Bangkok Airways' Ambitious Plans For MRO Expansion

Credit: Bangkok Airways

Christophe Clarenc, senior vice president of maintenance and engineering at Bangkok Airways, talks to James Pozzi about its plans to insource more MRO work while expanding predictive maintenance.

What are some of the key elements of Bangkok Airways’ maintenance strategy?

Our first strategy is to invest in our team. We have a core team that has been with us for a very long time, with a low turnover, and this gives us a good level of experience and valuable expertise, even more so as the two families of aircraft we operate have been with us for a significant amount of time. We then invest in training to make sure that the new staff can grow in a satisfactory way to support the core team. This staff retention and investment in staff development are central to everything we do. We are strong believers that the quality of our staff is the most important factor for us to succeed. We also believe this is what helps us to remain relatively lean. We maintain a fleet of 40 aircraft with a team of 400 total, including line maintenance, base maintenance, shops, store, purchasing and repairs, CAMO, admin, finance, and even some asset-management activities.

What are your arrangements in terms of insourcing maintenance work and outsourcing your requirements?

We insource as much as possible, whenever it makes sense from a value--for-money standpoint and when the initial capital investment is reasonable, and whenever we believe we can find qualified staff to correctly implement the new activities. If required, we hire staff to cope with the additional capabilities. It may complicate our job, but in our opinion it gives us better control over turnaround times and quality and more flexibility. 

Whenever we outsource, we favor regional solutions as much as we can: We save on logistics and reduce the risk of a much-needed part being offloaded at a transit airport somewhere. When we outsource, we are very flexible with regard to the type of contract we sign, based on what we believe is the best choice for the equipment to be repaired, and in most cases we initially go with flexible short- or mid-term contracts. We would go into longer-term arrangements only once the supplier has demonstrated its worth. We may go with OEMs or independent MROs.

Bangkok Airways operates a mixed fleet of Airbus A320 and ATR turboprop aircraft. Credit: Nigel Howarth/AW&​​​​ST

What does Bangkok Airways look for in a maintenance partner, be it an MRO, a tooling supplier or a logistics company?

Reliability, quality and value for money. We may not go for the cheapest option if we are not comfortable that it can deliver the quality and reliability we seek, so we prefer to aim for value for money instead of the lowest price. We don’t want to go cheap if we might end up with more aircraft on ground or compliance issues. We also expect flexibility from the MRO when we are discussing contractual terms, and we value fairness very highly.

In 2018, Bangkok Airways announced plans to build an MRO center at Sukhothai. What is the latest on this project?

The plan is still on and making progress. We had more difficulties than originally envisaged to complete the paperwork required for such a project, and we have also considered other locations besides Sukhothai. This has been causing some delays, but we are definitely going to build a hangar to serve our own fleet and also to resume providing services to third parties.

What are some of the main challenges for your maintenance operation?

The main challenges I would say are to find qualified manpower in Thailand and to work in a rapidly evolving regulatory and compliance context. The Thai Department of Civil Aviation disappeared following some issues with the International Civil Aviation Organization, so the Civil Aviation Authority of Thailand (CAAT) started up and with it many new requirements with short implementation times, to implement changes rapidly and efficiently. The pace of change in the industry is accelerating, and people do not like change.

Which new technologies is Bangkok Airways looking at for its maintenance processes?

We have been trying a solution for predictive maintenance on our Airbus fleet, but we just suspended it last month. The concept is very good, and we are strong believers in it, but the implementation was a major disappointment. Algorithms were few and of poor quality, and overall we got no benefit from this experiment. We are convinced that data analysis tools can bring benefits and have been using Skywise Core extensively to look into our data, using their analysis to improve our processes and all our activities, with applications ranging from better identification of recurring defects to better hangar-check planning and management, or proactive maintenance. The difficulty is to find people who understand maintenance and data mining and analysis well enough, and to change the mindset of the staff who have been doing maintenance jobs the same way for years—all of a sudden, we are going to tell them we are going to make big changes to their processes.

How is Bangkok Airways investing in IT for its MRO operation?

We have an approach that is conservative in one way and open-minded and very active in another way. We did not invest in a fancy, complete and expensive management information system (MIS), as they are very costly and maybe not necessary for us up to now, considering our size. We also carefully avoided having the company enterprise resource planning present everywhere in our MRO operation as it is too heavy and too rigid. But we developed a lot of in-house solutions to address our specific problems and help us improve our processes. These solutions in several cases have been developed by complementing the capability of our existing MIS with the data analysis capabilities of Skywise Core to give us the exact tools or reports we wanted. The savings from not buying the fancy and expensive MIS were invested instead in training. We prefer a skillful driver in a Toyota Corolla rather than a mediocre one driving a fancy car!

What strategies are you using to acquire skilled MRO technicians?

The airline industry has been growing a lot in Thailand over the past decade, and the schools producing MRO technicians did not keep up with this growth or do much to improve their curricula. So basically, we hire mostly technicians fresh from school and invest a lot in their training and education. We have had our own internal challenges, too: In the past, we inducted very low numbers of new staff every year, so on-the-job training was a very good solution because we had very few new staff surrounded by experienced technicians. Then we grew faster, hired more, some of the experienced guys retired or left, and so we had a lot of new staff with fewer experienced guys around them. We had to develop more systematic knowledge-sharing or training processes. We could no longer let it happen naturally, by immersion so to speak, and we also had to carefully document the training process to accommodate the new requirements of the International Air Transport Association Operational Safety Audit and CAAT. So we had to change our training very significantly.

How has the MRO business been built up considering the fleet expansion and the introduction of more ATR 72 aircraft?

Our MRO business has not been built up and has suffered tremendously from the fleet expansion. Simply put, our current facility is not even big enough to serve our own fleet. We have had to contract out some hangar checks over the past two years, and we also had to stop working on third-party components. The only positive in this current situation, where we are forced to outsource some airframe maintenance, is that it provides us with a very valuable benchmarking opportunity. We can learn from others, and we are trying to look at them with an open mind. But the goal is to resume our MRO business once our new hangar is up and running. We do have the team and the tools. Once we have the facility, we have everything we need to resume the business, and we have every intention of doing so because we believe we can offer something different. We will never be able to compete with the big guys in the business, but we have experience and expertise, and we can maybe give more attention and care to the smaller customers than the big guys do. We brand ourselves as the boutique airline, so maybe we will be a boutique MRO, too.

Are you looking to insource any maintenance work or will you look to further outsource?

Insource. First, take back in all of the base maintenance as soon as our facilities allow that and continue to grow the capability list of our shops whenever we see the opportunity. 

Bangkok Airways Fact Box

Fleet: Approximately 40 aircraft, consisting of Airbus A320s and ATR 72-500s and -600s.

In-house Capabilities: Airframe maintenance for ATR and A320-family aircraft. Repair capabilities for wheels and brakes and batteries. Non­destructive testing; some electrical and mechanical parts repairs; some borescope inspections of cabin, safety equipment and propellers; quick engine changes; and a composite repair shop.

In-House vs. Outsourced Maintenance: 80% in-house, 20% outsourced (intending to bring all work in-house as soon as possible). One-third of component work is done in-house.

Hangars and Line Stations: One hangar at Don Mueang International Airport; a second at Sukhothai Airport expected in early 2022. Line stations at Bangkok Suvarnabhumi, Samui International, Phuket International and Chiang Mai International airports in Thailand and Phnom Penh International Airport in Cambodia.

James Pozzi

As Aviation Week's MRO Editor EMEA, James Pozzi covers the latest industry news from the European region and beyond. He also writes in-depth features on the commercial aftermarket for Inside MRO.