Despite the millions of dollars it costs to fly and maintain, aircraft have a surprisingly short lifespan with an average of around 30 years. Once the aircraft has to be retired, they go to boneyards— large plots of land where airplanes are parked until further notice. It’s interesting to learn about what happens at the world's largest boneyard— how aircraft life is determined and how retired planes are salvaged for parts.
Retired American planes all end up at boneyards located in California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, where the dry and arid climate is perfect for decelerating rust. So, it makes sense that the world’s largest boneyard is the 209th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG) in Tucson Arizona. AMARG’s large lot currently holds more than $32 billion of retired airplanes, with a total of 4,400 parked planes.
The operational life an airplane is not determined by years, but by the number of pressurization cycles. It is estimated that an aircraft can make up to 35,000 pressurization cycles, which is around 135,000 to 165,000 flight hours before metal fatigue sets in and the FAA deems it unsafe to fly. In years, it is estimated to be 25 to 30 years depending on the destination and if the aircraft is used for domestic or international flights.
Once an aircraft is retired or decommissioned, it’s stripped and sold for parts. Aircraft parts are huge commodities because while the lifespan of the aircraft as a whole is over, the parts still have a lot of life left in them due to the regular maintenance and repair. Parts are often salvaged and sold for other aircraft still in operation because used parts are cheaper than new ones. Just the scraps of a single aircraft can be sold for up to $55,000.