We previously reported about the risk of many Boeing planes including the 737 and 777 series that are currently grounded in Tulsa, which is in the middle of the so-called “Tornado Alley”, a belt in the USA that includes northern Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa and South Dakota that is prone to Tornadoes.
Out of the areas listed, Tulsa has the largest exposure to a potential Tornado. It also just happens that Tulsa International Airport, hosts the world’s largest aircraft and maintenance facility which is used by American Airlines.
Spanning 3.3 million square feet of hangar and shop space on 330 acres and employing 5,500 employees, Tulsa Airport is a vital hub for American Airlines. At the start of the year, American Airlines pledged over $550 million to upgrade the facility, including adding a new 193,000 square-foot hangar with the ability to accommodate two widebody or six narrow body aircraft at a time.
Of American Airlines’ 1,000 strong aircraft fleet, over 900 visit the facility annually. So, it was no surprise that when the COVID-19 travel restrictions were enforced, American Airlines grounded over 500 planes, half of its fleet, at Tulsa International Airport.
In a letter seen by Business Insider, Robert Isom, President of American Airlines, announced the grounding of 500 aircraft at Tulsa along with a reduction in domestic and international flights by 30% and 75% respectively.
Many other airlines have done the same with planes parked in Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Denver along with tornado prone sites such as Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth and Tulsa.
Yet, this decision leaves American Airlines planes exposed to a potential hit by a Tornado.
May and June is right in the middle of the US Tornado season, which stretches from March to June.
The National Weather Service issued 103 Tornado warnings for Tulsa in 2019 from April 30 through to May 2019. This was the most warnings issued from all of the services’ offices in the USA.
Also, it was in this same period, that a tornado was close to hitting Tulsa International Airport on 20th May 2019. In 2019, a total of 99 tornadoes hit the State of Oklahoma, the fourth highest state total in the USA.
“Airplanes are sitting ducks in this crisis” said AccuWeather’s lead long-range meteorologist Paul Pastelok.
So, what is the possibility of Tulsa International Airport being hit by a Tornado? Data seen by Russell Group shows that there is a 12% chance of such an event occurring and the damage of such an event on the grounded aircraft fleet to be in the range of $5 billion (source: Russell ALPS Aerospace).
An American Airlines representative speaking to AccuWeather said that the company was “aware of the weather” given that “Tulsa is our largest maintenance base”. Yet, while the Tornado threat may not come to fruition, there is a more present damage for all airlines which is keeping the grounded fleet in prime flying condition to be able to fly once restrictions are lifted.
This view was echoed by AccuWeather’s Geoff Knauth, a pilot with more than 41 years of flying experience. “If planes sit for too long and are not properly maintained, they can face corrosion problems and other things that could become very expensive”, Knauth said.
Going forward as travel restrictions start to ease and the “unlocking” begins, all airlines will need to ensure that their planes are maintained, otherwise when the “return to flight” occurs, they make find themselves making plenty of false starts.
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