Can Engine MRO Keep Up? Airlines Race to Gear Up for Takeoff

Release date: 2024 March 26

The rhythmic roar of jet engines fills the air once more, a symphony of renewed activity as airlines take flight from the pandemic’s grip. But amidst the triumphant crescendo, a disquieting undercurrent hums – a potential bottleneck in the form of aircraft engine MRO capacity.

The desert sun of Amman, Jordan, witnessed a farewell some months ago. Rows of Airbus A320s, once the workhorses of SWISS International Airlines, stood dormant, their engines silent, a stark symbol of the pandemic’s grip on the aviation industry. Now, fast forward to the present and the sun still burns, yet a different kind of heat fills the atmosphere.

Just like before, the desert air simmers, but it’s the thrumming of revived engines that fills it this time. One by one, those same A320s taxi down the runway, their gleaming white fuselages emblazoned in the northern-style livery. This isn’t just some fancy victory lap, it isn’t just another takeoff either. It’s the final act in a story of grit.

The Wrench in the Works

With the return of the last A320, SWISS proudly declares its fleet – and its spirit – fully operational once more. The pandemic’s shadow may linger, but for the airline, this moment marks a triumphant return to the open skies.

This is the true story of a greasy, no-nonsense comeback to the business. The engines scream, as if in a celebration, a shared cue for the entire industry. After thousands of shinning birds, climbing back out of storage for the last twenty months, it’s finally their turn.

As travel demand rebounds, airlines are scrambling to get their grounded aircraft back in the air. While many airlines have successfully reactivated their fleets, a significant number remain parked in storage programs. According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), approximately 6,300 aircraft remained grounded globally in 2023, marking an 83% increase compared to pre-pandemic levels in 2019.

However, this figure is expected to nearly halve by the end of the year as aircraft operators gear up for the upcoming Northern Hemisphere summer travel season. Yet, as airlines ramp up operations, dusting off grounded planes and scheduling ambitious routes, a critical question arises: can the engine MRO industry keep pace with this rapid ascent?

The answer, unfortunately, is shrouded in uncertainty. A confluence of factors is threatening industry’s smooth climb. The reality looks dim as there is less skilled technicians to take care of the growing maintenance demands every day. The pandemic’s disruptive hand has heavily impaired an existing shortage, leaving airlines scrambling to fill crucial positions. Like a pit crew facing a critical race yet lacking the specialized mechanics to service their high-performance engine, the entire industry is sharing the same uncertain future. That’s the precarious situation airlines find themselves in, with the potential for delayed departures and grounded fleets.

Echoes of Disruption: Supply Chains Continue to Hinder

The echoes of supply chain disruptions continue to reverberate, with essential engine parts becoming elusive. Some engine parts are so scarce, prices have driven up significantly, which renders them unaffordable for some budget-conscious operators. Such scarcity of parts transforms routine maintenance into a high-stakes gamble, where each missing piece becomes a precarious puzzle, threatening to unravel into costly disruptions.

This is also the reality for engine MRO providers, where missing parts can cause delays in aircraft servicing and potentially prolong the grounding of planes. These delays ripple through the system, impacting airline schedules and ultimately, passenger experiences.

As production shifts towards newer models, the availability of components and expertise for maintaining mature engines can dwindle. This can lead to longer downtime for aircraft awaiting repairs, impacting airline schedules and potentially compromising safety. Additionally, the limited availability of spare parts for older engines can drive up their cost, further straining airline budgets.

The recent resurfacing of issues with Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 engines are about to also have their effect on the engine MRO market. Airlines like Air New Zealand, forced to ground flights due to a shortage of serviceable Trent 1000s, highlight the challenges.

Normally, these engines undergo heavy maintenance every 1000 cycles, requiring removal from the aircraft and inspection by the original equipment manufacturer (OEM), Rolls-Royce. However, recent discoveries indicate a need for more frequent maintenance, as low as 750 to 850 cycles and Rolls-Royce could not have been ready to provide enough spare or replacement engines. Airlines are left with the difficult choice of reducing flights utilizing Trent 1000-powered Boeing 787s.

A Scramble for Solutions

Meanwhile, the GEnx engine, a competitor to the Trent 1000, stands to gain some short-term advantages. Airlines seeking replacements or planning future purchases might show heightened interest in the GEnx due to its perceived reliability.  Furthermore, manufacturers like GE Aviation, which produces the GEnx engine, could potentially command higher lease rates due to the increased demand for dependable alternatives.

The technical challenges faced by new generation engines highlight the need for a balanced approach to engine development and fleet management. While innovation is crucial for advancements in fuel efficiency and environmental sustainability, it is equally important to prioritize the smooth transition and continued support for the existing fleet.

When technical problems arise in new engines, it can delay their widespread adoption and extend the reliance on older, mature engines. This puts pressure on these existing engines, increasing their flight hours and potentially exceeding their originally intended lifespan. Of course, rigorous maintenance programs can mitigate this issue, but it also leads to increased costs associated with more frequent inspections and component replacements for mature engines.

But airlines aren’t simply waiting for the storm to pass. They’re engaged in a frantic scramble to upskill and attract new talent, partnering with educational institutions and offering lucrative training programs. Both maintenance service providers, as well as major airlines are launching aggressive talent acquisition campaigns, akin to sports teams scouting for the next generation of star mechanics.

A Race Against Time

Of course, automation still rises as a potential solution, with robotics and advanced diagnostics promising to streamline processes and enhance efficiency. It’s like robots taking over repetitive tasks such as engine inspections, allowing human technicians to focus on more complex repairs. Engine MRO providers are also embarking on ambitious expansion plans, adding facilities and capabilities to meet the burgeoning demand. All around the world new MRO hangars being built, often along with expanding an airport’s maintenance facilities to accommodate an increased number of aircraft.

However, the road ahead is fraught with challenges. Time is a precious commodity in this race against capacity constraints. Expanding facilities and training a new generation of engine technicians is a long-term endeavor, not a quick fix. The tug-of-war for skilled workers rages on, with other industries offering equally enticing prospects.

It is true that airlines are competing with other sectors for the same talent pool, just as companies vying for top engineers in a competitive job market. And geopolitical and economic uncertainties cast a shadow, forcing airlines and MRO to navigate this race amidst global events that can disrupt supply chains and workforce availability.

While these challenges are significant, several strategies can help mitigate their impact. Engine manufacturers can prioritize rapid fixes and upgrades for new engines, restoring confidence and ensuring timely availability of replacements. Additionally, they can offer extended warranties and support programs for mature engines, ensuring airlines have access to necessary resources for maintenance and repairs.

Furthermore, airlines can explore alternative solutions like engine leasing or pooling arrangements, allowing them to access spare mature engines when needed. Investing in training programs for technicians to maintain both mature and new generation engines can also ensure a skilled workforce equipped to handle the evolving landscape. Additionally, airlines and engine MRO providers joining forces to share knowledge and resources could pave the way for a smoother future.

A Defining Chapter Unfolds

In the light of such developments, the coming months can be a defining chapter for the aviation industry. Whether engine MRO manages to overcome the capacity hurdle and ensure smooth takeoffs, or whether airlines face frustrating delays and grounded fleets, remains to be seen. One thing is certain: the industry is engaged in a crucial race against time, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. The outcome will impact not just airlines and their passengers, but also the broader aviation ecosystem, with consequences for global travel and economic activity.

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