Business Aviation MRO Seeing Upticks In Particular Areas
Although reduced travel during the COVID-19 pandemic has cut down on demand for business aviation MRO, the aftermarket is seeing promising growth thanks to some unexpected opportunities.
Moving into the new year, business aviation’s flight hours are approaching numbers much closer to normal than the bleak drop-off they saw at the height of the pandemic, with private aviation companies like NetJets reporting that they are now operating 85% of typical flight demand compared to only 10% of normal volume at the start of the pandemic. According to privately owned business jet MRO Duncan Aviation, some of this recovery is due to business travelers abandoning commercial flights in favor of aircraft ownership options.
“[Within] the charter business, some of those customers are having the best year they’ve ever had. Some of the fractionals have been doing very well, and so I think what we’re seeing is new entrants into our industry” says Jeff Lake, president of Duncan Aviation. “Some people are getting into an aircraft they didn’t own before, or maybe they’re getting into a fractional or charter situation, and our pre-buy activity has been very strong this year.”
According to Jet Aviation, which provides maintenance and charter services worldwide, the pandemic has highlighted the flexibility, safety and convenience of business aviation. “This past year, we’ve seen a significant increase in charter inquiries across the board, particularly from customers that previously traveled first class for long-haul flights,” says Norbert Ehrich, vice president flight services, EMEA, Jet Aviation.
At NetJets, new customer inquiries increased 195% year over year in June, which it says was its largest month ever for new owner relationships. In October, it had welcomed three times the number of new owners compared to the same period in 2019. NetJets attributes this record-breaking activity to reduced commercial airline schedules and customer concerns about health and safety.
These safety concerns have also driven significant growth for business MRO providers in installations of products such as the Aviation Clean Air (ACA) Ionization Purification System, which actively kills pathogens while neutralizing potentially harmful gases, volatile organic compounds and odors. Both Jet Aviation and Duncan Aviation have been busy installing the system for customers across their networks, and Lake notes that Duncan Aviation is seeing quote requests for ACA installations nearly as often as it is seeing quote requests for Wi-Fi installations.
“Every conversation we have about interiors now includes discussion about the Aviation Clean Air Ionization units,” notes Kevin Kliethermes, director of sales at MRO provider Flying Colours Corp. “We’ve already fitted them on a number of Challenger aircraft and have more in the pipeline.”
Kliethermes notes that safety concerns are also driving interest in conversions for corporate shuttles. “We’ve had a number of inquiries from customers that are looking at acquiring regional jets that have been grounded and are now up for sale and converting them into shuttles that will replace routes that have been cancelled by commercial airlines,” he says, adding that Flying Colours has also seen interest in medevac conversion options.
While travel restrictions and reduced flying hours in 2020 caused some customers to delay maintenance activities, the situation has also driven some to move maintenance schedules forward to take advantage of downtime. Customers at Duncan Aviation, Flying Colours Corp and Jet Aviation have been opting to combine scheduled maintenance work with discretionary spending in areas like paint work and installations of the ACA system and connectivity systems.
Kliethermes says all of Flying Colours Corp’s 120- and 240-month checks have “invariably” had a connectivity system upgrade included during the downtime and Ka-band installations have been extremely popular. According to Duncan Aviation, connectivity installations were robust in 2020 and helped to “fill the void” of ADS-B installations, which comprised a large portion of its avionics work up through the Jan. 1, 2020 deadline.
Business aviation MROs have also been seeing an unexpected boost in the workforce pool, which previously suffered because of strong competition from the commercial MRO sector. In 2020 some aviation maintenance technician schools such as the Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics saw more job opportunities for students in smaller markets such as general aviation and charter carriers, and Jet Aviation says it has seen a “significant number of applications” across its regions and lines of business in recent months.
“We’re not competing so much now with the commercial side from that aspect,” notes Chad Doehring, Duncan Aviation’s chief operating officer in Provo, Utah. “That demand was so huge [in 2019] from the commercial side that it was quite honestly taking up the applicant pool that may have been there for us. So we’ve taken advantage of that and we’ve actually made some really good hires through the pandemic, because those applicants were there and they’re accessible as well.”