Airbus has opened a new front in the battle against critics of the aerospace and airline industries’ environmental track record with the completion of a successful exercise to maximise the amount of materials recovered from aircraft at the end of their flying lives.

In its “smart dismantling” project, Airbus raised the amount of material that can be recovered from an end-of-life aircraft from an average of less than 60% by weight to 85% by weight, leaving just 15% of materials to go to landfill.

At the same time, Airbus aims to launch a new sector in the aerospace industry – a global network of smart dismantling centres along the lines of MRO facilities. The first has already been established at Tarbes in south west France.

The number of Airbus aircraft reaching the end of their lives is set to grow significantly in the coming years and the prospect of recovering just 60% of an aircraft using traditional techniques prompted Airbus to launch its Pamela (Process for Advanced Management of End of Life of Aircraft) project.


“For Airbus, this 60% recovery level was something we just could not accept,” says Olivier Malavallon, project director, environmental affairs, Airbus. Over the next 20 years, a quarter of the 6,000 plus airliners destined for the scrapheap will be Airbus aircraft and the company set itself the task of managing its offspring’s “end of life” in an environmentally-friendly manner.

“We are closing the loop of product life-cycle management,” says Malavallon, who adds that it it mandatory under its ISO 14001 environmental management accreditation. The success of Pamela marks the completion of the first stage of an initiative to formulate best practice for the smart dismantling of airliner hulks, which will see the creation of an international network of approved aircraft breakers to handle the surge in Airbus aircraft retirements forecast to begin in the middle of the next decade.

While the oldest of the A320s are beginning to come to the end of their life, Airbus retirements will peak around 2016, with a second wave around 2025. “We want to be ready for this,” says Malavallon. He adds that by 2030, about half the annual airliner retirements are likely to be Airbus aircraft.

While end-of-life had not been an Airbus core business, Malavallon says that with about 1,500 Airbuses expected to be retired in the next 20 years, “the need for end-of-life centres will become critical.”


Another driver was the watershed that Airbus experienced exactly a year ago when production of the A300/A310 ended. “We moved to a new era for Airbus – in-service support for a fleet where there are no longer new aircraft being manufactured,” he says.

“We have put in place a specific organisation within customer services that wants to make sure we can supply our customers with parts and equipment at the best price and time. This means we are also looking at second-hand parts refurbished as spare parts.”

In March 2005, the Pamela process was launched. It was a demonstration project focused on aircraft dismantling techniques and was supported by the European Commission’s LIFE initiative under the classification of “waste management, recycling and reduction of landfill”.

Airbus participated in partnership with two EADS divisions (CCR – now Innovation Works – and Sogerma Services) as well as Paris-based waste management company Suez-Sita and Prefecture Haute Pyrenees, a local government administration that ensured that the Pamela demonstration was fully compliant with all regulations.

For the exercise, a 24-year old ex-Fly Air A300B4 (MSN194) was bought and ferried to Tarbes airport in western France in February 2006 for dismantling. The parting-out exercise, which took a year, was used to evaluate current practices used by aircraft breakers, and to examine ways of improving the process to increase the amount and quality of materials recovered.

The target was to achieve unprecedented levels of valorisation (the amount that can be sold to a recovery channel, regardless of material purity) and to establish recommendations for improving the tracking of parts and equipment recovered from the scrapped aircraft.

“There are currently no guidelines or advice related to the end-of-life of aircraft,” says Malavallon. “More and more we see wild destruction of aircraft, with specialist companies that go to and airfield, crunch the aircraft for non-ferrous metals and then leave the hulk.”

Current practices allow around 60% of the aircraft’s weight to be recovered, and only 50% of this can be recycled, he says. “This means that only 30% of the total is recycled.” The benefit of adopting a more thorough “smart dismantling” process is that up to 70-80% of the scrap by weight is recovered for reuse. In addition, the scrap metal recovered is of a higher grade: for example, recovered aluminium can be reused in aerospace, he says.


The Pamela project broke down the dismantling process into three main steps: Decommissioning (D1) is the process undertaken when aircraft are put into intended temporary storage, and will not prevent a return to service later. Processes include cleaning and decontamination, draining of tanks and implementation of safety procedures.

Disassembling (D2) is the process that follows the decision to use the parked aircraft as a spares source, in compliance with airworthiness regulations. It comprises equipment and parts removal but does not exclude the possibility that the aircraft could eventually be restored to service.

Smart dismantling and valorisation (D3) is the dismantling process that begins once the irreversible decision is taken to turn the aircraft to waste. This stage includes the final draining of systems, removal of polluting and/or hazardous materials and finally the “deconstruction” of the aircraft.

“Three quarters of aircraft entering D1 will return to service,” says Malavallon. “But once the decision is taken to go to D3, it must be one way. You cannot turn back. Regulations require that parts are mutilated in such a way that they cannot be reused.”

To formulate the smart dismantling process, Airbus broke down an aircraft into four categories: structure, cockpit/cabin/cargo, systems and powerplant. “We apply materials filtering processes to these categories – metallics, composites, elastomers, fluids/gas, miscellaneous,” says Malavallon. This enables the specialised recovery channels to be identified for each part of the aircraft. “We have to do reverse engineering or ‘mapping’ – what type of material, what amount and what location.”
To facilitate the recycling, a reverse supply chain was devised designed to feed back into the aerospace business, he says. “We have to established where the value is and how to maintain it as much as possible – if you can refurbish parts where it is safe and economically viable you will maximise its value, for example landing gear, engines and avionics.”

While “specialised recovery channels” can be used to recycle other parts of the aircraft such as tyres, wiring harnesses and carpets, there are some elements for which there is currently no viable recovery solution. “For example the cabin and cargo lining and polluted mix and wastes have to go to landfill today. This is something we are not happy with, but it is a matter of fact,” he says.

The Pamela project started with the A300B4 arriving at Tarbes weighing around 106 tonnes and ending after parts removal and dismantling with around 13.5t of non-recoverable waste that went to landfill.

D1 servicing – the removal of fuel, potable water and waste tanks – eliminated around 18t. The D2 removal of parts and equipment “retained by the seller” (engines, APU, landing gear) accounted for 13.5t. “In D3 we dismantled the aircraft in a smart and safe manner recovering 61t of material,” says Malavallon.

Pamela bettered the recycling expectations, with 74t, or 85% of the aircraft’s weight at the start of D2, recovered in valorisation terms of reused parts and recycled secondary raw materials.

Source: Flight International