Old SAS airplane Bangkok

Ask the pilot: What Happens with old planes?

The pilot answers the question we all wonder about.

Photo: SAS Museum
October 2022
Even the most experienced travelers have many questions about the inner workings of airplanes. How do they react to weather conditions? How do they get washed? How do they land most safely? The experts with all the answers are, of course, the pilots.

“Some aircraft can reach up to as many as 80,000 cycles before going to the graveyard.” 

I’ve often wondered what happens with old airplanes. Are they broken up and sold off for scrap or flown out to the desert in the US? 


Hi Ove,

It all depends on the market for the specific type of aircraft at a specific time. SAS, for example, is phasing out the Boeing 600/700/800 series and has already decommissioned the 600 series that left the fleet at the end of 2019. SAS were one of the few operators using the 600 series, so these aircraft have mainly been flown to St Athan in Wales for scrapping. Some have also been flown to the US and the Netherlands for the same reason. But scrapping an airplane doesn’t mean that everything goes to waste. It’s quite the opposite actually, with the majority of the aircraft being recycled and re-used. The most valuable parts – for example the engines and landing gear – are sold on to be reused on other aircraft as long as their maximum cycles haven’t been reached. Almost every part of the aircraft has a maximum number of cycles (one take-off and landing is the same as one cycle) before needing to be replaced or overhauled. Some aircraft can reach up to as many as 80,000 cycles before going to the graveyard. 

Other parts, like the nose and cockpit structures, are used as flight simulators during pilot training, while the aircraft doors are normally reused at training facilities for “door training” for airline crews and so on. 

The 700/800 series will probably be used in similar ways after a long and faithful career within the company. But some of them will most likely continue to be flown by other airlines as they are more common around the world. That’s what happened when SAS outsourced the McDonnell Douglas MD80 years back. All were sold and flown to US, where around half of them continued operations at other airlines, while the other half where used as spare parts for existing fleets.

Pernilla Nilsson
Senior First Officer

Pernilla Nilsson

Title: Senior First Officer
Home base: Copenhagen
Flies: A319, A320, A321
Flight hours: 13,500
Favorite airport: Most of the Norwegian airports. They can be very challenging in harsh weather but a beautiful day it’s unbeatable. The landscape is fantastic with the mountains and fjords. You’ll never get tired of this view.