Hurricane Sally tests United Airlines’ protections for parked planes

White jets, with blue tails from United sit in a row at Houston airport. They are in temporary storage during coronavirus.

Airlines moved vulnerable aircraft out of harm’s way ahead of Hurricane Sally’s Gulf Coast landfall Wednesday, but some will have to ride out the storm on the ground. 

The large number of parked aircraft due to passenger flight suspensions associated with the COVID-19 pandemic poses an extra challenge for airlines and airports during hurricane season.

They’re implementing detailed playbooks to protect planes, but the workload is magnified when airlines store planes that are out of service. 

United Airlines (NASDAQ: UAL) has several planes in temporary storage at George Bush Intercontinental Airport, its Houston hub, which often lies in the direct path of major hurricanes. Some are also stored at other maintenance locations susceptible to coastal storms.

The first priority for any airline is to evacuate as many airplanes as possible to locations outside the projected path of the storm. 

United Airlines begins planning for potential weather threats as far in advance as possible. Using data obtained from weather modeling systems, United’s network operations center, station operation centers and technical operations teams begin making arrangements to relocate aircraft and protect the rest inside maintenance hangars, Rodney Luetzen, managing director of line maintenance, told FreightWaves in an email.

The hangars are rated to withstand hurricane force winds.

“As a final measure, we would stage aircraft on unused taxiways and point the aircraft directly into the forecast wind direction, allowing sufficient space between aircraft and following the manufacturer’s instructions for mitigating wind exposure,” he said.

Aircraft stored in locations where they were exposed to weather events get priority in returning to service, Luetzen added.

Hong Kong and typhoons

Similar precautions are in place in Asia, where September and October are traditionally two of the busiest months for sea storms. 

Hong Kong International Airport has about 100 idle aircraft sitting on its property, an airport authority spokesperson said. The airport housed 150 aircraft earlier this year. Hometown carrier Cathay Pacific recently moved some aircraft to Australia for storage to avoid humid conditions in Hong Kong that can cause aircraft materials to deteriorate faster.

In the July issue of its monthly magazine, HKAirport News, the authority outlined how it implements its contingency plan when there is a typhoon threat.

Ground handlers and airport personnel weigh down active aircraft by filling them with fuel, tying weights to the nose gear and adding bulk to the cargo hold. Planes are moved to every available hangar.

Planes parked on taxiways have to be spaced out more. Some are moved to remote bays and extra chocks are placed against the aircraft wheels.

The airport authority recommends that engine covers, used on idle aircraft to protect against flying debris, be removed to prevent them from coming off during windy conditions and harming people or property.

Click here for more FreightWaves/American Shipper stories by Eric Kulisch.


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