How did Delta Airlines wake up 570 sleeping planes?
Delta Air Lines parked 571 mainliner planes across the country in 2020 when COVID-19 wiped out most passenger travel. Airlines still have about 70% of their pre-pandemic fleet in hibernation, but Delta is bringing planes back to the skies as the US domestic market recovers faster than in other parts of the world.
Parking a plane and bringing it back to life after months of inactivity isn’t as easy as turning the engines off and back on. It takes a lot of effort, including maintenance and electrical checks, to keep an aircraft ready for future use.
When the pandemic reached the United States in March 2020, Delta (NYSE: DAL) began parking planes in Blytheville, Arkansas; Kansas City, Missouri; Marana, Arizona; and Birmingham, Alabama. Each location presented distinct challenges, such as humidity, desert heat, or crevice-nesting insects and small animals.
In some parts of the world, for example, mud-daubing wasps clog exterior speed-sensing tubes with mud. Maintenance personnel are responsible for regularly checking the probe covers for damage.
So many planes were brought to Birmingham Airport that Delta’s engineering crews missed the wheel chocks to hold the plane in place. Workers bought 6-by-6 wood pallets from local hardware stores to replace them by hand, the airline said in a recent blog post.
Finding airports and land suitable for aircraft was in itself a big undertaking. In San Bernardino, Calif., A designated parking area was not usable after a Boeing 757 began to dig into the roadway. And the runways in Kansas City and Victorville, Calif. Were only temporary, so the planes eventually had to be moved again.
Planes in long-term storage also need special covers placed over the engines and the fuel to be removed if kept in a hangar.
Delta TechOps has scheduled maintenance work for each aircraft at intervals of seven, 14, 30, 60, 100 and 180 days. Coordinating checks and staggering work required extensive planning, according to the airline. Engineers developed flexible “work cards” for each aircraft, specially adapted to the climatic conditions in which they were parked, while preserving supplies and manpower.
“Putting an aircraft to sleep has never really been done in the Delta world before. Some of the jobs were never written down for many of these planes because they were fairly new, ”an Atlanta maintenance program manager said in a Delta video.
The pandemic has complicated storage efforts. Most of the mechanics went to different storage facilities for periods ranging from a few days to a month and could not eat in the restaurants because they were closed. At one location, a chef used the hotel kitchen to prepare meals for his team.
Many aircraft in storage have been stripped of parts to help repair aircraft in service. When it was time to reactivate them, mechanics had to find and reinstall new parts.
All aircraft returning to service have their systems activated and overhauled, and gears and components greased. Then they undergo a test flight before heading to a repair facility for a maintenance overhaul, according to the Delta blog.
Small planes can take around 10 days to two weeks to heal. Large appliances can take two to three weeks to repair. The process is longer for planes stored 180 days or more, especially if there are expired components that need to be replaced.
Once the maintenance is complete, the pilots arrive to fly the plane to an airport where it will take care of passengers and cargo.
So far, Delta has returned 493 aircraft to the active fleet. The company plans to reactivate the planes in 2022.
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