By Ryan Ewing
Inside Victorville Airport, 400 Pandemic-Stricken Airliners Face an Uncertain Future
Head through the Mojave Desert and up Interstate 15 just north of Los Angeles, and you’ll find a relatively small, unsuspecting airport with no commercial air service. Airfields such as this one aren’t uncommon in California, but this particular one stands out.
ComAv Technical Services, located at Southern California Logistics Airport in Victorville, is one of the largest aircraft storage facilities on the globe with total capacity for over 500 commercial aircraft. The largest leaseholder on the property, the company just about reached its capacity in 2020 and has been riding the waves of the Covid-19 pandemic ever since.
“Even today we are receiving widebody aircraft because a lot of the international flights still have not picked up,” said Bill Tollison, ComAv’s General Manager.
Owned by the U.S. Air Force until 1992, the airport shifted to civilian use. ComAv was the first maintenance, repair and operations (MRO) supplier on the property. The company is encroaching on its 23rd year at the airport, meaning it has seen industry downturns before, including the aftermath of 9/11.
“ComAv has been a big part of the airport for all of those years, actually, ComAv is the company on the airport that does all of the storage on the airport,” added Tollison. “There are no other companies that do storage on the airport. It is only ComAv. We currently have 450 airplanes on-site and we do a lot more than just storage.”
MROs like ComAv have been at the forefront of Covid-19’s industry effects. During the onset of the outbreak, the company received so many airplanes that they were forced to close a runway in collaboration with the local airport authority. This added plenty of additional space for aircraft parking.
“So initially — when COVID first hit back in early 2020 — the airlines were parking essentially their entire fleets, their narrowbody aircraft and their widebody aircraft, especially the larger carriers that do not just [fly] domestic but overseas or international,” says Tollison.
A pattern has emerged as demand takes off in an industry desperate for continued recovery. According to the company, narrowbody jets have largely been placed back into service first. Widebody aircraft — primarily used on long-haul international flights — have remained on the property, awaiting the ease border restrictions and the ensuing return of demand.
“Quite honestly, we’re still reactivating narrowbody aircraft. And even today we are receiving widebody aircraft because a lot of the international flights still have not picked up,” he continued.
ComAv saw 470 parked aircraft on its property during the peak. The company says they still have over 400 parked today. According to Cirium data, 2,047 aircraft are in storage in the U.S., meaning they haven’t moved in over 30 days.
“However, most aircraft that arrive at ComAv are here for transitional maintenance and will be re-deployed,” noted Lisa Christine, ComAv’s Director of Corporate Initiatives. In Victorville, as one airplane leaves, another arrives to face an uncertain fate.
Amid airline layoffs and furloughs, many aircraft mechanics were at a loss. Despite this, ComAv was one of the few aerospace companies hiring during the pandemic. The company’s staffing doubled when Covid-19 hit back in 2020.
“During the entire pandemic, we were actually having to hire pretty much every month to meet the demand of the aircraft coming in and inducting them into storage and then maintaining the storage during that timeframe,” Christine said in an interview with AirlineGeeks.
Of course, maintaining an airplane during its storage program is a necessity. Tollison’s team is tasked by airlines to do a variety of activities that keep the airplanes in a healthy condition during their desert stay. These activities include running engines, turning the landing gear, inspecting for wildlife, and a variety of other tasks.
With several of their A380s sitting in Victorville, Qantas found a nifty way to remove rattlesnakes and scorpions from wheel wells and landing gear components — a so-called “wheel wacker.”
With the volume of airplanes arriving on the property, maintaining staffing levels became a key priority for ComAv. But what happens when these airplanes begin to re-enter service?
ComAv is experiencing that now. As the industry begins to recover, airlines are hiring back their mechanics, meaning that staffing levels will fluctuate.
“It’s been happening for about the last three months. Some of the airlines have called people back and we have had to hire direct. We do a lot with veterans. We do a lot here locally,” says Tollison.
The company has partnered with local colleges and A&P schools to hire direct.
“So we hire a lot of the students, and they work for us while they’re students. For instance, if they are in school on day shift, they’ll work for us on evening shifts. And if they’re in school on evening shifts, they’ll work for us on day shift,” concluded Christine.
ComAv is the only U.S.-based firm that accommodates the world’s largest passenger aircraft: the Airbus A380. The company maintains 10 of the double-decker aircraft on its property. Tollison says they are in talks with other airlines to store additional A380s.
The A380 faces an uncertain future being virtually entirely grounded during the pandemic. Even prior to Covid-19, airlines were opting towards twin-engine aircraft that move to be more efficient. The pandemic was simply the nail in the coffin for the worldwide A380 fleet.
Qantas stores its A380s on ComAv’s Victorville property, which isn’t surprising considering the airline maintains a sizable maintenance base in nearby Los Angeles.
“It’s big, but it’s not the heaviest because its gear is so spread out. So I mean, it is a heavy, big aircraft and the wingspan is quite large, but it’s not the heaviest aircraft. But our soil-cement is rated for our widebody types 100%,” Tollison said.
Tollison also noted that the A380 may join other older aircraft in that they may not fly again. “Some of the older widebody aircraft — some of the 747s, 777-200s, some of the A380s, things like that — I think you won’t see a lot of those go back up because [the airlines] are buying newer aircraft,” he said.
With widespread vaccine rollouts, the airline industry is beginning to recover at a sooner-than-expected pace. On Monday, the Transportation Security Administration reported 1,828,396 people passing through its checkpoints, which is up 23% from 2020’s number.
Even during a cyclical recovery, storage facilities such as ComAv are an integral part of this process, keeping airplanes ready to fly even as their futures may be uncertain.