- Dallas-based travel blogger and photographer Andy Luten took to the skies to document the effects of the pandemic on air travel, visiting six airports across the American Southwest home to grounded aircraft.
- Chartering a helicopter at each location, Luten got a unique aerial perspective of the hundreds of grounded jets from various US and foreign airlines.
- The journey took two weeks with over 4,000 miles driven by Luten in an electric Tesla vehicle.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Like most travellers, Dallas resident Andy Luten has been grounded since March. Normally averaging around 150,000 miles of flying each year for work and pleasure, Luten has been forced to watch from the ground as the airline industry slowly dwindles to a shell of its former self.
In his role as a financial software consultant, Luten is frequently taking to the skies and also maintains a travel blog, aptly named Andy’s Travel Blog. Luten features flight and trip reports where, as an avid photographer, he gets to combine his photography and aviation passions, sharing his experiences with the public.
As the American Southwest quickly became a major destination for grounded airliners from across the world, Luten saw an opportunity to get back in the air while continuing to photograph the birds that he loves flying on.
One April day, Luten approached a local helicopter company with what would normally be an unusual request, to fly directly over a nearby airport to take photographs of the grounded Spirit Airlines jets that were lining its taxiways.
After a successful flight, the next two weeks would see Luten drive over 4,000 miles to photograph six airports in total, documenting the plight of the airline industry in his photo story, “They will fly again: an aerial look at grounded jets across the USA.”
Take a look at how Luten did it.
Luten’s six-airport journey began in his own backyard when he chartered a Robinson R44 helicopter to fly above a Dallas area airport where he heard Spirit Airlines was storing some of its Airbus jets.
After taking the doors off of the four-seater helicopter, Luten and his pilot flew 10 miles north to Fort Worth Alliance Airport where they came upon a line of Spirit aircraft painted in the airline’s black and yellow taxi cab-style livery.
The jets were neatly parked one by one at Alliance Airport’s taxiways, which had been closed to store the aircraft indefinitely. Closing runways and taxiways has been a common theme at many of the nation’s airports as storage space becomes increasingly hard to find..
After seeing the aircraft and knowing that there were more airports across the American Southwest with more parked planes, Luten then embarked on what would be a two-week-long endeavour to document as much of it as he could.
“I was taken aback [with] how hard it hit me because I knew those jets weren’t there for maintenance, they were there for storage and it moved me and it impacted me,” Luton told Business Insider.
Some airports were close to home, including Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, home to the world’s largest airline, American Airlines.
Approaching the airport in his chartered helicopter, Luten couldn’t believe that he was given clearance to operate directly over the normally busy runways with no pushback from air traffic control. Having done aerial photoshoots before, he thought he knew what to expect.
“But this time, it was so different because we are flying up into DFW and [air traffic control was] like, ‘Yeah, just stay west of the tower and you can do whatever you want,'” Luten explained. “And this is when like South American flights were going to be coming in from Argentina and Chile and all the Hawaii overnight flights we’re going to be coming in and landing.”
American has only a small fraction of its near-1,000 aircraft strong fleet parked at Dallas-Fort Worth International, as Luten would later find.
Most of the aircraft Luten saw parked in Dallas were small, narrow-body jets brought over from the adjacent terminals.
The airline’s larger wide-body aircraft were sent north to Tulsa, Oklahoma. So, Luten also went there, taking to the interstate in his Tesla.
American took over Tulsa International Airport to store its jets as it has a large maintenance facility on the field.
Just a short flight from Dallas, mechanics in Tulsa can keep an eye on the planes and maintain them as necessary to ensure they’re ready to return to service when demand dictates.
Much like in Dallas, Luten didn’t have any issue getting air traffic controllers to agree to a flyover, saying that they were excited for the opportunity to work an aircraft.
“The people in Tulsa actually sounded excited that they got to clear somebody into their airspace because it was so not busy,” Luten said.
Even though planes were still taking off and landing around him, Luten still got to get shots of American’s largest aircraft.
Here’s one of the airline’s Boeing 787 Dreamliners…
And two Boeing 777s.
As helicopter operators charge by the hour, Luten planned ahead for each visit by using Google Earth to get a sense of what the view would be like at different altitudes and with different camera lenses.
Armed with his own flight plan and two cameras strapped to his body, Luten would give the pilot directions on where and how high to fly to ensure he got the best shots in a short period of time.
Luten described his pilots enjoying the experience and opportunity to perform the unique manoeuvres that their passenger sometimes required to get the right shot.
“[Aerial photography] depends on a lot of good communication with the pilot,” Luten detailed. “And by the third or fourth flight, I’d really gotten into a groove and I was able to tell, ‘Hey, here’s exactly what I need.'”
Taking a break from American Airlines jets, Luten also headed to South Texas for a visit to Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport, a hub to United Airlines.
While United aircraft are a common sight at its Texas hub, the pandemic has forced them to sit idle on the airport’s taxiways waiting for the opportunity to take to the skies again.
Houston is United’s Latin American gateway with most Central American and northern South American countries just a short flight away.
With the Chicago-based airline slashing its international flight schedule, however, the jets haven’t been needed.
Luten would often invite friends and relatives along for his flights so they could share in the experience, saying: “Hey, you’re chartering the whole helicopter, you might as well bring some friends along.” In Houston, his uncle joined him for the eerily quiet international airport.
Luten did say that Houston was one of the more difficult airports to photograph due to the lack of helicopter operators in the immediate vicinity.
After getting a tip that Delta was storing a lot of its jets in Kansas City, Luten hit the road once again in his Tesla and headed there, nearly 600 miles from Dallas and an eight-hour drive to match.
Delta is storing a lot of its narrow-body jets at Kansas City International Airport, one of the many the world’s second-largest airline is using for storage.
Though initially worried about heading to a major city like Kansas City, Luten described the measures he took such as sleeping in his car and wear protective masks when required.
“Tulsa, Kansas City [were] hit pretty hard, but I was spending such little time in all of those places, basically sleeping in the car with the exception of that [one] hotel night, I figured the risk was pretty low,” Luten elaborated.
The airport had given Delta one of its three runways and an adjacent taxiway.
Though Delta is one of the airport’s largest carriers, it’s likely the first time in Kansas City International Airport history that so many Delta jets have occupied its infrastructure.
Luten considers his photos from Kansas City to be some of the most “powerful” due to the sheer number of aircraft occupying space at the airport.
Just a few months ago, Kansas City and Delta were in the news together when an aircraft belonging to the latter slid off a taxiway at Kansas City International. Now, the airport is proving to be a safe-haven for Delta jets.
The Kansas City side trip was when Luten decided to disregard his budget and go all-in on the project, heading to the Gateway of the Southwest after receiving a tip from a fellow planespotter.
And the gamble clearly paid off.
Delta jets weren’t the only outsiders now calling Kansas City home as Air Canada and its low-cost subsidiary Air Canada Rouge had also sent aircraft to the Missouri airport.
The furthest airport on Luten’s adventure was a remote Arizona airfield located in-between Phoenix and Tuscon, Pinal Air Park. It was the only boneyard in the Southwest that he could visit due to charging limitations with his Tesla.
“I’d heard about Pinal Air Park and I knew it existed,” Luten explained. “But they said it was full. And I was like, ok, that’s news because it’s a desert. How is a desert full? And I found out.”
Upon arriving in Marana, nearly 1,000 miles from Dallas and a 14-hour drive to match, Luten saw how a small airfield was quickly outgrowing its capacity despite being surrounded by empty desert.
Pinal Air Park had been receiving a steady influx of new arrivals since the beginning of the pandemic. Its newest customer was JetBlue Airways, which had flown planes from around the country to storage in Arizona.
So many aircraft had come for storage that the airfield was averaging about 25 per week and was expected to reach capacity, around 300 aeroplanes, by the end of April.
While normally the airfield would have more space, it already had an existing occupant, grounded Boeing 737 Max aircraft.
Having arrived before the influx, the Air Canada Max aircraft received preferential parking on the tarmac rather than on the grass like most other arrivals.
Delta is also a fan of the facility, having sent a large number of wide-body jets here to ride out the downturn.
Aircraft from American Airlines’ regional brand, American Eagle, can also be found here in the desert.
Air Canada also sent wide-body jets including the Boeing 767-300ER to Arizona to take advantage of the climate.
Some, unfortunately, may never leave. The Canadian flag carrier is largely retiring the type, a trend many airlines are jumping on in order to have learner fleets after the pandemic ends.
JetBlue’s aircraft are among the furthest from home, with the low-cost airline primarily maintaining bases on the East Coast.
The New York-based carrier announced in March it would cut April flying by 80%, though may be well-positioned for a recovery, according to experts, due to its largely domestic-oriented route network.
Looking back on the photos he took, Luten estimated he saw 650 grounded aircraft, a small fraction of the total 16,000 estimated to be in storage, according to Cirium. While disheartening to some, Luten was compelled to keep his journey going after seeing the impact it had on his friends in the airline industry who had been dealing with the pandemic first hand but hadn’t seen this perspective.
“[A friend] said, ‘These [photos] are incredible and I never want to see them again,'” a former airline worker friend of Luten’s told him. “And I was like, ok, this is having an impact. And I’m telling what I thought was a different story.”
While Luten is hopeful for a speedy recovery for the airline industry, he realises that he might be grounded until the end of the year. When travel does return, he’ll be back in the skies where he belongs, though he plans to stick to domestic travel at first before embarked on his dream trips to Uzbekistan and Pakistan.
Source: JetBlue Airways
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