It was an unusual sight for airport ground crew and the aircraft’s crew when a Fiji Airways Boeing 737 MAX 8 touched down in Alice Springs in central Australia earlier this morning. The aircraft was ferried between Nadi and Alice Springs, where it will go into storage until the MAXs are cleared to fly once again.
Fiji Airways hit hard by the MAX grounding
Fiji Airways has two MAXs and three more on order. The two MAXs had only just been delivered to Fiji Airways just before the grounding. With a fleet of just 12 jets, the MAX grounding has arguably hit smaller airlines like Fiji Airways harder than the big players. They’ve since been using a leased Malindo Air 737-800 to help cover holes in the network caused by the grounding.
When the 737 MAXs were grounded back in March, both Fiji Airways’ MAXs, DQ-FAB and DQ-FAD were temporarily stuck at Sydney Airport before being allowed to return to Fiji. Now the first of them is heading for the dry desert air which takes a far lighter toll on a parked aircraft than the warm, humid Fiji weather.
It is taking six and a half hours to cover the nearly three thousand miles to Alice Springs. DQ-FAD, flying as FJ2001, touched down today at 10:30 Australian Central Time.
A small but interesting airport
Alice Springs is an interesting airport. It doesn’t have regular international passenger services but handled 604,200 domestic passengers in the year ending June 30, 2019, making it the 15th busiest airport in Australia in terms of passenger numbers.
There’s a joint Australian / US eavesdropping operation just outside Alice Springs called Pine Gap and the airport sees quite a bit of US military aircraft movements. The runway is 2,438 meters, meaning it can accommodate a Boeing 747 or 777 (albeit not fully laden). Indeed it is not that unusual to see large passenger planes touch down, having to divert for one reason or another.
A desert storage facility
The airport also serves as a desert storage facility. When the facility opened in 2011, it was the first such large scale facility outside the USA. Operated by Asia Pacific Aircraft Storage, it stores aircraft when not in use, maintains them, and decommissions aircraft which can be stripped down and recycled.
In October 2019, Silk Air decided to send its six Boeing 737 MAX 8s down to Alice Springs to store them. At the time, APAS’s Managing Director, Tom Vincent, told ABC News;
“The aircraft are being positioned here due to the climatic conditions in Alice Springs – predominantly a low humidity environment.
It’s the ideal conditions for preserving the asset of the aircraft… minimizing corrosion and other issues.”
With the MAXs still grounded worldwide, it isn’t that easy to get clearance to fly them to storage facilities like the one in Alice Springs. There needs to be governmental level approval for the ban to be temporarily lifted and a one-off flight authorized. There can be no passengers on board, the flight must be a ferry flight to a storage facility, and unsurprisingly, MCAS needs to be switched firmly to the OFF position.
Simple Flying has approached Asia Pacific Aircraft Storage regarding the MAXs at their Alice Springs facility. They have not got back to us prior to publication.