How European LCCs Are Planning For Post-pandemic MRO
As 2022 enters its final months, Europe’s airlines are better able to assess where the recovery is headed while assessing how this will play out next year. Passenger traffic has come back in Europe this year compared to the previous two as cross-border restrictions further eased and more aircraft left storage and returned to service.
At the forefront of the travel upturn have been the continent’s low-cost carriers (LCC), which have benefited from the renewed desire for air travel. At Aviation Week’s MRO Europe in London in October, three of Europe’s largest LCCs shared their insights about how they are reevaluating their maintenance strategies and where their priorities lie in terms of recruitment, sustainability initiatives and new technology investments.
Over the past year, how have your maintenance strategies been refined or altered?
Boris Rogoff, technical director at Vueling: We [at Vueling] worked with our partner Iberia Maintenance on heavy maintenance to develop their facilities in Barcelona. That’s been successful, as it helped us gain more control at our main base. Second, we’ve also insourced our material management requirements. We renegotiated most of our contracts to again ensure further control over that. The trend is for insourcing, and we will look to continue to do this opportunistically. Of course, there will still be critical mass where we still rely on outside departments. We’ve also worked heavily on improving our digital maintenance. This includes migrating to AMOS mobile to enable digital signatures. We focused heavily on improving collaboration on the IT side of the operation, and so far this has paid off. But the work hasn’t stopped.
Julia Brix, head of technical services at Wizz Air: It’s been very challenging here [at Wizz Air]. The industry has suffered from the extended periods of disruption across their operations and especially on the people side. This year, there’s a load of new people entering the business and learning new processes from scratch, both on the airline and MRO side of the operation and helping fill the gaps. In terms of fleet size, Wizz Air is now 40% bigger than it was pre-pandemic. This fleet growth has coincided with an economically stagnant period where much of the industry was stopping business and trying to save money wherever they could. Also, the spare money that was still in the market was not really invested into bigger projects going forward.
Right now, industry is operating against the backdrop of a disrupted environment. Safety and reliability are still the two key factors in our industry. The first is no compromise, but reliability has been a big challenge in the industry. This year, we’ve had a lot of consequences coming out of the geopolitical or political circumstances that we face. Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, we were making investments in Ukraine. The conflict has had a long-term impact in terms of all the traffic around Ukraine and the congestion of that airspace. The recovery in the industry is taking shape, but this recovery is about finding the right balance of how to fix a problem short-term and how [to] fix it long-term.
Brendan McConnellogue, director of engineering and maintenance at EasyJet: Very early on during the pandemic, we [at EasyJet] set out a strategy where we maintained the fleet to ensure it stayed in a flight-ready condition. So when the recovery started, we were ready to go and were among the first back flying. This year, issues such as Ukraine, the pandemic and even the impact of Brexit have had some form of impact, but there are also lots of other issues to consider. These include access to skilled people, particularly in engineering, and the impact of disruptions to MRO partners in our supply chain.
From a technical point of view, we’ve seen our Part 21 team improve in some areas based on the work we carried out during the downtime. We took advantage of the pandemic period to do some insourcing activity ourselves in our line maintenance operations. Doing this isn’t a strategic challenge for us, but it’s purely about exploring the right value propositions for us to take. Overall, we’ve been happy with our technical performance, but there are certainly more challenges to come going into next year.
Now that airline passenger routes are opening in Europe again, what areas are you prioritizing in terms of maintenance?
McConnellogue: For EasyJet, both retaining and attracting staff will be key priorities. This isn’t simply about increasing activities such as more in-sourcing but growing the workforce to deal with the existing operation. It’s also about attracting new talent into the company to replace what we know is an aging workforce. We are getting more retirees partly because of the pandemic, which led to many people rethinking their careers. It’s so important that we retain people in the industry while also attracting new people into it. This will likely be our focus on the technical side of the operation heading into 2023. Now salaries are a hot topic considering the high inflation we’ve seen recently in the UK. However, finding solutions to this is not purely about salaries. The focus also needs to be on developing people within the business and offering them further opportunities. It’s engaging with staff and showing them that there’s a career at the airline as opposed to just a job.
Julia, what are you seeing in terms of recruitment challenges at Wizz Air? What factors are impacting this?
Brix: The airline itself has hired around 2,500 people in the past three years, and the whole feeling when we recruit is not entirely focused on salaries but more about selling a career and the idea of being able to fulfill a perspective. Another factor to consider is sustainability and how much this matters, especially to the younger- generation employees. It’s important for a business to identify how it is collaborating in making the world better. From the maintenance perspective, we are a fully outsourced model without any in-house maintenance. What we feel is important for us as a strong European airline is enabling our partners, including our maintenance providers, to overcome their biggest problems in terms of investment and growth. We’re thinking about investing more into the infrastructure to maintain the network, but we are not planning to take over any business from that network in terms of insourcing because when you do this, it means in-sourcing some of the same issues that we see from the outside. There are still challenges ahead, but the way we approached the market in terms of maintenance staff and selling maintenance services didn’t change too much.
Boris, how is Vueling navigating the MRO labor market in Spain and factoring sustainability into its operation?
Rogoff: Like Julia and Wizz Air, we also have a reliance on our partners in this area, and it’s certainly something we look for when selecting them. There are two important factors: first, bringing new people into the industry to develop and eventually replace the aging workforce; second is to begin to build efficiencies across the business. Our partners have also focused on this because it’s not just bringing in more people but also about improving processes and procedures. But this must come from both sides. In Spain particularly, the labor market has been OK and hasn’t presented any major problems, but longer-term impacts could present themselves in MRO. Sustainability is a big deal for Vueling. At a corporate level, there’s a lot of effort being put into this. In terms of maintenance, we’ve looked at everything we can to help sustainability, from engine washes to reducing our use of paper. Currently, we are also looking at our fleet and some of the older aircraft.
How are your supply chains holding up? Is there continuing disruption or more stability in 2022?
Rogoff: Like EasyJet, we had our fleet ready to go when things started to open. But there’s a lag in the system when it comes to the supply chain. In Europe, this is due to several reasons related to labor, the ongoing war in Ukraine and Brexit, among others. I would encourage MROs and parts suppliers to focus on building up capability in the supply chain because it’s lagging, and this is disappointing as we had made some good progress and were ready to go when things opened back up. Continued supply chain lagging will affect our performance. It’s a reality that a lot of turnaround times are slow, from major assemblies to parts pooling. From large projects to smaller ones, this is across the board.
Brix: There is a huge difference for [turnaround times] compared to what we were used to as an industry standard before, and this is something that needs to be tackled by the MROs immediately. The ones adding solutions for this issue first will be the ones who will succeed in the long run. What we are seeing right now is a constrained market. Obviously, it’s good for the MROs, as they’ve sold out, but on the other hand, there will be other competitors emerging over the next few years and taking hold of new market opportunities. When it comes to the supply chain in general, the slack in the system is driving down the performance of airlines. This is what we all need to focus on to get it back on track—OEMs, parts suppliers and MROs, in terms of the services they provide.