National/World

Turning an airplane boneyard into a booming business in Rosewell, New Mexico

Friday, November 16, 2012

Making sure airplanes fly safely and on time during the holiday season takes plenty of spare parts, and not all of them are new.

What you see here is all that is left of commercial aircraft which once carried thousands of passengers safely to their destinations. It takes one man, an excavator and just 30 minutes to take a plane apart.

"We do about four and a half million pounds of scrap aluminum a year outta here," said Tom Stewart with Stewart Industries.

Flying into the airport in Roswell, New Mexico, you see dozens of moth-balled planes. It's almost surreal to see the planes lined up. The names and logos something like ghosts of airlines past.

"They're outta business. A lot of 'em are out of business," Stewart said.

American Airlines stores their older aircraft here, too, particularly as the fleet shifts to those which are more fuel efficient. This is the old Walker Air Force Base, a corner of Roswell International Airport. Stewart Industries not only recycles the planes, but refurbishes them. Those which aren't being fixed up will be dismantled for parts.

Stewart saw this as an emerging industry over 19 years ago as the wait time for new parts from Boeing and Airbus he says is at least a year. Second tier airlines who purchased the older planes he tells us needed a quicker way to get replacement parts.

"When your plane is broken and it's sitting on the tarmac and you're wanting to get it up and running, that's unacceptable," Stewart told us.

They will meticulously take the planes apart, tag, store and sell the pieces. Stewart took us inside this MD80 which they were working on. It's a view you likely have never seen. The stripped down body of the plane giving a new perspective on just how intricate these aircraft are.

Take a look at the cockpit alone. For the untrained eye, it's a spaghetti bowl of wires. Some planes have nearly 2,000 parts that can be resold.

They're working to get certified so they can fully refurbish all of these planes. If you want to buy one like this, it costs between $1.7 to $2.2 million.

Why Roswell you might wonder. It's primarily because of the climate; low humidity helps keep corrosion of the planes at bay.

Roswell is a tiny city on the map mostly because of the aliens and spaceships that supposedly crash landed there in 1947. Years later it is these aircraft which are another boon for business.

Not all airplane parts can be resold. According to FAA regulations, some must be thrown away when they reach the maximum number of hours or flights. Those parts that are resold must first meet stringent safety regulations.

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