A week ago Friday, 10 Delta Airlines jetliners flew into a remote desert airstrip between Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona. Not one flew out.
So far this past week, planes owned by Avianca Ecuador, Air Canada and its regional carrier Jazz Aviation, and a contract carrier from Bangor, Maine, have arrived at Pinal Air Park near Marana.
They carried no passengers and only a skeleton crew, usually just a pilot and a first officer, and those planes, too, never left, reports The Arizona Republic, which is part of the USA TODAY Network.
In the last 10 days more than 50 jetliners have filed final flight plans to the converted World War II training base.
They are part of a wave of ghost flights landing at an unprecedented rate at desert airstrips all over the Southwest near places like Marana and Kingman in Arizona, Mojave and Victorville in California, Roswell, New Mexico, and Abilene, Texas.
The planes will sit in storage at the airstrips as airlines deal with the economic shocks of the COVID-19 crisis. Since Feb. 20, airline passenger traffic is down an estimated 95%, and industry stocks have lost two-thirds of their value.
Rather than flying empty planes, most airlines are parking significant portions of their fleets, which even for a short term involves an intricate maintenance schedule to make sure the planes are airworthy if and when they are needed again.
'A sense of sadness'
One pilot, a seasoned veteran with a major airline, flew into Pinal Air Park in a jet with just one other person on board, a first officer.
"It's a little eerie," he said.
Taking off was a different experience as well because the plane was extremely light with no passengers or baggage
The pilot spoke on the condition of anonymity because his company had not authorized him to talk with the media.
The scene at the air park was surreal, he said. The facility has no air traffic control tower, a fairly short runway and no landing lights or visual approach indicators. But what really stood out is the massive number of aircraft parked there.
"You get this sense of impressiveness because you see so many planes from all over the world way out where nobody would ever think of going," he said.
"At the same time there's a profound sense of sadness that goes along with it because you know why they're there, and it sort of hits you that this plane you're flying is not going to be flying again, maybe forever, but certainly not for a long time," the pilot said. "You know this is affecting people's lives, and that definitely hits you a bit. "
Airlines mothball more planes
Most airlines routinely retire aircraft and place them in storage, but the pace has been dramatically accelerated because of the pandemic.
According to Airlines for America, an industry lobbying organization, U.S. air carriers have idled nearly 3,200 planes in recent months, about 52% of the nation's active fleet.
Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport public information officer Greg Roybal said that as of Wednesday, five airlines had parked a total of 39 planes indefinitely at the airport, but said the situation remains fluid.
Elsewhere, American Airlines, the nation's largest carrier in terms of fleet size, has parked 54 planes on an unused runway at Tulsa International Airport and has also idled planes at airports in Pittsburgh and Mobile, Alabama, according to published reports. It is also storing aircraft at Roswell Air Center, in New Mexico, which, like Marana Air Park, is a converted World War II military facility.
Delta, the largest American airline in terms of revenue and the third-largest in terms of fleet size, is mothballing 600 planes, about half its fleet, during the crisis, said corporate spokeswoman Maria Moraitakis.
The airline had already planned to retire 76 older MD-88 and MD-90 aircraft at the end of the year, but moved up plans and will phase out all of them by June, Moraitakis said.
At least 50 Delta planes have been parked at Marana, which, like other desert operations, provides an ideal climate for storing planes because the low humidity helps prevent corrosion.
Storage areas are filling up
Scott Butler, chief commercial officer of Ascent Aviation Services, which operates the Pinal Air Park runway and storage operations, said in an e-mail interview that companies have placed about 250 planes in storage there since March, bringing the Marana operation to about 85% of its capacity.
He said the facility has received planes from 15 countries and five continents in the last several months.
The Marana facility primarily handles larger planes and wide-body jets. A smaller facility in Tucson handles smaller and intermediate jets typically used by regional carriers. That facility is at roughly 60% of capacity, Butler said.
Before the COVID-19 crisis, the company was operating at about 30% of capacity, and the increased activity has led the company to increase its workforce by about 125 full-time equivalents.
Butler said most airlines are placing aircraft in what he called “short-term storage,” which, depending on specifications by different aircraft manufacturers, typically means from 30 to 90 days, though some are retiring aircraft for good, which involves an extensive decommissioning process.
Ascent Aviation spokeswoman Annette Feasel said the process of storing an aircraft is complex.
"Each aircraft manufacturer has different guidelines," she said, depending on whether it's an "active parking situation or short or long-term storage."
More complex than parking a car
Active parking may mean the company has to start the engines every seven to 10 days and fire up other systems to ensure they are working so the plane remains airworthy.
Short- or long-term storage entails more extensive operations, possibly including the removal of engines. Typically, the longer planes have been in storage, the longer it takes to reactivate them.
She added that airplanes are "built to be in the air and they don't like to be on the ground. The longer they're on the ground and they're in various weather and different types of conditions, it's detrimental to the aircraft."
"When you think about your automobile, you do have to change the oil and do a few things, but if your car sits for a week or two, and nothing happens, you're still going to be in fairly good shape," Feasel said. "An airplane needs a lot more than that."
She said with nearly 400 planes on the property, operations are going on constantly. The people who maintain the planes are just as important as the people who fly them, but get little recognition.
"In order to maintain airworthiness there's a lot of tasks that have to happen every day, and the people who are doing that, they deserve to be acknowledged," she said.
John D'Anna is a reporter on the Arizona Republic/azcentral.com storytelling team. Reach him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @azgreenday.
This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Coronavirus-stricken airlines park aircraft in Arizona, Southwest