As Air Travel Collapses, World's Biggest Plane Graveyards Prepare for Busiest Time Since 9/11

American skies have grown ever quieter as the coronavirus pandemic spreads across the globe. Tight travel restrictions have been implemented as desperate governments try to stem its spread, grounding passenger aircraft across the world and turning major flight hubs into ghost towns.

Huge numbers of flights have been canceled, whether due to government decrees or simply because there are not enough passengers on board. Terminals are packed with stationary aircraft as airlines consider long-term storage solutions for a crisis with no end in sight. The situation has even prompted the Federal Aviation Administration to issue new guidance on overflow parking.

Delta Airlines has started moving some 600 planes to storage facilities, while a United Airlines spokesperson told Newsweek the airline was parking most of its planes at a series of maintenance hubs. An American Airlines spokesperson noted that the airline has parked more than 100 aircraft at maintenance bases, but said the firm cannot estimate how long they will remain out of use for.

Airports around the country are spooling up to receive surplus aircraft, though three that spoke with Newsweek described the situation as unprecedented in its scale and interminable nature. Not since 9/11 have so many American aircraft been grounded, but the coronavirus shutdown is global and is likely to last for several months.

Kingman Airport in Arizona is one of the country's largest, with more than 4,000 acres of land. Steve Johnson, the airport's general manager, told Newsweek that the scale of the COVID-19 problem started to become apparent a couple of weeks ago, as European nations began shutting down flights and closing borders. "It seemed clear to me that things were going to ramp up," he explained.

Kingman currently has 164 airlines on site, but staff there are exploring ways to expand capacity to cope with the expected influx of planes. Officials are already in discussions with multiple operators about storing aircraft, Johnson said, though none have yet touched down. Depending on their size, Johnson estimated that Kingman can hold around 350 aircraft.

For all the preparation and discussions, no one knows how long this will last. "The sense that I've gotten from the people who've been contacting me, is this is sort of an open-ended thing," Johnson said. "They don't really have a sense of where this is going."

The same is true at the Roswell Air Center in New Mexico. Director Scott Stark said the port was tipped off by events in Europe, soon after which calls from airlines started coming in and "the floodgates opened."

Roswell airport and city staff have since been cleaning and clearing extra space to make the 4,000-acre facility ready.

There are now almost 400 aircraft on-site, but Stark said the airport believes it can push that number up to around 800 depending on the size of the planes that come in. Commercial jets have already started arriving from operators including Delta Airlines and American Airlines. Fifteen arrived on Wednesday, and Stark said this will likely continue "until we run out of space."

The airline industry has not faced disruption like this since 9/11, when American and Canadian airspaces were abruptly closed and flights only allowed to resume on September 13. Flights are still operating in the age of coronavirus, but passenger numbers are dwindling daily.

Johnson said that 9/11 was disruptive but that the challenge then was not "anything like this." He explained, "It's unprecedented—there's been nothing of this scale or depth that's ever occurred...It's a world changer. There's no two ways about it." Mark Bleth, Roswell's deputy director, described this as "uncharted territory."

Even the smaller airports are gearing up for additional business, such is the scale of the challenge facing America's airlines. Karina Drees, the CEO of the Mojave Air and Space Port, told Newsweek that the facility started receiving calls from logistics companies last week to enquire about their storage capacity.

Mojave is a remote site and not a commercial airport—Drees described the facility as "sort of a last resort" for this kind of service. Still, Mojave can fit around 100 wide-bodied aircraft in its 134 acres of property, and are preparing in case they need to do so. At this stage, Mojave is mostly coordinating with larger airports in case they need an overflow location.

"We haven't had this sort of request for this many airplanes potentially since 9/11," Drees explained, after which Mojave had around 100 planes parked on its property.

Ballooning demand means such airports will be some of the lucky ones during the coronavirus financial crisis—a silver lining, of sorts, for facilities like Kingman, Roswell and perhaps Mojave too.

But even these remote locations are not immune from the virus—New Mexico's first COVID-19 fatality was confirmed some 40 miles south of Roswell this week, Mayor Dennis Kintigh said.

However long the crisis lasts, there will be a lag time for airlines to get their planes back out of storage and flying again—it could take several weeks to get such a large number of aircraft back in service, airport officials explained. Some of the older models will never fly again. Airlines will decide that planes due to be phased out in six months or a year can be scrapped now.

For now, a cloud of uncertainty hangs over the entire industry, though this week's record-breaking stimulus package will hand airlines much-needed financial support. "The concern really is no one really knows how long it's going to be before a lot of these airlines come back online," Drees said. "We just don't really know what to expect."

Aircraft, grounded, planes, coronavirus, coronavirus, graveyard, 9/11
This file photo shows a grounded fleet of British Airway planes on the runway at Glasgow Airport on March 21, 2020 in Glasgow, U.K. Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images/Getty

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