Aging airliners end up in fabled New Mexico town



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Posted on May 7, 2012 at 10:05 PM

Updated Tuesday, May 8 at 7:30 PM

ROSWELL, New Mexico — With three flights a day from Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, American Eagle is the only airline with regular service flying into this fabled city in southeastern New Mexico.

But touching down, passengers in the regional jets notice the tarmac and airfield are crowded with dozens of other large airliners from around the world.

Retired jets from Southwest Airlines, Air Canada and Japan Airlines are among the liveries there right now.

In addition, there are rows of MD-80s with the "AA" logo on them. American Airlines stores all of its spare planes in Roswell with Stewart Industries.

Many of the aging aircraft in this rural town either get sold to smaller airlines in Africa, Asia, or South America or are stripped down for every imaginable spare part — from seats to avionics to nose cones and "black boxes."

The aluminum frame is all that's left when they meet Manuel Fernandez.

"I tell you what," Fernandez said of his job, "it's a lot of stress release!"

Using a construction excavator with claw on it, he scraps airliners for a living — at least one every week.

The Airbus A300 he tore apart when News 8 visited once belonged to American Airlines.

When it was new in 1989, Airbus said it cost an estimated $85 million. After Fernandez finishes with it, the airliner is worth about $50,000 in scrap aluminum, and could even become your next can of soda.

"Or a six-pack of a Chinese beer," chuckled Stewart Industries director of business development Kent Goodman.

Roswell is not a boneyard; think of the airport here more like a used car lot, but for airliners.

"There are 1,200 direct jobs they've created out there now, whereas 10 years ago they did not have that impact at all," said Robert Donnell of the Roswell/Chaves County Economic Development Corporation.

Perhaps the most famous plane ever at this airport was the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan.

This was once Walker Air Force Base, but it went mostly unused since the Air Force abandoned it in the late 1960s.

Airlines started parking planes in Roswell after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. But business here really took off three or four years ago.


It is more accessible and significantly cheaper than boneyards and storage lots in Arizona or California. Plus, Roswell has lots of space.

Right now, 200 jetliners are parked here, but there's room for as many as 1,000.

The recent surge in planes has led to a shortage of mechanics.

"Right now, I'm telling you there's such a high demand, I've had a local company say 'How many are you graduating? I'll take 'em all!,'" said Juan Salmon of Eastern New Mexico University at Roswell.

The aviation maintenance program at Eastern New Mexico University in Roswell was on its deathbed a few years ago. But when the jets arrived, so did the students.

"I don't know if this is part of the story, but the guys call their certificate — their license — they call it a license to steal, because there's such a huge demand for these mechanics," said university president Dr. John Madden.

Stewart Industries, which stores all of American's aircraft, expects business to get even better in the coming years.

"With Boeing and Airbus ramping up [production] and the [airlines] deciding to go to the more fuel efficient aircraft, people are just saying, 'I've gotta get rid of old jets," said Tom Stewart, president of Stewart Industries.

American Airlines and Southwest Airlines — both based in North Texas — brag about the hundreds of new jets they're adding to their fleets. Older, less fuel efficient ones are being retired, and many end up in Roswell.

Aircraft that are not resold will likely meet Manuel Fernandez and his excavator. It takes two men less than two hours to cut up a large airliner.

It's all part of an emerging industry here that reinforces Roswell's reputation for things that come out of the sky.