Airline maintenance facilities across the globe are still weathering the fallout from reduced passenger travel at the pandemic’s outset. For well over a year, until domestic passenger travel numbers returned to normal, a majority of airlines parked aircraft in the arid climates of states like Arizona and New Mexico.
Maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) facilities like Airborne Maintenance and Engineering Services (Airborne) then pivoted from their usual equal mix of passenger and freighter aircraft to a higher percentage of cargo planes filling the hangars to keep technicians on the books.
“Not a single direct employee lost their job,” said Jeff Becker, general manager of the Airborne facility in Tampa, Florida. “We didn’t reduce any wages or any benefits through the COVID year. That’s a tribute to the ATSG book of business.”
But as domestic passenger travel picked up in the summer of 2020, the reentry of those parked planes presented a new constraint.
“You can’t just walk out to an airplane in the desert, turn a key and fly off. It needs an extensive return-to-service check to pull the plane out of storage,” said Rob Hotchkiss, director of business development at Airborne, the MRO subsidiary of ATSG. “You’re catching up on a lot of the maintenance since the aircraft was in storage and getting the airplane in what’s called a ferry-able condition so the airline can move the airplane to its next scheduled maintenance visit.”
This increase of service demand and consequent component failures felt across the industry have only intensified after the closures of component repair shops when their bread-and-butter passenger aircraft work went offline. According to Mark Snook, general manager of the Airborne facility in Wilmington, Ohio, as passenger aircraft repair demand spikes, repair shops are struggling to get headcount back in, as well as the parts necessary to complete the repairs.
“There’s a lot of pressure applied both from the airline to the MRO and from the MRO to all of our vendors,” said Snook. “Everybody’s fighting the same struggle. We’ve definitely seen a slowdown in our ability to get parts in a timely manner.”
To make matters more interesting, when the passenger airline customers returned for these repairs, the fleet makeup might have changed with very little notice — from Boeing 767s to 757s, for example. While both airplanes are Boeing- and American-made, the maintenance requirement differences are staggering, said Hotchkiss.
“We’re consistently doing far more heavy and invasive maintenance on these airplanes now than usual,” said Hotchkiss. “There’s been a big change in our flexibility to meet the customer’s ever-changing flight schedules and demands in passengers and fleet types. All these airlines are rapidly reactivating their fleets to meet the changing demands.”
Airborne has two heavy maintenance facilities to meet the current demand — one in Wilmington that specializes in mainly Boeing aircraft. The second is in Tampa specializing in Airbus plus serving as home to PEMCO Conversions, a leading global narrowbody passenger-to-freighter conversion facility. While the Tampa facility commonly works on A321 passenger aircraft, PEMCO Conversions is in the process of completing its first A321 freighter conversion.
Across both facilities, Airborne performs direct maintenance for both passenger and cargo airlines, including Frontier, United Airlines, and ATSG’s sister airlines ATI, ABX Air and Omni. Airborne’s 40-year history also brings a vast engineering department to support aircraft on site around the world. What sets Airborne apart from competitors, however, is its on-site, 100,000-square-foot back-shop facility that houses both aircraft component repair and overhaul plus a full-service manufacturing facility.
“Our robust manufacturing capability isn’t integrated at most MRO operations,” said Kym Parks, director of marketing at ATSG. “It would be a completely separate business model for anybody else. Our MRO originally supported an airline which was Airborne Express. When they became a stand-alone maintenance organization, the engineering and manufacturing capacity was left in place. This decision gave Airborne a full-service manufacturing department coupled with an experienced engineering team that have the capability to reverse engineer aircraft parts to support the maintenance requirements of their customers. This is an incredible level of service to the maintenance customers of Airborne, considering that ordering a part from Boeing right now could take several months to receive and with older aircraft that operate in the air cargo sector the cost from Boeing can be an issue, too.”
While Airborne meets its maintenance turn time requirements by utilizing its robust manufacturing and engineering capabilities, the MRO industry at large is feeling the squeeze from a recruiting and operational capacity standpoint as it attempts to meet the bow wave of demand in getting passenger planes back in service. Airborne is faced with the same challenges in its network, which makes starting an aviation maintenance career at Airborne very attractive to recent graduates. Airborne offers opportunities for new hires to earn while they learn through both the structures and avionics technician training programs. These programs start them on a path to earning their A&P license while they work full time. The program includes a classroom segment, hands-on learning with an experienced mentor and finally on-the-job training to earn licensure. Airborne’s training program and experienced technician base make it a great opportunity for graduates at all levels.
“We remain competitive in the marketplace, and we strive to take on work that our customers need in order to meet market demands,” said Snook. “Maintaining industry standard cycle times and delivering a high-quality product — we take a lot of pride in accomplishing both for our customers.”