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How Delta people are awakening over 550 hibernating planes

In 2020, the pandemic impacted air travel across the world. Take a look into the work behind parking, storing and reactivating a fleet during a global crisis.

Sept. 20, 2021, 10:30 a.m.

When Supplier Ops Program Manager Rusty Foster reflects on the massive cross-functional undertaking to store over 550 Delta planes grounded because of the COVID-19 pandemic, he thinks of the motto his Navy Reserve construction team lived by. 

“The difficult, we do right away. The impossible takes a little longer.” 

When Rusty was first called to action, it was March 2020 and the pandemic was in full force. Customer demand was dropping, and there was an uneasiness settling in as flights took off with fewer and fewer passengers.  

Rusty had the day off and was getting ready to head back to Jacksonville, Florida, where he was performing heavy maintenance checks on aircraft. One of his leaders gave him a call and asked if he could go to Blytheville, Arkansas, to start parking part of Delta’s fleet.  

The pandemic was already rearing its head: a long drive to Memphis International Airport, a canceled flight and another eight-hour car trip later, Rusty was finally in Blytheville. 

Parking the Fleet 

“That day they started flying in MD-88s. It was like watching the skyline in Atlanta in the evening when you can see the pattern planes are flying in, just one after another,” Rusty said.  

That first day they parked 14 planes. The next day, another 14. 

Throughout 2020, Rusty worked in Blytheville; Kansas City; Marana, Arizona; and Birmingham, Alabama. At the peak of the pandemic, we parked 571 mainline aircraft across the country. Each location came with its own challenges— whether it was the humidity in Birmingham or the desert critters and extreme heat in Marana.  

Aircraft parked on the runway in Victorville

An undertaking that massive would require a seasoned touch. That’s where Bob Warde came in. He’d worked for 10 years storing MD-88s and MD-90s in Blytheville, some for parts, some for an eventual return to service. 

His old boss called and asked: “Are you willing to go to Birmingham to help park the fleet?”  

“And I was like — what?” said Bob, Lead Preflight Inspector CVG. “He said, ‘Yeah, we’re going to park up to 600 airplanes as fast as we can.’” 

Right away, Bob took on leadership of the program in Birmingham. As planes sailed in nearly every hour, obstacles began to arise. First, they ran out of the chocks placed by the wheels to keep the aircraft in place. The team rushed out and bought 6-by-6 skids of wood to hand-make replacements. 

“Some of the biggest obstacles were just finding facilities that could take the aircraft,” said Ted Lamoureux, Supplier Ops General Manager.  

A storm rolls through Birmingham just before the last A330 Widebody departs storage

In San Bernardino, California, a designated parking area wasn’t viable after a 757 began sinking into the pavement. Closed runways in Kansas City and Victorville, California, were only temporary; eventually, the planes would have to move again. 

Elsewhere, the challenge was understanding how much space was truly available. If someone said a facility could hold 100 aircraft, did they mean 100 regional jets? 

“We were strategic about where we parked planes — basing it on what’s going to be a quick activation, what’s an easier airport for crews, what’s going to be parked long term?” Ted said. 

The team was also thinking about the work it would take to carefully preserve the engines. They had to make sure there was enough room to move, cycle and rotate different parts of the aircraft as part of the storage program.  

Storing the Fleet 

"Parking a plane isn’t like parking a car. You can’t just take the keys and walk away,” said Tom Schuhardt, Supplier Ops Program Manager.  

Tom was just one employee from across all areas of TechOps who joined the operation, regardless of what their current assignment may be. He was an instructor, but when our airline needed support in parking planes, many employees stepped into different roles.  

“Our normal job was to teach and run classes — but we’re all technicians, we’re all experts on our fleet,” Tom said. “We know how systems work; we have such a laser-focus on our fleet, it’s something we know how to fix.” 

As soon as each plane touched down, a countdown began on a meticulous maintenance schedule. Seven days; 14 days; 30; 60; 100; 180.  

“When you’ve got 90 airplanes parked on the ground, the maintenance is astronomical when you add it all up,” Bob said. “So we had to plan. We tried to spread the workload out over time and get the planes into a rotation of review.” 

This is where Delta’s engineers entered the equation, developing flexible “job cards” that ensured the aircraft got the maintenance they needed, specially tailored to the climate conditions where they were parked, while preserving supplies and manpower. 

What made the storage program even more complicated was that the teams parking and storing the planes were doing so during a pandemic. Most of the TechOps teams commuted out to different storage facilities anywhere from a long weekend to a month — and restaurants were closed across the country.  

Bob acted not only as only a lead mechanic, but as the chef of the group. He’d get permission from the hotel where the TechOps team was staying to use their kitchen that was closed due to COVID-19, and he’d plan meals for the team after work.  

Bob would make the meals, but everyone worked together to clean up after.  

The teams were also managing under constantly changing safety and cleanliness protocols. Doy Pope, AMT Instructor Developer, did a 22-day stint in Victorville during the pandemic and recalls adapting to the COVID-19 protocol. 

“We were wearing masks out in the rain, doing it for each other at work, but also not wanting to bring anything back to our families,” Doy said. 

Reactivating the Fleet 

The TechOps team’s sacrifices and dedication during the parking operation helped Delta conserve cash as passengers stayed home and revenues declined. Then, as vaccination rates increased and customers began to reclaim the joy of travel, it was time to bring the planes back into service. 

“I felt elation when I heard we were reactivating the fleet,” said Doy Pope, AMT Instructor Developer. “Delta wouldn’t be bringing these planes back unless we were seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.” 

Just as it wasn’t easy to park and store the aircraft, reactivating the fleet brought its own challenges.  

“As soon as we started parking planes, we started to think about when we would unpark them,” Chris Price, Program Manager of Supplier Ops said. “Whether it was going to be a month or six months, we were looking at what it’s going to take to reactivate them.” 

Many of the stored planes shared their parts to help repair those still in service. One plane, for example, needed to get new parts before it could return to service, said Chris. Once it has those parts back, its systems will need to be activated and reviewed, in addition to undergoing a test flight before heading to an MRO facility for a maintenance overhaul. 

A plane is parked in Marana, Arizona.

Once the maintenance is complete, a pilot team arrives to take the plane from the storage facility that has been its home for up to a year and a half.  

“When we first started parking planes, the storage facilities kept filling up with more and more aircraft,” said Capt. Woflgang Schuster, Chief Line Check Pilot. “Now, we’re doing reactivation flights, and it’s rewarding to see the storage facilities begin to clear out. Every plane that returns to service is helping us achieve our mission of connecting the world — and we’re getting there.” 

Ted was impressed by how quickly the team adapted to the changing circumstances of the pandemic. To date, there has been a total of 493 aircraft reactivated, 382 in 2020 and 111 in 2021. But the work continues— the team expects to be reactivating aircraft into 2022. 

“Everyone pivoted so quickly and the collaboration between all the departments at any one site at one time was incredible to see,” Ted said. “You could be working on a team that was made up of line maintenance, training, base maintenance, the local facility maintenance — you have conglomerate teams that were put together and everyone worked together to get through the hard times.”

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