Having demonstrated resiliency during the Covid-19 pandemic, Etihad Engineering’s head of MRO sales David Doherty reveals some of the company’s innovations, return-to-service solutions and strategies for the future.
This article first appeared in the May 2021 issue of MRO management which you can read here
MRO Management: How has Etihad Engineering coped during the Covid-19 pandemic and what impact has it had on the business?
David Doherty: We were not immune to the effect of this pandemic. It is something we have been able to manage quite effectively and aggressively, while protecting our people in terms of their safety and well-being, as well as our business in terms of continuity.
While we had some delays of planned maintenance inputs from customers due to flight restrictions, we were able to minimise the impact of the pandemic on our business successfully through a multi-pronged approach.
The strategy we had put in place beforehand by diversifying our portfolio, and strategically managing the peaks and valleys within the airframe maintenance cycle, paid off and we were able to weather the storm. We supported our customers in using aircraft downtime to refurbish and maintain their fleets, to prepare them for when they return to service.
In addition to honouring our existing commitments to our customers, we also reached out to airline operators and leasing companies across the world, and brought in new customers and business to our facility in Abu Dhabi.
We also utilised our expanded parking and preservation area adjacent to Abu Dhabi International Airport to help customers park their aircraft safely, under expert supervision and oversight.
The company has shown resilience and flexibility in response to Covid-19; can you outline the impact of some of the measures taken?
The most obvious impact of our resilience and flexibility during the pandemic is the fact that our hangars are currently full in our 500,000sq m facility. Our determination to honour our commitments, despite all odds, and to adapt, and adjust to the ever-changing market conditions has been wide ranging.
While some aviation businesses saw their business plunge by 40-50 per cent and some airlines reached the verge of bankruptcy, we were able to minimise the impact on our business by achieving 90 per cent of our budget in 2020 while remaining profitable.
Our resilience and performance despite the odds have been recognised by the industry with ‘Pride of Aviation’ and ‘Commercial MRO Provider of the Year’ awards in 2021.
How were you able to bring in new customers? Why were they convinced to get maintenance done when aircraft were not flying?
The best opportunity for repairing and maintaining an aircraft, especially when the work goes beyond routine checks, is when the aircraft is not flying.
We helped our customers understand the opportunity to use this time to repair, maintain and upgrade their fleets. While our value proposition, from our comprehensive service portfolio and expertise to our competitive pricing, were strong factors in bringing in new business, we also went the extra mile to facilitate the movement of aircraft and customer representatives to our facility where possible. Throughout the pandemic, we continued to provide constant online interaction and updates where they were restricted by lockdowns.
We also offered services that were best suited for the new market conditions – parking and preservation for grounded aircraft, full end of lease checks including aircraft repaint for aircraft being returned to lessors, and passenger-to-freighter conversion solutions for airlines catering to the increased cargo demand.
Have there been lessons learned from the Covid-19 pandemic that will help operations in the future?
I believe that taking up challenges head-on teaches us more than passing up chances. We took the pandemic head-on and have been learning along the way.
Lessons we have learnt include ensuring the safety and wellbeing of our people as key to keeping our operations running, and that planning ahead for business continuity can save an operation in unforeseen crises. Diversification of our business across multiple revenue sources has paid off well; when faced with physical barriers and restrictions, wide-ranging expertise across multiple widebody as well as narrowbody platforms is a good insurance against market conditions where long route flights may be restricted. Also, technology is our greatest ally to stay connected with our people and customers.
How is Etihad Engineering preparing for the return to service of large numbers of aircraft and the wider return to passenger services?
We have a wide range of return-to-service solutions for our customers and these are already being provided to airlines as they come back to service.
Since we were working full throttle even during the pandemic, with all the necessary safety precautions in place, we are prepped and ready to take on more business as our customers return to the skies. In fact, we have ramped up our capacity since last year and also added capabilities across the board as part of our continuous efforts to stay ahead of the curve, and offer the best possible ‘one-stop-shop’ experience at Etihad Engineering.
Do you see there being a large amount of MRO work required at one time or will this be spread out?
We see a prudent and phased approach in terms of MRO work as our customers navigate through reduced passenger and flight volumes worldwide. Keeping an eye on the costs is an important consideration for us as well as the airlines right now, so we believe that MRO work too will be spread out as things return to normalcy.
What are the key factors to consider in transitioning from current levels of MRO requirement to larger amounts of line and base maintenance?
Flexibility and continuity planning for all kinds of contingencies are some of the key factors as we move ahead. We are all hopeful of an eventual recovery in passenger volumes but none of us can fully predict the future. With the third wave now hitting many countries, we must all be ready to adjust our sails and manage the customer and market requirements efficiently and profitably as we move forward.
Are there any other new technologies and innovations you are expecting to introduce in the near to longer term future?
We have a vision of being the ‘MRO of the Future’, utilising the latest technologies to provide added and differentiated value to our customers.
We have successfully automated our logistics operation using laser-guided parts retrieval technology and RFID systems; our automated tool management system helps us keep track of thousands of our tools onsite; and, we will be ramping up our onsite additive manufacturing capability to produce and certify a wide range of aircraft parts.
We are also exploring new technologies like drone inspections and artificial intelligence to add more efficiencies to our operations and further speed up our turnaround times.
What is the outlook for Etihad Engineering in the rest of 2021, and beyond?
We at Etihad Engineering refused to put our tools down even when the pandemic was at its peak. Our hangars and project pipeline are currently full, and we look forward to not just meeting but exceeding our customer and market expectations in 2021 and beyond.
It will not be easy, it may not even be as we expect and plan it to be – but come what may, with our crisis management in place and our flexibility and determination – we will continue to deliver the most comprehensive range of industry leading MRO services to every customer who places their confidence in us.
How do you assess the state of the MRO market in general now and moving forward? What trends should we look out for?
The market is showing signs of slow recovery as countries successfully implement their vaccination programmes.
As carriers look to streamline the fleets they operate, there will be an increasing importance in utilisation of their assets. As a preferred MRO partner with a wide range of capabilities, we can help our customers to maximise fleet utilisation and provide assistance when the aircraft aren’t operating, whether that is parking the aircraft for an extended period of time, or implementing modifications to align the aircraft with the airline’s latest passenger strategy.
As quarantine restrictions are lifted, operators are bringing stored aircraft back into service, so we are working on the optimal way to do that in a phased approach to ensure that we support the airline as well as manage the costs of doing so, keeping them properly controlled.
There is a lot of discussion around cabin optimisation and whether there will be a consumer shift from Business to Premium Economy, which is something our P21 design team are monitoring closely.
The recent increase in fuel costs will favour those airlines that have already incorporated the new fuel-efficient fleet options and may see early retirements of some of the older models. It certainly seems that the appetite for air travel is undiminished, as we have seen an increase in MRO requirements from the narrowbody operators as they start the short haul routes, with the widebody requirements being slower to pick up as the intercontinental travel restrictions have an impact on long haul routes.