Upcycling yesterday’s airliners

Passé planes don’t have to end up on the scrap heap. Some follow a new trajectory, reincarnated as cool concepts and innovative designer artifacts.

Passengers love to fly in them, airlines love to operate them – new ­aircraft, that is. They fly with better aerodynamic efficiency, burn less fuel and are kinder to the environment. It’s a win-win scenario, which is why, as part of its sustainability agenda, SAS is replacing aging aircraft with newer ones. The Airbus A320, for example, has 18 seats more than the MD-80 it supplants, while reducing fuel consumption and emissions by about 20%, and reducing noise during takeoff by 55%. Last year saw the arrival of the first A320neo, which uses approximately 15% less fuel, emits less noise and is equipped with six additional seats and a toilet adapted for ­passengers with reduced mobility.

Looking at this fleet replacement trend on a global scale, the quantity of airliners about to be retired in the coming years is considerable. Airbus’ “Global Market Forecast” calculates that of the 20,500 aircraft in service with airlines around the world, some 12,870 will be ­retired by 2036. Boeing’s sums for the same period are even higher. Its 2017 ­Market Outlook estimates that of the 23,000 jets in service today, around 18,000 will be ­retired over the next 20 years.

So what happens to the older planes these new ones displace? Once they’ve passed their sell-by date, some obsolete airliners end up parked indefinitely in the “jet boneyards” of the Mojave Desert, in the southwestern US. Others are stripped down for components that are still serviceable, after rigorous overhaul, testing and recertification, and some of the remaining aluminum parts are recycled. 

But there’s an alternative future for these retired metal birds. With a bit of ­entrepreneurial ingenuity they can be ­repurposed and given a new lease on life. It’s a developing niche trend fueled by the growing realization that novel ­approaches to recycling make commercial as well as environmental sense. 

SAS travelers flying in and out of Stockholm Arlanda Airport have probably already noticed one such example of this trend. A converted Boeing 747 near the runway is now being used as a hostel, marketed as Jumbostay. While ­beside the terminal at Teuge airport, ­between the Dutch cities of ­Deventer, Apeldoorn and Zutphen, a ­decommissioned Soviet-era airliner has been converted into a high-end hotel, called Vliegtuigsuite Teuge, aka Airplane Suite Teuge.

The Jumbostay Hostel at Stockholm Arlanda Airport.

“It took me seven years to find a suitable airplane, a location, and sort out permissions,” says owner Ben Thijssen, whose business hotelsuites.nl specializes in luxury hotels in the Netherlands and Belgium. 

The plane is an Ilyushin IL-18, built in 1960. “When I bought it in 2007, it was ­being used as a restaurant in ­Germany. Before that it was operated by the East German airline Interflug. It used to belong to East Germany’s government and was used to fly their leader Erich Honecker.”

From inside the Vliegtuigsuite cabin you have a view of the entire landing strip and fueling island. 

The clientele aren’t just aviation geeks and plane spotters, he says. “Most of the people that book do so to celebrate something like a wedding or anniversary. They come from all over the world and the plane is almost fully booked all year around.” The reconfigured aircraft cabin includes a jacuzzi, infrared sauna, three flat-screen televisions and free wireless internet.

But what if you want to recreate a touch of retro-airline ambience closer to home?

Structural engineer David Palmer and his furniture designer daughter Emily convert redundant holiday jets into “desirable garden rooms or workspaces.” Their company, DappR Aviation, based in Suffolk in the UK, manufactures the “Aeropod” from the re-engineered fuselages of Airbus A320s. They can be accessorized with ­aviation-inspired furniture, also made from pieces of disused jet planes.

“It was a huge leap of faith to buy our first plane,” Palmer says. “We’ve kept the original aluminum fuselage, windows and insulation and built a bespoke full aspect double-glazed frontage. The company has already had inquiries for offices, home cinemas with reclining aircraft seats, and even a sauna. ­Palmer says it will be buying a number of additional aircraft as production gets into full swing with other proposed uses ­including a poolside relaxation area, home gym, children’s play area, outdoor kitchen and even a “man cave.”

A DappR Aviation Aeropod, used as a garden room.

As with many decommissioned airliners, a succession of different operators previously owned the aircraft. The first Aeropod was made from the fuselage of a plane originally built for Transportes Aereos del Continente Americano (TACA), then used by the flag carrier of El Salvador. In 2009, it moved to Turkey and flew with Izmir Airlines and finally with AtlasJet.

“We also produce a lot of aviation-­inspired furniture and we’ve just done the crew room for Stansted Airport,” Palmer says. “We’re doing things with the ­discarded interior trim of aircraft which previously was going to the landfill – we’re using these parts to produce coffee tables, bars, chairs – whatever you fancy.” 

California-based MotoArt is another pioneer in the aviation-recycling trend. They salvage old aircraft and convert them into bespoke items of furniture.

“MotoArt started 17 years ago,” owner Dave Hall says. “We were actually laughed at by many in the industry when we ­started. No one else was making functional aviation art at the time. We have now designed over 100 different products ­using airframes that you can now find in over 70 countries.” Customers include General ­Electric, Boeing, Airbus, AOL and ­Microsoft.

For those who like the idea of owning a piece of an old airliner but don’t have the budget of some of these companies, ­MotoArt recently launched a product called PlaneTags (available online at ­planetags.com) where they cut an oval-shaped section out of the fuselage and laser etch a luggage tag out of it. “We have sold nearly 100,000 of these in the past year and a half,” Hall says. “It’s something everyone can afford and allows you to collect your favorite aircraft.” 

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