KLM UK Engineering is making plans for the future, but its past is catching up and bringing new business.
The company dates back over 40 years, when it was the maintenance arm of Air UK, Britain’s largest regional airline at the time, which had a significant fleet of BAe Systems 146 aircraft when it was acquired by KLM in 1998 and renamed KLM UK. In 2003, the airline was taken over by KLM Cityhopper, the Dutch carrier’s regional operation.
This brought further Fokker 70 and 100 work to the MRO, which had changed its name to its current one. With the inevitable decline in the fleets of those aircraft seeming to approach, diversification was needed and Boeing 737 Classic/NG approval was gained in 2008, followed by the Airbus A320 Family in 2014.
Two years later, the Embraer E-Jet family was added, this being the Fokker replacement aircraft for KLM Cityhopper. Although part of AFI KLM E&M, the company enjoys a high degree of autonomy, says Peter van der Horst, managing director. It is a stand-alone business with its own sales and marketing organisation.
Of course, the group has oversight of the operation and there is an exchange of market intelligence. Perhaps because of the KLM Cityhopper connection, there is some Dutch influence. New LED lighting in the hangar is from the Netherlands, as is the Embraer nose docking, from NIJL.
Currently, the Boeing 737 is the dominant type, accounting for 50 per cent of work. In addition to aircraft from KLM and Transavia France (also a KLM group company), it has a number of third party customers, the most recent being West Atlantic UK, which will be sending its freighters to Norwich throughout the year and so has a dedicated bay.
The E-Jet represents 20 per cent but, with the KLM Cityhopper fleet getting close to the planned 14 E-170s and 44 E-190s and with the first aircraft now reaching 10 years old, he notes that the frequency and complexity of the heavy checks are increasing. On the A320 Family, the market is more competitive and the right opportunity will be taken when available.
Ian Bartholomew, director business development & sales, says the company is enjoying considerable success. The 2017/18 winter is sold out, as is this summer, and next winter is already looking busy. In fact, he is advising major customers to reserve space early. This is partly due to space limitations, the facility having five bays available.
There are two two-bay hangars, linked by a central building that houses the logistics centre and customer offices, while the other bay takes half of another hangar, the rest being rented by painting company Air Livery, which has two other paint bays on the airfield.
This is a useful add on service, he says, especially for end of lease work, and the two companies often work together. He comments that this type of work can be ‘volatile’, so long-term contracts are preferred.
While base maintenance is the core business, another product is line maintenance, carried out at Aberdeen, Edinburgh, London City, Newcastle, Norwich and Teesside; whilst also operating AOG callouts to other UK airports upon request.
Edinburgh is the largest line operation serving numerous customers and has recently extended its current contract with BA CityFlyer to include A checks. The company’s Lean team is now looking at ways to streamline these A checks to ensure they are completed overnight.
This should not be much of a problem – in 2013, they organised a complete cabin reconfiguration overnight on 26 KLM Cityhopper Fokker 70s at Norwich.
Having rejoined KLM UK Engineering after stints at much larger MROs, Bartholomew says he is impressed by the skill levels in Norwich. A recent project involved the complete reskinning of an aircraft from the nose to the rear of the wing. The 24 replacement panels had to be specially manufactured by the OEM as these were not held as repair items.
He comments that the level of expertise shown matched that of the production line and the pressure test on the renewed fuselage was passed first time. Part of the reason for this comes from the very low turnover rate of staff. There is little competition in the area, where the company is one of the biggest employees with 370 staff, and it offers a good quality of life.
This experience is also passed on through a commitment to training, says Ray Flower, head of KLM UK Engineering Technical College. The College relocated last year to the International Aviation Academy – Norwich (IAAN). This is in a modernised and refurbished hangar on the airport estate and is the first of the Aviation Skills Partnership’s skills academies.
It was made possible by Norfolk County Council, the New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership and Norse Group, plus supporting partners Norwich City Council, Norwich International Airport, KLM UK Engineering, University of East Anglia and City College Norwich.
As well as aviation maintenance engineering, the IAAN will offer training for pilots, operations, air traffic control, cabin crew and airport operations.
The company delivers an accredited three-year, University of East Anglia and City College Norwich, BSc (Hons) degree in Professional Aviation Engineering Practice and is able to attract and employ apprentices from City College Norwich’s City and Guilds programme.
One of the academy’s biggest assets is the Aviation Emulation Zone that houses a retired but fully operational Boeing 737-300. As well as delivering aviation science and systems theory, it is equally important to blend this with contextualised practical training, he says.
In the first year, students will carry out tasks such as daily inspections, basic aircraft servicing, systems replenishment, jacking and even undercarriage retractions.
In addition to motivating students, this early hands-on exposure to real aircraft provides the trainers and students with the opportunity to determine aptitude and where a particular individual’s future specialisation might lie.
This practical and blended approach is applied in the second year, which has a greater focus on skills and competence related to aircraft systems. In the final year, students are required to undertake time-constrained maintenance tasks as if they are working in a real MRO.
The students work in teams and will assume responsibility for the planning, management and recording of the maintenance activities. The aim of this approach is to improve the level of competence of students who graduate from the programme that, in addition to reducing the gap between training and operational capability, could also go some way in meeting the Part 66 experience requirements, he says.
Uniquely, the course is given by ‘combi instructors’ – when not teaching, they are working in the hangar. This maintains their expertise and keeps the teaching relevant.
In addition to meeting its own needs, the College offers EASA Part-147 B1.1 & B2 Type Training on the 737 Classic and Next Generation Aircraft (with a 737 MAX difference course being added later this year) and is developing its Embraer 170/190 Type Training approval.
With the Bae 146 and Fokker 70/100 now gone from the parent fleets, it might be expected that work would also have disappeared. Surprisingly, says Bartholomew, the first of these aircraft (along with the later Avro RJ variant) accounts for 25 per cent of throughput.
This partly due to a long-term relationship with Irish carrier CityJet but also because there are fewer MRO facilities that have retained their capability. As a result, aircraft have arrived from as far afield as the Middle East. A recent multi-year contract will bring aircraft from Swedish operator Braathens.
For the Fokker aircraft, a number of the KLM Cityhopper aircraft were acquired by Alliance Airlines in Australia, along with others in the open market. Some of these were given a C check in Norwich and repainted before redelivery. An ongoing business is the reprofiling of turbine blades for the aircraft’s Rolls-Royce Tay engines.
This service is no longer offered by the OEM, so it has become a niche market for the company. All the work is carried out manually – no laser scanning or blending. A number of engines are also held in storage for customers. Using OEM-approved vertical stacking reduces the amount of space required and also gives easier access to engine accessories for removal.
Given the space constraints and high demand, an expansion would seem to be a logical option. However, he says there needs to be enough confidence that the demand will be maintained into the future and that seasonal fluctuations can be eliminated – capacity drops to three lines in the summer. There is now a focus on optimising the business, using the company’s lean team to identify where efficiency gains can be made.
For example, many of the routine heavy checks are pretty similar, so helping the customer to deliver work packages and spares on time will ensure sufficient time is available to pre-engineer the work and for the pre-kitting and delivery to the hangar floor of spares in line with the workflow planning.
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