Broadening horizons

posted on 25th April 2018

The general mood in aircraft line maintenance seems upbeat. Demand is high as the global fleet continues to grow and carriers increasingly outsource their MRO requirements

Jim Bickley, general manager for line maintenance at Monarch Aircraft Engineering, notes that more and more operators are seeking to fix their direct operating costs. As a result: “Since the demise of Monarch Airlines things are going well (we’d already been increasing third-party maintenance just in case).”
Among other developments, Monarch started providing line maintenance for China Airlines’ A350-900 XWB when the carrier began flights from Taipei to Gatwick in December last year.
In addition: “Wizz Air will be flying out of Luton soon with several based aircraft on UK AOCs, so we will actually be busier than we were when Monarch was still flying.”
Two brand new aircraft joined the Wizz Air fleet at London Luton in March – an A320 and A321. Five more aircraft will be deployed there by June, taking the total to eight.
Storm Aviation’s current pipeline is also strong as airlines try to save costs through outsourcing. Ian Jones, head of sales, remarks: “It’s common knowledge that many legacy carriers have huge final-salary pension deficits, which continue to grow in size year on year – and outsourcing can be seen a method to lower headcount and de-risk this.
“On the other hand, some airlines take the strategic decision prefer to keep everything in house as they prefer to feel in control of their own destiny in terms of their maintenance,” he observes.
Storm Aviation is embarking on a new relationship with Qatar Airways, he confirms; first there will be a new daily Boeing 787 service into Cardiff starting in May 2018, and there will be two more locations to follow on Storm’s existing line station network.
Additionally, in late October 2017 Storm Aviation secured a new three-year contract with easyJet to provide base maintenance services at London-Stansted’s Diamond Hangar – a new revenue stream for the company.
Lufthansa Technik’s line maintenance division is also broadening its horizons, says Ulrich Hollerbach, vice president maintenance Europe and CEO Lufthansa Technik Maintenance International. It is increasingly focusing on the external market, especially low-cost carriers.
“Particularly noteworthy in this context are the flexible expansion of production capacity in the wake of Eurowings’ fleet growth due to the insolvency of Air Berlin, a newly awarded contract from UPS and the opening of new Lufthansa Technik line maintenance stations in Amsterdam and Palma de Mallorca,” Hollerbach highlights.

He continues: “The mix of aircraft types in a customer fleet is generally declining. Since airlines want to reduce their complexity, they are reducing the number of different aircraft types in their fleets. Challenges are more likely to arise from different engine types in the same fleet or from modernised aircraft types such as the A320neo and its new engines”.
Plus: “Airlines are becoming more and more demanding in meeting their needs, particularly in terms of cost efficiency, flexibility in meeting their operational requirements (ie workforce in the event of an AOG situation) and stability of high-quality processes to avoid delays and compensation payments in accordance with EU261 [also known as the Passenger Charter].”
Another challenge relates to recruitment. Aircraft utilisation can change very rapidly. For instance, Monarch looks after Norwegian’s Boeing fleet – and the carrier is doubling the number of B787s it has based at Gatwick this year. This will require a significant increase in skilled maintenance staff.
Bickley explains: “If an operator expands at airport, like Norwegian is doing at Gatwick, you still only have a certain volume of staff in that area. We’re going to need 35 more engineers this year,” he confirms.
Licensed engineers are becoming very rare following a drop-off during the 2000s as potential candidates were unable to afford the training, Bickley says.
The military route has also diminished: fewer people are joining the armed forces, and therefore, fewer are leaving the military and taking jobs in civil aviation.
“We’re looking at training plans to bridge the armed forces’ qualifications to civilian ones,” Bickley says. “Military personnel have a great work ethic and their tooling skills and so on are very good, but they need to train for civilian aircraft.”
He is also keen to mention that Monarch is one of the only MROs still offering apprenticeships.
Hollerbach offers a slightly different take on the labour situation. Agreeing that it is sometimes difficult to find well-qualified personnel, he considers: “At the same time, the increased efficiency of new aircraft reduces the amount of maintenance required to maintain flight operations, so that a smaller workforce will be needed in the future.
“Lufthansa Technik is therefore striving for greater flexibility in its line maintenance network and for broader access to the labour market for maintenance personnel, especially in Europe.”
Staffing is also subject to seasonality, by virtue of the nature of the aviation business. Line maintenance requirements peak in the summer season, especially at airports that handle a lot of charter traffic.
Jones says: “Winter is clearly a quieter time for most providers and we, like other similar businesses, use that valuable time for recruitment and training. However, our latest base maintenance venture continues to keep us very busy in the winter season.
“To ensure full capability, we’ve invested about £750,000 in the last six months, procuring equipment such as aircraft jacking equipment, a hydraulic rig and various other tooling and equipment commensurate to facilitate the performance of Airbus A320 and B757 base maintenance,” he says.
Other factors that can have an impact on operations include the busy airport environment, the logistics of moving spares around a large site, spares availability (perhaps affected by Customs clearance, for example) and aircraft availability.
“Most airline customers fly all day and while some do have daytime transit checks, maintenance is generally done at night,” Jones says. “During summer, a charter airline aircraft might have a typical flying day of 18 hours, so this limits the time available for maintenance to be carried out.”
Based aircraft allow more time for maintenance activities, Bickley points out, because they spend more time on site.

“The trend towards paperless maintenance operations is imminent in the industry,” says Hollerbach. “This means that documentation is done directly in IT and on mobile devices. All aircraft manuals will also be available on mobile devices. This opens up good opportunities for the maintenance business for efficient processes such as troubleshooting.
“In the field of predictive maintenance, interesting possibilities will be explored in the future, leading to an expansion of the various job profiles,” he considers.

Bickley points out that there has been huge investment in digital solutions over the past few years – until the advent of the iPad, which has provided ready-made hardware with a built-in camera and even built-in security (such as thumbprint identification).
“Now it’s just a case of having the right software,” he says, hinting that Monarch is trialling something at the moment.
Bickley goes on: “There’s a big swing towards remote, digital working rather than coming back to the office for paperwork. This is particularly relevant at large airports – it saves time and fuel.”
At some point, he believes remote certification might be a possibility: rather than sending a highly skilled member of staff out to certify an aircraft, a less highly trained employee could send photos or video footage of the plane back to the office for checking.
Furthermore, virtual reality and augmented reality are also on the horizon and have potential, Bickley adds.
Overall, with digitalisation: “There are elements of improved safety because data can be shared – more people can check it, and documentation can be more consistent. But mostly, the need for increased aircraft availability and less down time means the industry will get behind it. And if an iPad saves one EU261 claim, it’s worth it,” he affirms.


Safety first

Bickley says line maintenance is no more or less dangerous now than it has ever been. Simply put: “It’s a dangerous environment, no doubt about it. Some maintenance tasks have become simpler and therefore safer (due to changes in aircraft manufacturers’ designs).
However: “If you think safety is a given, you might take your eye off the ball,” he points out. “It’s at the heart of what we do.”
Jones agrees. “Our director, compliance and safety – David Copse, formerly of the UK Civil Aviation Authority and most recently the ex-safety manager for Monarch Airlines – continues to focus on all aspects of safety and has built a very strong team around him who are given the necessary tools to ensure that we … remain at the industry forefront for preventative safety measuring and reporting.”


A local presence

“In early 2017 Storm Aviation took steps to set up a ‘GmbH’ in Germany as a direct result of new business secured in Dusseldorf and Munich,” Jones says.
“We also set up Storm Aviation Nigeria during 2017 to assist with us serving pre-existing clients in Lagos – the point being that we always prefer to set up local entities whenever we can, thus facilitating us to appropriately follow local rules and regulations.
“This can lead to variation across the network and you have to acclimatise to that; we, as a business, have a standardised approach, but things can take more time in some places. There might be delays or restrictions specific to a location.
“In many nations we can’t simply arrive and attempt to set up our own line maintenance operation: you often have to work with local partners under joint operations.”
Jones feels that global standardisation of the whole sector will never happen as certain regions remain protectionist. “But we’re proud to be increasing our presence as part of the IATP (the International Airlines Technical Pool), whose Station Restrictions Committee looks at airports where choice for airlines is hampered by local politics and alignment to the local national carrier’s line maintenance team,” he says.