Most airports have become ghost towns since measures to contain the coronavirus pandemic drastically reduced air traffic, but one in central France is buzzing with activity.
The closure of borders around the world prompted airline companies to seek out a place to park their fleets.
Chateauroux airport, outside the town of the same name in central France, rapidly became a popular destination for these immobile planes, as it inherited large amounts of space from its military history and is cheaper for airlines than airports near Paris.
Grounded planes require extensive maintenance, spurring a flurry of activity at Marcel-Dassault airport despite the lack of passengers.
In total, 40 aeroplanes lie dormant at Chateauroux, belonging to British Airways, Hong Kong Airlines, Air Caraibes, Egyptair, Brazilian company Azul and Chinese company Loong Air, amongst others.
Usually, the airport is a quiet departure point for a handful charter flights mainly to summer holiday destinations.
“We will be welcoming another fifteen planes in the coming days. We have space for a dozen more,” said airport head Didier Lefresne.
The airport was built in 1936 by the engineer and politician Marcel Dassault, known for founding the major industrial company Groupe Dassault which today owns the right-wing newspaper Le Figaro.
“The Americans developed the airport between 1951 and 1967, by building a runway of 2,500 metres (today 3,500 metres) and huge parking areas,” said Lefresne, adding that the airport used to be NATO’s most important military base in Europe.
Lefresne said that when the size of the planes is taken into account, the airport doesn’t have that much space. “We have 40 hectares of property available,” he said.
“If the market takes that direction it could increase our ability to host planes,” Lefresne added, referring to the potential lasting decrease of air traffic which would raise the demand for hosting capacities.
It is not the only airport in Europe enjoying such a boom — Teruel airport in central Spain currently has some 100 aircraft parked on its tarmac.
Space isn’t the only advantage of Chateauroux airport. “We are definitely cheaper than the airports located around Paris,” said Lefresne, adding that there were many maintenance companies based at the airport.
Dale Aviation is one of the companies that looks after the airplanes.
“A plane that isn’t flying needs to be maintained in order to keep its value,” said the founder of the company Makto Dadic.
“Aircraft have to be protected from the different influences of the atmosphere, humidity and dust. Everything is lubricated and protected. We call it ‘cocooning’,” he said.
“Some tasks need to take place every week, others every two weeks, every month. It’s rather demanding,” said Dadic, as one of his employees wearing protective earmuffs ran the engines of a Boeing.
Maintenance activities aren’t the only source of noise on the tarmac. Air freight planes are often taking off and landing.
“We have tripled our freight activity. We have two or three planes every day,” said Lefresne.
The airport’s boss believes the location of the airport — in the centre of France and not far from the motorway linking Paris and the southwest city of Toulouse — has largely contributed to the its success.
On the tarmac, a 737 Ukraine International Airlines plane unloads its cargo of masks and sanitary products instead of the usual passenger luggage.
“The route for masks didn’t exist, we had to create it. It’s our seventh plane and we’re expecting three others,” said Michel Quatresous, president of the central buying service OptiPharma, which regroups around 1,000 pharmacies.
“It’s a lot easier to work here than in Roissy Charles de Gaulle (Paris’ biggest airport). For us, it’s ideal,” he said.
Chateauroux airport has plans for a new control tower and a new depot for the maintenance of A380 planes in 2021. Marcel Dassault airport could be about to take off at a time when others are brutally landing.