Maintenance: The art of Keeping Aircraft Flying

The market for aircraft and helicopter maintenance and overhaul is currently split in two. While companies specialised in the maintenance of general aviation aircraft and business jets are expanding, maintenance companies for airliners do not have enough orders. But the overall outlook for the industry is positive, even if the future holds some challenges.

AvBuyer  |  05th April 2022
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The AvBuyer editorial team includes Matt Harris and Rebecca Applegarth who contribute to a number of...

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PT6 Maintenance

Whether aircraft fly or not, aircraft maintenance remains a necessity. Owners and operators are obliged to keep their airplanes in airworthy condition. Following is an overview of the maintenance scene in the different aviation sectors...

The pictures went around the world: with the outbreak of the Corona crisis at the beginning of 2020 and the massive slump in civil air traffic, thousands of commercial aircraft stood idle on the aprons — and in some cases on runways that had been temporarily converted into parking areas. 

Where there is no flying, there is no need for maintenance and overhaul services, one would think. But this is not the case, because even parked aircraft need to be looked after and regularly maintained. Even mothballing an aircraft for a longer period is labour-intensive and requires technical specialists.

That is why the airline industry’s maintenance companies still had work to do at the beginning of the pandemic. But, as the crisis progressed, maintenance operations for commercial aircraft were also hit hard and some had to reduce capacity and lay off staff. 

GA Market Was Resilient

The situation was different in the maintenance operations for general and business aviation. With the exception of a few months of restrictions, General Aviation aircraft continued to fly during the crisis, while Business Aviation not only recovered after a brief slump in movements, but even reached new records in passenger and movement figures in 2021 due to massive demand. 

The need for maintenance of piston-powered aircraft and business jets was and is correspondingly high. Wherever there is a lot of flying, a correspondingly large number of inspections have to be carried out and parts such as tyres and brakes have to be replaced. From this point of view, the maintenance industry is divided: companies that take care of ‘large’ aircraft have problems, while maintenance companies that take care of smaller aircraft go about their normal business activities. 

The global trend in aviation maintenance is clearly geared towards growth in the medium and long term. According to a new study by ResearchAndMarkets, the global aviation maintenance market will grow by an average of 3.7 percent annually across all sectors from 2021 to 2026 — despite the impact of the Corona crisis on airlines. 

Example: RAS

One example of this trend is the aviation service provider Rheinland Air Service (RAS) from Mönchengladbach, Germany. It has started building a third hangar at Mönchengladbach Airport in March 2021 due to the favourable order situation. The project — the largest facility expansion in the company’s history — involves investments of 15 million Euros and is scheduled for completion this summer. 

In addition to two maintenance halls and a large spare parts warehouse, modern offices will also be built on the site. Even before the Corona crisis, RAS was experiencing a steady increase in orders from business aviation customers — so new capacity, both in terms of space and personnel, is urgently being created. RAS will create 50 new jobs in the short term and up to 100 in the long term.

The expansion of operations and the start of construction of the third hangar were originally planned for 2020, but were then postponed by a year due to the ongoing crisis. A difficult situation, because the permanent lack of space meant that RAS could not accept all orders for the maintenance and repair of business jets. 

With the expansion of operational capacities and the creation of new jobs, RAS is now embarking on a clear growth course and is looking forward to being able to serve all requests in the future, not only in business aviation, but also in the company’s division of special-mission aircraft for civil and military purposes. Currently, more than 50 ATR aircraft and more than 100 business jets are serviced, repaired, and maintained by Rheinland Air Service. 

Lock-Down Upgrades

The mandatory equipping of business jets with ADS-B equipment had caused a boom in modification orders for maintenance shops before the pandemic, especially in the United States. In Europe, this order wave arrived with a time lag. In the meantime, it has ebbed away. 

During the pandemic, quite a few aircraft owners decided to have their aircraft equipped with new avionics or to have the interior refurbished, and ordered corresponding modifications to their aircraft. 

For pistonpowered aircraft, the trend to convert from an analogue to a digital cockpit is still in full swing, as more and more pilots recognise and appreciate the advantages of glass cockpits and digital instruments over the old instruments. Moreover, the value of an aircraft is increased not inconsiderably by such modernisation. 

The newest trends in aircraft modification, cabin refurbishments, and engine overhaul can be seen, among others, from 27th to 30th April at AERO Friedrichshafen, where major maintenance companies are exhibiting.

Closely related to the maintenance and overhaul of an aircraft is the issue of spare parts, which can lead to undesirable waiting times of several days or — if the part has to be specially manufactured — even several weeks, especially for older aircraft that are no longer in production. Especially when it comes to procuring rare parts, a good maintenance company network pays off for the customer. But, even today, the digital networking of maintenance companies is not universal. Companies that have not yet switched to fully digitalised goods management must take this overdue step quickly to be able to serve their customers promptly with the spare parts they need. 

Today, no company can stock all the necessary spare parts for all the aircraft types it supports. This would involve tying up far too much capital. But good networking with manufacturers and spare parts distributors is a worthwhile and profitable investment that pays off in terms of faster availability of spare parts for customers. 

That even a spare parts online shop is worthwhile is shown by the company Global Aviation + Piper Parts from Kassel-Calden. This German company always has more than 60,000 parts in its warehouse which can be ordered online. Global Aviation + Piper Parts is the largest distributor of original Piper spare parts in Europe. 

Focus on Sustainability

The maintenance industry is constantly changing. Although some of the aircraft in the sky today are over 40 or 50 years old, aviation is still an industry of innovation. This is also reflected in the maintenance industry. Maintenance organisations must never stop learning. They are looking for improved processes and ways of working to serve their customers faster and better. 

But they are also forced to adapt by new developments. One example is the goal of aviation to become more sustainable and drastically reduce CO2 emissions. For general aviation, many aircraft manufacturers and pilots alike believe that electric propulsion is a viable way to decarbonise aviation. 

The Pipistrel Velis Electro, the first all-electric powered aircraft, has already been certified by EASA and is currently being operated by various flying schools and aero clubs to test its suitability for everyday use. For the maintenance companies, such a change in propulsion technology means a complete reorientation. Technicians who previously worked on combustion engines have to completely relearn how to maintain and repair electric motors and the associated systems such as batteries and controllers.

This requires the companies to invest heavily in the training and further education of their staff, but also in new tools and test equipment. 

Investing in Skills

Finding qualified personnel is becoming increasingly difficult for maintenance companies. Although it is easier for staff to move from one company to another, even internationally, thanks to common standards set by EASA in Europe, the pool for junior technicians is slowly drying up. This is not a national phenomenon, but one that affects maintenance operations throughout Europe. 

Training maintenance technicians is a lengthy process and although the chances of finding a secure, well-paid, and varied job are excellent, the word has not yet spread everywhere. A job in aircraft maintenance offers responsible tasks and rarely boredom. But it also demands constant training and regular renewal of employee licences. 

In its latest Pilot and Technician Outlook 2021 – 2040, Boeing projects that 626,000 new maintenance technicians will be needed for the commercial aviation sector alone. A lack of qualified personnel impairs the growth opportunities of the companies and thus the functioning of the entire industry. Because one thing is certain: aircraft cannot fly without competent maintenance. 

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