NigeriaWest Africa

Airplane Graveyards: The Largest Airplane Cemetery in Africa

Story Highlights

  • An Oddly Familiar Image Gains Global Attention
  • Obstacles
  • Airplane Graveyards across the World

By passenger traffic or flight movements, Nigeria ranks nowhere near the world’s top aviation countries. But the country has an odd record in the number of unserviceable and dead airplanes parked in airplane graveyards across the country.

Descending the final approach into Runway-18 Right of Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMIA), Lagos, the “Lady Bird” could hardly be missed. On the ground, she is as big as a house with imposing elegance that beautifies skylines. But there she has been in the last four years, idle and with love unrequited.

When Arik Air one of Nigeria’s top airliner in the early 2000’s purchased the massive Airbus 340-542 aircraft in 2008, it embossed on it “Our Lady of Perpetual Help” – a moniker to signify a piece of equipment on a mission. It was the talk of the town; the flagship, and the best thing in local aviation for many. It was also a grave error.

Running on fuel-guzzling four engines that were fast becoming old-fashion in commercial aviation, the craft did few Lagos-New York, Lagos –London, and Lagos-Johannesburg trips before calling it a day.

When the Asset Management Corporation of Nigeria (AMCON) in 2017 took over the ownership Arik Air and management, the 30-aircraft fleet airline (and the then biggest carrier in West and Central Africa), it met about five aircraft in operations.

Valuers later alleged that majority of the airplanes were “just empty casings,” and on their way to the airplane graveyards, including “Our Lady of Perpetual Help,” which had equally become helpless. Very little has changed in the fortunes of the airline since AMCON acquired both assets and liability of over N300b.

Before Arik Air, was another Nigerian airliner Slok Air that was registered in 1996. The airline registered and got approval to bring in two B737-200 aircraft to begin scheduled services. In place of two, four arrived – a violation of extant rules. The airline’s certificate of operation was suspended in March 2004 and the assets rot away.

The airline immediately reopened in the Gambia as Slok Air Gambia Limited in 2004. It recorded several restarts until it grounded operations in 2009. Two of its B737-200 aircraft are still on the ground at the Banjul International Airport, Gambia.

Way back in the 1990s and in the twilight of Nigeria Airways, Okada Air was a household name in international and local passenger scheduled services. The company was disestablished in 1997. To date, its Boeing727 aircraft and 11 BAC-One-Eleven-300 airplanes constitute an “eyesore” at the Benin Airport.

Records at the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) show that more than 50 registered airlines have closed shops in the last three decades, leaving behind a cocktail of derelict airplanes in the manner akin to Arik, Slok and Okada cited above.

It, therefore, came as no surprise to stakeholders when Nigeria was ranked top among countries with the highest number of unserviceable aircraft and largest airplane graveyards in global commercial aviation.

Research shows that the high toll of abandoned or retired aircraft at airports in Nigeria, without proper storage to suggest a return to service in the future, earned Nigeria the unenviable the spot.

Besides misfortunes of the likes of Slok, Okada, Kabo, Chanchangi, and so on in the 90s and their sudden collapse, the current operators’ penchant for the middle-range jet engine aircraft type, which often turns out to be a wrong choice in the long-run, and lack of maintenance facility to support the aircraft locally, are also adding to the number of unserviceable airplanes in the fold.

Experts did not spare the quality of regulatory oversight and wrong business models used by some operating carriers for the waste. They also queried the regulatory body for not, as a policy, insisting on smaller aircraft-type that fits the peculiarity of the Nigerian environment, over the popular middle-range jets that are most ideal for regional operations.

Most disturbing is the fact that the country has not developed the modern culture of aviation tourism and hospitality, where decommissioned airplanes and scraps can still yield extra revenue even in their ‘after-life’.

An Oddly Familiar Image Gains Global Attention

Airplane Graveyards: The Largest Airplane Cemetery in Africa

CH Aviation, a Swiss-based firm that specialises in data and information gathering for global aviation operators, estimates that Nigeria, with a small aviation industry, now ranks higher than Germany, United Kingdom, Argentina, and Malaysia as the top country with highest number of retired airplanes, in comparison with those in operation.

The 2021 CH Aviation report of 10 countries with the most unserviceable aircraft has Nigeria polling 69.2 per cent. Next is German that recorded 51.2 per cent. Others include the United Kingdom, Argentina, and Malaysia.

Indeed, modern airplanes cost a fortune and are designed to egg on a lifetime. Hence, the global surprise that they unusually age faster in Nigeria and are readily disposed of in prodigal fashion.

Experts are unanimous that an airplane can last for as long as the maintenance requirements and the rising cost are met. Planes operate longer than automobiles, even though it is the older the aircraft, the higher the cost of maintenance. Short-haul aircraft have an average of 25 years. It is 35 years for long-haul aircraft and between 40-50 years for general aviation airplanes.

These days, older long-haul aircraft are retiring earlier as newer aircraft offer lower operating costs, in particular fuel costs, which are very important to long-haul airlines. So, airplane graveyards of the world are getting filled up with 747s and A340s, while airlines are queuing up to buy the latest crafts like B777–300ERs, B777-X, A350, and 787s.

Also in 2002, the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) placed a ban on BAC-One-Eleven airplanes’ operations in Nigeria, following a series of crashes and serious incidents by the aircraft type. The series was the most popular among operating carriers then. That decision meant a death knell for several airlines and grounding of all BAC airplanes.

Operators that were caught in the web included, ADC, Albarka Air services Limited, Argonaut Airlines, Chanchangi, Chrome Air Services, Comet Airlines, EAS Airlines, Fassey Royal Limited, GAS Airlines, Hold-Trade Air Services, International Air Tours, Nigeria Airways, Oriental, Savannah, Wind, Kabo Air, and Okada. That singular decision by the NCAA formed the genesis of noticeable airplane graveyards in Nigeria.

Wrong Business Models As Obstacles

The deregulated Nigerian commercial aviation industry provides a free entry and free exit for investors. In other words, it allows all comers insofar as they meet the basic requirements. The result of this is a high toll of dropouts.

The local scheduled carriers, of which nine are in operation today, operate more Boeing737 aircraft series that are arguably not the most suitable, or profitable for the Nigerian environment.

According to experts, the Boeing series are middle-range aircraft that do better on regional two-to-four hours flight-cycle. (A cycle is the operation of an engine from take-off to landing). But given the proximity of Nigerian states and comparative low traffic, the maximum flight time is about one hour per cycle.

“But because a second-hand B737 aircraft of 140 seats are far cheaper compared to a 50-seater Embraer jet, some of the operators are buying them. Imagine getting the 737 for less than $2m. It looks like a good bargain. But when it is due for C-check about 18-month later, you will get a bill of $3m, which is more expensive than the purchase cost. At that point, some operators will rather go for another aircraft than repair the old one,” a chief operating officer (COO), who prefers anonymity offered.

Airplane Graveyards Around the World

Unlike the Nigerian experience where geriatric airplanes litter airport grounds, they are carefully put away in other climes. That is why airplane graveyards or boneyards are traditionally a part of aviation. Aging aircraft go there either to retire permanently, or for long-term storage and return to service in the future. Since the outbreak of Coronavirus and aviation downtime, many airlines have sent aircraft to these airplane graveyards for retirement, or long-term storage.

There are airplane graveyards all over the world, with some packed to the brim. Most are located in desert or semi-desert environments. The lack of rain and moisture offers the best conditions for the storage of aircraft, reducing damage and corrosion to the airframe and other aircraft components.

Some of the most popular airplane graveyards include the Mojave Desert in Arizona, the United States, which is home to 4,500 old commercial airliners, pending the determination of their fate. Davis-Monthan, near Tucson, Arizona, also in the United States, is home to the U.S. military’s 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG). Phoenix Goodyear Airport (GYR) once stored over 5, 000 aircraft.

Tarmac Aircraft Boneyard at Teruel Airport, Spain, is the biggest aircraft boneyard in Europe, and it is designed to handle 250 large planes.

When aircraft are no longer wanted, or retired, they are usually taken apart and scrapped off their over 350, 000 individual components for sale. The remains are melted for scrap metal, so nothing is allowed to waste. More advanced options, including keeping the plane fairly intact, and recycle for tourism and hospitality purposes.

A Swedish businessman, for instance, turned a Boeing 747 into a hotel in a parking lot at Arlanda Airport in Stockholm, Sweden. The hotel has 25 rooms and one suite in the cockpit.

There are more examples across the globe. A vintage 1965 Boeing 727 airplane lately found a new destination when it was converted into a luxury hotel suite at the Manuel Antonio National Park in Costa Rica.

Made from the body of an old 1954 Fairchild C-123, “El Avion” restaurant and bar in Puerto Rico, offers a lot of interesting aviation-related entertainment for visitors. “While having drinks in the cockpit, you can live out your fantasies of becoming a pilot,” the restaurant enthused.

In Florida Waterways, in the United States, is a boat named “The Cosmic Muffin,” made from the front-end of an old Boeing 307 Stratoliner that retired in 1969.

Francie Rehwald of Malibu decided to have an unusual design house whereby the basic building material is parts of Boeing 747. What is interesting is the house roof, which is made of airplane wings, and had to be registered with the FAA for pilots flying overhead to not mistake it for an in-service aircraft.

The Headteacher, Gari Chapidze, bought a retired Yakovlev Yak-42 from Georgian Airways and transformed it into a kindergarten classroom. He renewed the interior of the airplane with educational equipment, games and toys, but he left the cockpit intact so that the children could use it as play tools and pretend to be pilots.

Adding Value, Creating Wealth From Retired Aircraft

A LEADING consultant in African Travel and Tourism, Ikechi Uko, reckoned that there is an abundance of value to sift from disused aircraft, which litter airports, but for want of readiness on the part of authorities.

Uko noted that it is not out of place to use abandoned aircraft in building aviation museums, educational facilities, hotels and restaurants.

“When I did the first Seven Wonders of Nigeria in 2010-2012, I applied to the Ministry of Aviation and FAAN for access to those aircraft to use them for the Aviation Museum. I was invited by FAAN and I was told that if I could take the aircraft outside of the airport vicinity immediately, they would be happy. Their reason was that they had become security threats and they were not thinking about any other thing, but to grind them out of the place.

“If I may quote the man I met: ‘If it is possible to just chew the thing and they just disappear, that is fine.’ So, nobody was interested in harnessing those aircraft for economic prospects. I exclaimed and said we could actually create a successful international aviation museum with what we have in Lagos or even Benin, where we have all the airplanes from Okada Air. But the response was ‘no. We just want to dispose of the aircraft.’ Then, it was lucrative for people to chop-off the aircraft and use the scraps for aluminum. I saw them tear apart an old Nigeria Airways aircraft.

“The point is that the environment has not looked at the economic utilisation of those aircraft. They could be turned into museums, restaurants, used for training purposes, tourism and educational purposes among others.

They are just occupying space, and the grass is growing all over them, and I’m sure reptiles now live in them because they are not properly mothballed like those you have in Mojave Desert in America, where the aircraft are well preserved and welcome tourists.

So, if they turn it over to people, we could put it to good use and bring revenue to the airport. Where they are, they are useless, constitute an eyesore, and of no value to anybody,” Uko said

Aware that some of the “assets” are subject of knock-down-drag-out litigations, he reasoned that those aircraft are occupying FAAN’s land and have acquired sufficient packing fees over the years, enough for the owners to abandon them as bad debt.

“So, I don’t think anybody else but FAAN owns the aircraft. FAAN can go to court and get a judgment, invoice them and possess all the aircraft. FAAN itself can build an aviation museum. Some of us are available to help them on how to turn those things into economic assets.

“There is no aviation museum in our neighbourhood. If you count the number of children coming to the airport to see aircraft (on excursion), it is huge. Out of the 27 million people in Lagos, how many have entered an aircraft in their life? I flew to Houston and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to see what a Spacecraft looks like. If we turn those places (graveyards) around and shield them from the runway, they can become viable.

“You can create an aviation mentality among children. The value of a museum is not just aesthetics, but also educational. At NASA, they brought people from all manner of schools and did competition among them. That is how to excite the imagination of an American child in space technology.

So, there is a lot we can achieve. We can also create restaurants like BAC 100 restaurant, ATR, and B727-classic restaurants. Those are unique things we can do. How many young people in this generation have seen a B727 before?”
As of now, Arik’s “Lady Bird” is down, but she needs not be completely out of aviation like the BACs and others before them. Properly packaged, it can find a good resting place and back in the curve exciting the imagination of younger Nigerians to be aviators. She can also tell stories of the fading fame and fortunes of the country’s aviation industry, as well as get stakeholders to learn from past mistakes and avert bad reputation in the global aviation community.



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