Baggage reclaim: Upcycling from the airplane boneyards


Yesterday’s obsolete airliners, cabin interiors and crew uniforms take on a new lease of life, reincarnated into objects of desire, fashion accessories and cool furniture. Aviation and branding consultant Paul Sillers meets the new arrivals.

In the arid, dusty hinterlands of the Mojave Desert, hundreds of geriatric airliners hibernate in the searing blaze, scattered across the “airplane boneyards” of Southern California and Northwest Arizona. As they approach the end of their working lives, after about 25 years’ service, those planes will have undergone multiple cabin facelifts, sometimes due to a change of airline ownership; at other times it’s due to the pressure to reinvent brand identity and differentiate the inflight experience from competitors – a perennial challenge in the commoditised world of air travel.

The personification of airline identity – cabin crew – also undergoes transformation: uniform designs change in alignment with cabin upgrades. This perpetual process of reinvention generates lots of aeronautical detritus: unwanted passenger seats, galleys, overhead stowage bins, carpets and uniforms – not to mention the metal carcases of the aircraft themselves. What happens to all this stuff?

Most of it used to end up as landfill or was abandoned in the desert. But it doesn’t have to be that way: out of their state of hibernation, an increasing percentage of these objects are finding a second lease of life, reincarnated into fashion and sportswear items, cool furniture, and lifestyle accessories. And there are four distinct USPs that add to their appeal: the cachet of airline heritage embedded in their DNA – airline logos or remnants of items that carry the allure of air travel, so popular amongst wanderlusters and gadget gurus. Then there are the uniquely mega-tough materials that many of these things are made out of, providing endurance far beyond airline service life. There’s the fact that objects created out of airliner parts will be of finite quantity, so reincarnated products will be fairly exclusive. Last but not least there’s the ecological cyclicity factor.


Following a fleet-wide revamp of its cabin interiors, Southwest Airlines had a surplus of 43 acres of leather, cast-offs from the seat covers. Amongst a number of collaborative upcycling projects across Africa and the USA, 80,000 seat-covers’ worth of that leather went to Portland-based Looptworks, which created the “LUV Seat Collection” (LUV is the NYSE symbol for the airline, in deference to its home at Dallas Love Field Airport). From a toiletry case at $75.00 to a weekender duffle bag at $260.00, the bag designs “were inspired by the shapes of the airline seats and the colour of the leather was unique to the Southwest Airlines’ branding” explains Scott Hamlin, founder of Looptworks. “By repurposing the seat covers for this particular collection, we conserve more than 4,000 gallons of water per bag and avoid a tremendous amount of carbon emissions”.


Screen Shot 2015-12-08 at 12.50.38When NewYork-hubbed JetBlue Airways changed its crew uniforms, it partnered with Manhattan Portage – a firm that pioneered the Big Apple’s urban lifestyle cycle messenger bags in 1983 – to use the airline’s surplus material in an innovative way. Lauren Hoffman of Manhattan Portage’s Sales and Marketing team tells Salt that by incorporating the high visibility reflective fabric of jetBlue ground crew uniforms “we used the strongest materials JetBlue made available to us and reinforced each product with military grade 1000D CORDURA® Nylon. As limited edition pieces, this collection had a quintessentially New York flair with focus on the durability and ‘New York Toughness’ of each item”.


In September it was announced that the Air France-KLM Group had retained their top position in the Dow Jones Sustainability Index’s Transportation category. Part of that achievement was due to the airlines’ commitment to achieve 100 per cent recycling of non- hazardous waste by 2020.

When KLM implemented its new World Business Class cabin interiors the old crew uniforms and carpets were spun into yarn to create the new cabins’ carpets. But beyond the cabin, interesting things began to happen too: Air France’s outdated life vests have been re-manufactured by Bilum into wash bags, and KLM engaged with students from Eindhoven’s Design Academy this summer in “Plane to Product”, a design programme where the old business seats, carpeting, seatbelts and TV screens were transformed into designer travel objects which were displayed in Amsterdam’s upmarket Bijenkorf department store.


Screen Shot 2015-12-08 at 12.50.55Since 2001, El Segundo-based MotoArt has been transforming discarded Boeing and McDonnell- Douglas planes into a range of 150 different furniture designs – all limited editions. Dave Hall, the company’s founder and owner tells Salt that it exports worldwide: “We even have product in the North Pole.” The range draws not just on recently retired planes but on those from as far back as the 1940s.


Imagine if you could trace the ancestry of your reception desk. When planes have passed their sell by date, Istanbul-based SkyArt turns them into furniture for homes, offices, boardrooms and restaurant bars.

Emre Ozkul, SkyArt’s owner tells Salt how his business started: “I had the idea of using an old aircraft seat for the decoration of my office. To cut a long story short, I ended up buying a truckload of used aircraft seats. Amazingly there were so many people waiting for this and the seats were sold out almost immediately to homes and offices.” His company buys whole aircraft from various airlines and uses everything that’s possible to convert into furniture: “Almost nothing goes to waste. We track all our aircraft for their history and we issue a Certificate of Authenticity with each product we create.”


It’s not only at the end of the service cycle where surplus materials become available. Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner is one of the new generation of airliners made up of carbon composite fibres – lighter, stronger and more corrosion-resistant than the steel and aluminium aircraft they replace. That means less fuel-burn and less man-hours of maintenance – great news for the environment, but the process of making things in carbon composite in itself produces waste.

Boeing has been collaborating with sports apparel manufacturer Russell Brands LLC on the sports industry’s first-ever CarbonTek exoskeleton football shoulder pad system using the aerospace-grade carbon fibre that is a byproduct of the aircraft manufacturing processes.

“Our collaboration is a fabulous opportunity to utilise the strength and lightweight characteristics of 787 carbon fibre to support elite athletes on the field,” says Boeing’s Julie Felgar, MD environmental strategy.

Whether it’s high-tech sportswear, urban tote bags, furniture in the board room or even the bedroom, here’s a thought: Boeing analysts forecast that 15,500 airliners will be retired over the next 20 years, mainly due to the ecological improvements and operating efficiencies of newer aircraft. Combined with the four or five cabin revamps that most airliners undergo in their lifetimes and the fast-changing renewal of crew uniform fashions, there’s going to be a formidable amount of excess baggage for designers to upcycle in the future.


Photo credit: Pieter Morlion from Flickr