There were no cocktail parties or dinners at this year’s MRO Asia-Pacific trade conference, which, like dozens of other shows, was forced to cancel its in-person event and move everything online. And the messages from participants were mixed, with some saying the industry was in the worst of times while others, usually ones in markets with domestic commercial traffic like Japan, China and India, said they were muddling through the COVID-19 pandemic and were able to soldier on.
MROs that specialise in lease returns however said they were having to resort to virtual inspections with clients for planes coming off lease, interior specialists said they were seeing interest mainly in cabin decontamination while others added that airlines have been expressing interest in additional passenger-to-freighter conversions.
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In a recovery roundtable panel, Alan Tang, the general manager for MRO at HK Express, said his organisation was still facing a “challenging situation” and the “one question we have now is how we can get a better picture of what’s coming ahead in the next three to six months…do we park aircraft so we can reactivate them quickly or do we move them into storage.” Tang said the airline has about half its fleet “in active storage” so “if we need to reactivate them it will take three days or less”.
Andreas Meisel, CEO of China Aircraft Services (CASL), said his group was concentrating on Hong Kong-based customers, working on a parking programme for clients and said the group’s business aviation unit was “doing a lot of work”. Anand Bhaskar at Air Works in India said his company was “slightly better off in India thanks to domestic traffic” and thanks to the company’s defence MRO work as well. He said the company was helping customers with avionics upgrades as well as handling lease return inspections as Indian airlines transition from A320ceos to A320neos. He said “thankfully our heavy-check business on the commercial side is doing well” and the company’s “hangers are full”. “One more saving grace is our defence maintenance business and that is ensuring we keep smiles on our faces.”
MRO companies told the assembled online audience they were moving ahead with digitalisation efforts and with training in anticipation of an uptick in work if and when airlines start flying again, at least internationally. The companies also said they were not seeing airlines bring “work forward” because everyone is in a cash preservation mode” and most agreed that the MRO industry will get far worse before it get better.
On the engine side of the MRO market, OEMs and MRO companies alike said they were seeing “some signs” of recovery even though the first half of the year was down about 50 percent on engine flying hours. Asia-Pacific is a unique region because while it was one of the first to suffer from the pandemic, it also is one of the first to at least begin the recovery process in places like China and Japan where domestic markets are helping the industry stave off the worst of the shutdown in aviation.
“Regional markets are the healthiest markets we see at the moment,” said Alex Youngs at SandardAero. “Domestic aviation is still healthy. Airlines are looking at the cost of operations and focussing on how much it costs to get a plane up and flying. We see this in the US and Europe as well.”
Engine MROs and OEMs said the pandemic is changing the nature of the business as well with its effects on manpower with thousands of jobs being lost and potential hires looking elsewhere for jobs. It’s driving more digitalisation and engine data monitoring because of the difficulty in getting technicians across borders due to COVID-19 quarantines.
One positive report however, came from Jaap Beijer, president and CEO of MTU Maintenance Zhuhai, who said while the first quarter “for us was a big issue”, now the company is doing close to 100 percent business levels thanks to being located in China and working with Chinese domestic airlines. He added though, that he was “not confident” about the industry coming back in 2021 and said it will likely be at least 2022 or 2023 before MRO gets back to “normal”. After the pandemic was declared, Beijer said “we started with really strong measures to prevent the spread and have been very successful. We decided not to lay off anyone and decided to go into intensive training on new engine types and we burned off vacation. In October will go back to 100 percent work.”
Future aircraft interiors and MRO work on them also got a good hearing during the conference even though the panel was on the last day. Participants while passenger-to-freighter conversions were getting some interest in the field, most of their efforts were focussed on ensuring passengers, what few there are, were reassured that the cabins were clean. Participants also said some airlines were looking to use single-aisle plans on longer flights because of the dearth of paying passengers.
Kate Schaefer at Boeing in Dallas in the US said her team was looking at reconfiguring the Business Class seats on narrowbodies to make the seat “more of a pod-feel for privacy and protection” with other participants saying airline customers are looking for “short-term needs like antimicrobial coatings, UV lights” and other mechanisms to ensure a clean cabin.
Participants were, for the most part, in agreement that airlines are unlikely to change cabin density to allow for social distancing onboard the aircraft and instead were very focussed on things like seat dividers or screens or staggered seating. Each of those however, presents their own set of challenges like ensuring such protective measures can meet regulations on evacuations, turnaround times and weight limits that would either force an airline to cut cargo (not a good thing during this time when cargo makes money) and other concerns such as flammability. Touch-less functions were also hot topics with OEMs and MROs looking to develop non-contact lavatories and airlines perhaps moving faster on adding Wi-Fi to jets so passengers can use their own personal electronic devices (PEDs) to minimise contact with aircraft surfaces.