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When a plane is finally considered to not be airworthy, what happens to them? Do they take them apart bit by bit? Do they sink them offshore to make them into reefs? Are parts stripped and sold as spares? Are there legal procedures the airlines have to go through? What happens?

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    $\begingroup$ First, they fly it to a boneyard such as this one in Mojave, CA. $\endgroup$ Aug 20 '14 at 23:26
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    $\begingroup$ Sinking anything to create reefs is highly controversial - even most offshore drilling platforms (where reefing has proven ecological advantages) are brought onshore and cut up for scrap. $\endgroup$ Aug 21 '14 at 0:02
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    $\begingroup$ I'm not sure a detailed answer is really going to be all that helpful since the answer is they go wherever someone is willing to buy them - engines, tires, etc. If someone wants to buy tires, guess what, they take the tires off without destroying them. However, for most consumable parts getting the proper paper trail on them probably isn't worth it, so they're just scrapped. The high-value avionics, engines, seats, etc are sold to whoever gives the most money. $\endgroup$
    – Aaron
    Oct 30 '14 at 2:07
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    $\begingroup$ @ManuH Sadly no, English and some Japanese... If you want to summarize it in English here though... There may be 100 points in it for you. $\endgroup$
    – Jay Carr
    Oct 30 '14 at 13:35
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    $\begingroup$ @DavidRicherby: My comment is clearly not intended to be comprehensive. Mostly I just wanted to include a link to a pic of that boneyard because it's pretty cool and it might be helpful for somebody who hasn't seen it yet. $\endgroup$ Oct 30 '14 at 18:31
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Generally the planes are scrapped by a recycling company. The parts will either be removed and sold as spares, or chopped up and recycled or disposed of. So a lot will depend on how easy it is to remove the part, and how much of a market there is for it. Airplanes are disassembled to a large extent during heavy checks, which can provide an opportunity for substituting in spares.

Engines: Probably the most valuable part of the airplane. These will be removed and either used as whole spares or for spare parts, depending on the condition and how many of the type are still in service.

Cockpit instruments: These will be removed and used as spares as well, if there is enough of a market (everyone wants those fancy glass cockpits these days).

Interiors: These may be removed as well, they can be used as spares.

Control surfaces: These can be removed and used as spares as well.

Windows: These can be removed and reused.

Systems: Pumps, electronics, lights, actuators, etc.: Most of these can be removed and sold as spares.

Landing gear: This can also be removed and reused, depending on the number of cycles it already has.

Tires: The tires may be reused if not worn out. The tubes may not be reused.

Airframe: Although some parts may be able to be used, generally the effort and the fact that there are probably many cycles on the part will prevent much from being used as-is. The metal will be chopped up as scrap. They are already working on recycling major composite structure as well, since manufacturing scrap is already being created. According to Boeing, with modern recycling processes, the metal, plastic, wires/electronics, and carbon fiber composites are used for:

  • 15% High-grade industrial
  • 50% Low-grade industrial
  • 35% Landfill

As it often is with business charts, it's not clear if these are by weight, volume, or what. This company claims to recycle 90% of the weight of an aircraft.

There are of course cases like Steve V. mentions where the plane is donated to some institution, but this doesn't happen to most planes. There are also ways that airplane parts find other uses.

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    $\begingroup$ I wonder if you can comment on how spares are sold? Is there a secondary market place that has a few distributors or are airlines selling direct? $\endgroup$
    – Jay Carr
    Oct 30 '14 at 18:14
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    $\begingroup$ @JayCarr: My last flight with Kingfisher was in a fairly new A-320 in very old chairs. I can't prove it but am sure those chairs had survived their first aircraft. Note that furnishings normally are replaced more frequently than the jets they fly in. $\endgroup$ Oct 30 '14 at 22:52
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They send it to a professional demo team that drains the fluids, grabs the spares and cuts up the hull for the materials and send it all to be recycled as possible.

There are plenty of youtube videos detailing the process like https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xDxJAO__6t8

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    $\begingroup$ Are there any rules regarding what they are allowed to pull off the planes? $\endgroup$
    – Jay Carr
    Aug 21 '14 at 19:26
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    $\begingroup$ @JayCarr that'd depend on the contract they have with the airline. If it's like with cars to be scrapped, usually either the contract states which bits to be returned to the (prior) owner, or everything becomes property of the wrecker. The idea is to leave nothing, reuse/resell what you can and dump the rest (as little as possible) according to local law (chemical/radiological/etc. waste regulations can take effect). $\endgroup$
    – jwenting
    Oct 30 '14 at 8:44
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FedEx has lately been donating their 727 retired fleet to flight schools and training departments.

FedEx Donates Boeing 727 to Trinidad & Tobago Civil Aviation Authority

FedEx Donates Retired Boeing 727 To Broward Aviation Dept

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Very few end up in a career as firefighter training objects.

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