As the world starts to get back on its feet – and into the air – after the events of the last year, Melissa Moody assesses the latest trends in A320 family maintenance and the companies making sure they’re ready to fly again

    This piece first appeared in the May 2021 issue of MRO management which you can read here 

    It’s impossible to go anywhere without witnessing the impact the Covid-19 pandemic has had on the world. The vaccine rollout, although taking place at various speeds in different countries, gives hope for a return to normalcy, and airlines are preparing to return grounded aircraft back to service – and to bring passengers back onboard. 

    According to analysis by consultancy GlobalData, although global flight activity is not expected to recover until 2022 or 2023, low-cost airlines will be the first to feel the effects of increased travel. Many of these carriers will be using A320 family aircraft to absorb the pent-up demand and capitalise on opportunities.

    “With leisure travel most likely to rebound first, low-cost carriers’ short distance, point-to-point networks will better suit pandemic-cautious travellers looking for trips closer to home,” says GlobalData’s analyst Gus Gardner.

    A change of pace

    One essential cog in the metaphorical machine bringing these aircraft back into service are the MRO providers making sure every part is fit for service. 

    Fokker Techniek, an MRO company based in the Netherlands, saw an increase in aircraft stored at its facility as a result of the pandemic. It predicts some of the more mature models may stay grounded for longer as manufacturers such as Airbus and Boeing boost production in line with demand. 

    No matter what happens, the company acknowledges that some changes may become permanent. “With the aviation sector in the eye of the storm, we saw a sharp decrease in demand when lockdowns and travel bans began,” explains Fokker Techniek’s head of sales and marketing Aris Promos‑Promopoulos. 

    During the pandemic, many operators optimised their fleet to postpone maintenance costs where and when possible. Consequently, Promos‑Promopoulos estimates that around 3,500 A320 family aircraft are currently stored with an additional number in ‘flyaway’ condition that are not stored but grounded anyway.

    Estonia-headquartered Magnetic MRO has found that revenue for its fixed line maintenance services has dropped by 65 per cent, with service scope “significantly” shifting from standard line maintenance to more ad-hoc or customised services. 

    Magnetic MRO’s head of line maintenance unit Kaspars Podins says the company “cooperated with long-term customers on suitable programmes so there are win-win solutions. Either way, customers require maintenance support to keep assets airworthy and maintained, and ready operationally upon immediate request.” 

    During summer 2020, usually a low season for MRO providers, Moscow, Russia-based S7 Technics found that it was busier than ever due to the implementation of base maintenance checks taken off schedule and because of unscheduled redelivery checks on return of aircraft to lessors. 

    Nikita Belykh, S7 Technics’ sales director, notes that for comparison, between January and September 2019 51 C checks were performed, whilst in the same period of 2020 71 C checks were conducted – an increase of 39 per cent. 

    Looking at A checks, in 2020 there was a 22 per cent decrease compared to 2019, notes Belykh. “This is precisely due to the reduction in the number of flights during the pandemic and, accordingly, the increase in service intervals,” he explains. 

    S7 also found that during the spring/summer season of 2020 there was a decrease in the volume of work at shops for repair and maintenance of aircraft components such as restoration of passenger seat covers, repair of oxygen and evacuation equipment or production of plastic components for passenger seats. During the same period, there was a decrease in requests for engine repairs. However, by the end of the summer and leading into autumn, S7 Technics specialists noted a “sharp increase” in demand for refurbishment of power plants. Belykh puts this down to an increase in air cargo and domestic flights. 

    “Most of the workload was related to the execution of return checks for the benefit of leasing companies. In 2020, 11 return checks were completed,” he adds. “The airlines had to stop parts of their fleet, and at the same time there was no possibility of transferring aircraft from one operator to another. As a result, after the return checks, the leasing companies transferred part of the aircraft to storage.” 

    A gradual return

    One of the biggest current challenges is keeping skilled manpower capacity available in the declining market. Fokker Techniek’s Promos-Promopoulos anticipates that when the market recovers it will need the support of skilled individuals to be immediately available to work on its projects, but some may have migrated to other industries. 

    “We believe that the market will not come back globally in the blink of an eye but gradually, and with many differences per region,” says Promos-Promopoulos. He explains that the company has already seen proof of this in countries and regions that are opening up their domestic market, such as the USA and Russia and across Asia and Africa. With a third Covid-19 wave seemingly present across Europe, Fokker has found that the region is lagging behind at present, with aircraft deliveries going to markets mostly outside of Europe.

    Fokker has adapted its service for current market needs, with one notable method being customised maintenance programmes. “Everybody tries to find areas to save money without compromising any possible return to operations in an efficient way,” says Promos-Promopoulos. Key areas for the A320 family include lightweight cabins, connectivity, in-seat power and optimised passenger capacity with some comfort, he notes. Airlines are also exploring more “innovative business models” that have an impact on cabin modifications. As a result, Fokker Techniek says the changes have challenged its thoughts and market approach on the A320 family.

    Similarly, S7’s Belykh notes that Russian airlines had to reduce the number of flights they operated during the pandemic and, as a result, sent 20-50 per cent of their fleets into storage. “For aircraft temporarily decommissioned, aircraft manufacturers have provided preparation procedures as part of the storage programme,” he adds. “All maintenance work is performed in accordance with the manufacturer’s recommendations and instructions.” 

    The list of works also depends on whether the storage period is short- or long-term. “Placing an aircraft into storage is not a quick process and can take from three to five days,” Belykh emphasises. It involves covering the air intakes and nozzles of engines, air pressure receivers and chassis with covers. Lubrication of components is carried out to prevent the appearance of corrosion while the windows of the cockpit, as well as the passenger seats, are closed from the inside. 

    When an aircraft is removed from storage, the reverse procedures are carried out, with various other checks and actions. In 2020, S7 Technics specialists carried out work on the entry and exit from storage of about 50 aircraft.

    Keep on moving

    The popularity of the A320 aircraft and its capabilities means that elements such as spare stock and component support will be essential to the continuing running of the aircraft during the predicted resurgence of travel. Many airlines are therefore extending such contracts. Indian airline IndiGo is one such example, having recently announced the extension of an A320 family component support contract it has with Air France Industries KLM Engineering & Maintenance (AFI KLM E&M). Covering 350 aircraft, AFI KLM E&M will provide a range of services including component repairs, dedicated pool access, logistics support and provision of a main base kit (MBK) at IndiGo’s airline operations hub in Delhi.

    Bii.aero also recently announced that it had boosted its stock of A320 family galley inserts having purchased a “significant amount” of inventory. This has been further supplemented by a large consignment from a major European airline which Bii will manage.

    The combined packages comprise more than 1,700 line items including OEM interior components from Zodiac, Airbus, BE Aerospace, Adams-Rite, Holmco, Diehl and Goodrich, among others. Components included are vacuum lavatories, smoke detectors, ovens, coffee makers, crew handsets, chillers, faucets, fire extinguishers, lights and attendant seats.

    “Bii’s warehousing and logistics management is increasingly accessed by third parties seeking flexible support partners,” explains Bii sales director Andrew Newell. “We have the expertise and agreements in place to manage and support the repair and sale of components to achieve best market value for the airline realising the best possible financial return.”

    Bii says that it will utilise its MRO vendor base to recertify the interior cabin/galley material to ensure quality and availability on the shelf. This will further complement the company’s ability to support aircraft with a range of AOG/loan/exchange and outright sale options, Bii says.

    “The market for these items is constant when aircraft are flying,” Newell adds. “The most frequently removed items are normally water heaters, coffee makers and ovens, so we are building a pool of these. Some airlines are taking equipment from teardowns and parked aircraft, but these still need to be recertified. For many operators a better solution is to buy recently certified material instead of cannibalising parked aircraft, storing up shortage problems.”

    Back to the skies 

    As the peak of the pandemic begins to wind down, airlines are beginning to increase their capacity and frequency of flights which means MRO providers have had to be creative in preparing for a return to the skies. 

    “Firstly, we made sure our workforce stays safe and fully operational,” says Fokker’s Promos-Promopoulos. “We carried out additional cleaning and disinfecting efforts, and practised social distancing. Our customers have access to our facility and we open our doors to them in the same safe way.”

    Fokker says it has sufficient manpower and capacity to guarantee a quick return to service even after a “considerable” storage period. The company thinks there will be additional demand for component and engine services. 

    Promos-Promopoulos expects that given the scale of aircraft stored, and the number needed to return to service, there may be a “wave of parts” piling up for repair in component MROs with an increased demand of exchange parts too.  “Our A320 customers can send their components to our facilities and shops. 

    “This solves multiple challenges in many ways and ensures efficient supply chain solutions. Together with our colleagues at Fokker Services, we bring spares, repairs and modifications solutions to the market for the return to service of as many A320 aircraft as possible, as fast as required.” 

    S7 Technics says that the A320 aircraft fleet continued to grow with the increase in flight intensity as short- and medium-haul flights resumed faster. As flights started to increase, airlines began to resume previously postponed aircraft deliveries and an increase in the number of A320neos, with LEAP-1A and PW-1100 engines, is expected. At the same time, S7 predicts a gradual decrease in the number of A320ceo aircraft as airlines take advantage of the “excessive supply” of new aircraft on the market and try to renew their fleet. 

    A step forward 

    Looking ahead, the MRO providers interviewed for this article have a generally positive outlook. Belykh says the production schedule for S7 Technics with specific checks, slots and work packages is in place for the next six months. “In addition to line and base aircraft maintenance, we plan to focus on integrated solutions for redelivery checks, engineering services, production of components and engine maintenance.” 

    By the end of 2021 the company plans to open a shop for the maintenance and repair of auxiliary power units (APUs) at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. In 2022, it plans to open a shop for CFM56-5B/-7B engine overhaul. Belykh hopes that by expanding the list of offered component maintenance services, S7 Technics will be able to work with airlines in a more comprehensive way.

     “The pandemic significantly contributed to the adoption of faster decisions aimed at improving the company’s efficiency both in the moment and in the future. We were able to change our business processes in a shorter time, and unite the entire team in a rapidly changing external world,” Belykh adds. “During the period of the pandemic, these approaches, one might say, have been integrated into the company’s DNA and now we look at the challenges and business opportunities in a slightly different way.”

    Fokker Techniek also feels that the pandemic has allowed the company to reinvent itself faster than anticipated. “We are proud to have a great company with almost totally unique capabilities all in one place,” Promos-Promopoulos comments. “Right now, it is a challenge for all companies in the aviation sector, but we’ve succeeded in achieving an acceptable continuity of the business, combined with growth in our special project segment.” 

    Even with a slowdown, work is ongoing and Fokker recently delivered a brand new A319neo VIP completion to “a very satisfied returning customer”. It has also been looking at projects such as A320 family freighter conversions, builds of lightweight cabins, re-arranging and re-decorating cabin interiors, completing structural work or even applying livery. 

    Magnetic MRO also admits that its plans have had to be revised due to the pandemic. It has had to make some staff redundant, but has also invested in younger staff, “to keep their knowledge and skill base up-to-date with the latest know-how, developments and aircraft type training,” says Podins.

    Ultimately, maintenance personnel are key to the business, Magnetic MRO believes. While aircraft generations are changing, and older models are mixed with newer ones, Podins says that the company cannot ignore emerging trends as it seeks to stay ahead and support customers with both base and line maintenance operations. “I’d say that the pandemic has given us a good time to reshape, clean out the ‘dust’ and get online for new opportunities,” he concludes. “As Winston Churchill said: ‘Never waste a good crisis’.”