Air Salvage International has been a world leader in dismantling and storing aircraft from its base at Cotswold Airport for 12 years. This year the company was flying high after picking up the award for business of the Year from the Cirencester Chamber of Commerce. Charlotte Shepherd met founder and managing director Mark Gregory.
COTSWOLD Airport in Kemble has seen a host of different aircraft since the arrival of the RAF in 1938, from Hurricanes and Beauforts to Hawker Typhoons, Hawker Hunters and the distinctive Gnats of the Red Arrows.
But since the airfield passed from military to civilian hands, people driving past the runway are now more likely to see the civilian giant of the skies, the 747, parked on the tarmac, waiting to be dismantled by Cirencester Chamber of Commerce Business of the Year Air Salvage International (ASI). “We now average around six or seven 747’s a year in Kemble,” explained founder and managing director of ASI Mark Gregory. “It is quite something to see them when you drive past.”
On the day of our meeting, there were two 747’s each worth around $12m (the aviation industry works in dollars).
This company’s core business is in stripping down and dismantling aircraft on behalf of major airlines and investors. “A plane is generally always worth more for spare parts than in the skies,” Mr Gregory explained.
Winning the award for Business of the Year (over 25 staff) came as a surprise to ASI. “I was very, very pleased,” said Mr Gregory. “We have never won an award before.”
Although ASI has used Cotswold Airport for the past 12 years, it has only been here on a large scale for five years, handling around 50 aircraft each year. “We are on track to handle 14 percent of the global fleet,” said Mr Gregory.
Planes are now big business as assets and 20 percent of the aircraft that come into Cotswold Airport are owned by hedge funds. Mr Gregory explained: “A lot of people see aircraft come in here but don’t understand what happens to them next. They don’t realise that we do not own the planes. They are owned by banks, investors and hedge funds – it could be your pension sitting there on the runway.
“There can be a substantial return for investors, but there can also be a risk,” he added.
Taking a risk is something that Mr Gregory knows all about. After being made redundant from his job as an engineer at Dan-Air, he used his redundancy money to buy a 748 plane from the airline. “I took it apart and sold the parts,” he explained.
His big break came when Philip Meeson (owner of Jet 2) trusted him with his fleet of 12 Heralds. “I had a contract with him to break up his aircraft. I owe a lot to Philip,” he said.
ASI now has 38 staff and is known internationally in the world of aviation. But it is not just in the business of tearing planes apart. ASI is also a storage facility for planes and operates as an umbrella for several different businesses including a maintenance company aimed at keeping aircraft flying.
The new parts company Skyline-aero completes the picture and makes ASI a one-stop shop for aircraft.
ASI has been in demand over the years for its expertise, dismantling two concords and attending numerous crash recovery sites around the world. The team also accepted one of the last Nimrods a few years ago. Engines are the most lucrative part of a plane to recycle and can be worth from $2-4m. The general rule of thumb is that the newer the plane, the more can be recycled. “We can recycle 95 percent of a new generation plane, from 2002 onwards. But in aircraft around 20 years old that drops to 70 percent,” said Mr Gregory.
Plastic interiors are the hardest part of a plane to shift. ASI sells chairs to colleges that specialise in transport and tourism. But they have also found their way onto film sets. “We hire or sell interiors to film makers. That is another way of recycling interiors that are not wanted. We try not to land fill too much,” he said.
And with first or business class chairs costing around £250 and a pilot’s chair starting at around £250 and going up as high as $25,000 this could be the ultimate present for the plane spotter in your life.
Not afraid to seek out new homes for a plane, ASI recently found an unusual way to dispose of an aircraft when it was asked to supply a plane for Thorpe Parke’s latest thrilling ride, built to resemble a crash site. “It looks like a scary ride,” said Mr Gregory.
Aircraft do not always arrive in ASI’s hands completely empty. Mobile phones, euros, pens and sticky sweets are regular stow-aways. “We recently found a wallet with $600 in it underneath the captain’s seat and managed to track down the pilot in Australia and FedEx the wallet to him,” said Mr Gregory. “He flew that plane many years ago.”
A more high profile find was made three years ago, when a considerable haul of cocaine was found stashed in the rear toilets. “We learnt a lot from that experience. My base manager was holding the package and the police pointed out that it could have been semtex. We know now to be cautious and not to handle any package,” he said.
So what next for ASI? Plans are afoot to move more into the maintenance of aircraft and another hangar may be converted for this. And the company is keen to be able to reconfigure a plane for use by another airline. “If we can offer this service then we may pick up newer aircraft,” Mr Gregory explained.
And it will all be done from ASI’s Cotswold Airport base. “This is a great location to be in. It is not good to be too near the coast because the sea and salt air are no good for aircraft.
“There are also no passengers flying from here. It is not good psychologically for passengers going on their holidays to see an aircraft in bits,” explained Mr Gregory.
* Find out more about Air Salvage International at www.airsalvage.co.uk.