actually don’t know exactly what to do and their maintenance specialists and manufacturers have been coming up with different options.
The first challenge was finding space, but many are using primary airports as travel has come to a near stop. Runways at Frankfurt for example, are full of Lufthansa aircraft.
The next big issue is engines. Do you idle them for a few minutes each day? Half an hour, an hour? Daily, every few days? That’s a question only the manufacturer can answer. It turns out it depends on any number of factors and the likelihood of individual aircraft returning to service the soonest.
One problem has been the shortage of engine covers for so many aircraft, foam and cardboard cut outs are being used as there simply aren’t enough proper ones to go round.
Some airlines have looked at their fleets and designated the first aircraft to go back in to service, and those are being treated as if they were still flying, same service and routines.
Those airlines that can afford it are taking the opportunity to deep clean cabins, repair seats and trays, fix all the tiny problems that crop up and yet while not serious, disappoint customers. Tight schedules mean many of these small jobs don’t get fixed between flights.
Other airlines, again those who can afford it, are simply carrying out fleet wide maintenance across the board, taking the opportunity to bring everything up to scratch while they have the chance.
Many are of course looking at the fact retirements are an accepted inevitability of the current crisis.
If it’s some of a fleet of specification identical aircraft, say A320’s or 752’s, and some need to go, which ones and why? Older ones maybe, highest landing cycles? One might be younger but have a more chequered service history than an older one and cost more to keep.
The next question is when we put the aircraft back into service what do we need to do?
Blanking out a middle seat is being seen as very likely, but formal blanking panels are in short supply. The easiest way is simply not to allow anyone to sit in them on booking or at check in when seats are allocated. Online systems will have to be modified and updated to make that happen, no small undertaking for a major airline with a 4 class travel option.
Airports are facing their own challenges needing to know which staff they will need, how many, and when to service airlines and aircraft when they start flying again. What will demand be like?
Many airports have taken the opportunity to refurbish and maintain luggage systems, that work often for years almost nonstop and suffer endless wear and tear. Major airports have been able to clean, maintain and do work they’re usually only able to do over days or weeks of phased nigh time and off -peak hours schedules.
So if we’re lucky, we should go back to cleaner aircraft, where everything works, in near pristine airports.
Now all they need are passengers willing enough to sit within inches of someone they don’t know for hours at a time, in a world without any guarantees you won’t be risking a deadly infection. That may be a far harder problem to overcome than maintenance on an under used aircraft.