by AFIQ AZIZ / pic by MUHD AMIN NAHARUL
ANYONE who saw Michael Palin’s adventure in North Korea on the National Geographic channel might attest that the Air Koryo aircraft he was on in one of the segments looked too tired to fly.
In fact, in real life, that plane seems more suited to be rested, torn apart and recycled into more useful items.
After all, the aeroplane recycle business has been reported to be a rather lucrative venture.
According to industry figures, the world sees about 600 to 650 retiring aircraft a year and many of these old planes currently fly in Europe.
At the moment, the market for dismantling services has reached around US$97 million (RM401.6 million), and is expected to grow at a compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) of around 6% to 7%, reaching US$180 million by 2027.
The market for salvaged components, on the other hand, is estimated at US$1.3 billion in 2018 and is expected to surpass US$3 billion by 2027.
In fact, the value for the end-of-life business of US$1.4 billion may be small pie compared to the total industry value of US$8 trillion in the air and space industry.
Still, the multiplying effects could be a great catalyst to gear up the local engineering and manufacturing sector holistically.
That’s where Selangor can come in, as there is a proposal for the state to be the first aeroplane recycling centre in the region.
The plan, should it materialise, would see hundreds of old and rusty aircraft being dismantled and the parts “rejuvenated” at the centre that is expected to be located near the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) in Sepang, or the Sultan Abdul Aziz Shah Airport in Subang.
As it is, the Selangor state’s manufacturing sector contributed RM18.9 billion worth of investment to the state last year, compared to RM5.6 billion in 2017. Moreover, as there is no indicator that Malaysia would become an aeroplane original equipment manufacturer (OEM) like Airbus SE and Boeing Co, the end-of-cycle business could be the alternative aerospace business chain that has remained untapped in Malaysia.
A couple of weeks ago, Selangor Mentri Besar Amirudin Shari said the state, together with Airbus, is exploring the prospect to develop an aircraft dismantling facility and recycling in the state.
How Old is Old?
An aircraft is typically designed to operate for up to 25 years of a periodical operation life.
However, according to the National Aerospace Industry Coordinating Office (Naico), evolving technologies have what it takes to give some “lifeline” or “injury time” to allow aircraft to still fly for 40-over years.
For instance, a source from aviation database Airfleet.net revealed that the 1986’s 737 model with 148 passengers’ capacity is still in service, operated by Jet2.com Ltd, the third-largest scheduled airline in the UK.
According to British daily The Telegraph, as of 2017, there are a handful of 737s from the 1970s that are still in service.
In Indonesia, the Boeing 737-200 that was manufactured in the 1970s is still being used by PT Airfast Indonesia. The air carrier specialises in contract operations, aviation management services and charter passenger and cargo services to the oil, mining and construction industries in the country.
Naico head Shamsul Kamar Abu Samah said one of the technologies that contribute to the aircraft life extension is the aircraft’s remanufacturing segment.
“In aerospace, we start with the design, followed by the manufacturing process before the assembly part. After that, we go for testing and flying. During flight operations, aircraft will go for scheduled maintenance, including overhaul and major repair which may also include modification.
“Then, it enters the end-of-life cycle. What are we going to do with this aircraft or aerospace products? We might have to dispose them. This is when the recycling activities come into the picture,” Shamsul Kamar told The Malaysian Reserve in an interview recently.
Typically, about three million to six million parts are needed to complete an aeroplane.
Based on data from Tarmac Aerosave, European biggest aircraft storage, about 1,500 components could be removed from an aircraft which could be sold in the secondhand market — accounting between 20% and 30% of the weight of a retired aircraft.
The firm makes money from a retired aircraft, starting with selling its components — from an auxiliary power unit to the pylon or the landing gear.
Shamsul Kamar said other parts that can also be “re-life” and remanufactured are the engine, avionics system, seats, as well as movable structure parts, such as the spoiler and flaps.
He said one-stop recycling centres would typically require hangars, workshops and storage centres that are ready for the market.
“It is a one-stop centre. It must also be near an airport runway, so that a plane could fly its final destination direct into the recycling yard.
“As I see it, Subang should still have some space for that, as we do not require too large spaces. Maybe, the most are two hangars and a warehouse, as well as a small on-site workshop,” he added.
In terms of workforce, Shamsul Kamar said the segment would offer a wide range of skills to the newcomers and the specialist.
As for the dismantling process, he said it would involve highly-skilled expertise, which would be much needed for the testing and certification parts.
The task to establish such facilities would not be as easy, as aerospace and aviation are both highly regulated industries.
Shamsul Kamar said any remanufactured components need to be tested and certified by the relevant authorities.
“For example, a chief engineer is authorised by the Civil Aviation Authority of Malaysia to release any aircraft to depart. Same goes when you reuse or remanufacture any aircraft part; it must be certified and warranted that it would be safe to use for such a period of time.
“A company which has no expertise to test and certify the components would need to outsource the services to other parties that run laboratories to examine the components,” he said.
Shamsul Kamar said the selection of aerospace players that could be the catalyst to the recycling outlet is paramount to get the business going.
At the groundbreaking ceremony of Airfoil Services Sdn Bhd’s facility in Petaling Jaya recently, Amirudin said the plan to work with Airbus would be viable as the OEM equally owns Tarmac Aerosave with SUEZ Groupe SAS, as well as the military and commercial engine designer Safran Aircraft Engines.
Currently, Airbus already has its fullyowned maintenance, repair and operations (MRO) centre — Sepang Aircraft Engineering Sdn Bhd — which operates two state-of-the-art hangars that could accommodate wide body aircraft at KLIA.
The MRO facility also houses a major regional supply of spare parts for Airbus A320, A330 and A380.
The company is still growing, and is aimed at increasing the workforce to 720 high-skilled employees from only 550 in December last year.
Amirudin said the state would consider accepting any company that is willing to work on the establishment of a recycling facility, which could also cater for other OEM products.
Too Far to Reach Malaysian Soil?
While Malaysia plans to lead the way in this industry, the main concern is rather basic — if all the old airlines that are operating in the European region could last flying more than 15 hours to Selangor.
According to Shamsul Kamar, the industry is still at the exploration phase and the state’s vision, as outlined in its Selangor Aerospace Action Plan (SAAP), should not be half baked.
“This is a small portion compared to the overall industry. Not many players are involved in this business. Believe me; compared to making a whole new aircraft, using existing planes with recycled parts is way cheaper.
“After all, the wait for a whole new aeroplane to be manufactured is rather long,” he said.
He added that as time progresses, the growing number of aircraft in the region could be what the Selangor recycling centre needs to remain a viable business.
Airbus has forecast that air traffic would double every 15 years globally, while the number of passengers in Asia Pacific is expected to grow 5.5% annually in the next 20 years.
The projected increase would require an additional 16,000 new aircraft from the current 7,000 aircraft available in the industry, which is a huge backlog that the recycle segment could meet.
“It will also contribute to the world’s sustainability and green agenda as aircraft could not be fully disposed, especially on the carbon fibre or composite parts. The business could reduce industry waste,” Shamsul Kamar added.
He said Naico and the Selangor government, via the SAAP proposal, would ensure that the recycling sector would add value to the aircraft components and engineering activities, which would also ensure that no aircraft part would end as only “display product”.
For example, Netherland flag carrier KLM Royal Dutch Airlines flew the world’s oldest Boeing 747-400 to the “static display graveyard” in Corendon Village Hotel, Amsterdam, last November.
Shamsul Kamar said since Malaysia is already the address to about 230 aerospace companies that are involved in various activities from parts design to MRO, there should be no reason why the country cannot excel in the “old aircraft sanctuary” segment.
The manufacturing segment’s CAGR has increased to 32% over the last seven years, and had generated RM6.97 billion last year.
The MRO sector only generates about 4% to 5% of the total rate over the same period, clocking RM6.68 billion in revenue last year.
At the rate Malaysia is going in the aerospace business, one can only conclude that the sky is definitely the limit.