Fast 5: STS Ramps Up In Birmingham For Commercial, Military Lines

About one year since STS Aviation took ownership of the former Monarch Aircraft Engineering hangar in Birmingham, Mick Adams, CEO of STS Aviation Services, tells James Pozzi about the facility’s progress over the past 12 months and how it has split commercial and military MRO work at the UK site in 2020.

It’s been around one year since STS officially acquired the former Monarch Aircraft Engineering hangar in Birmingham. Has the ramp up of the facility moved on schedule or perhaps faster than anticipated? 

We are absolutely where we want to be in terms of engineer headcount, in both touch labor and certifying engineers—this stands at about 70 to 80 people. Despite the obvious challenges brought by COVID-19, it has been a very targeted and specific recruitment initiative that has attracted many high-caliber people. Bringing in years of experience to help set up a business that operates like a start-up has been particularly important. 

For commercial aviation, we have added more aircraft types over the course of the year than we initially thought one year ago; mainly driven by market demand on next-generation aircraft like the Boeing 787. We have also maintained our capabilities for legacy aircraft, although I expect this to shift to more next-generation fleets as operators make the switch. 

There was also significant investment in tooling and machinery to the tune of several millions of pounds this year. In January 2021, we will start another straight line of C-check maintenance, which we hope to continue throughout the year. 

Securing the Boeing Wedgetail project in May, which was a long way off when opening the facility in early 2020, has also really helped change the pace of things. 

What more can you tell us about the Boeing Defence UK line STS is conducting in Birmingham, which will see the company work on the Royal Air Force’s future fleet of five 737NG-based E-7A Wedgetail surveillance aircraft?

Attaining the Military Aviation Authority-145 accreditation meant building a lot of infrastructure with the hangar segregated into two areas; one for commercial work and the other for military but both with extensive workshop capabilities. We had planned to do all these things in Birmingham, but perhaps not as quickly as we did. 

The Boeing agreement is a five-year contract that will comfortably take up 50% of the Birmingham hangar’s capacity, with the remaining capacity available for the commercial sector. To that end, we have recruited specific skills and capabilities to support this program. This type of work is not what I consider as straightforward MRO, but more production MRO.

Last year, STS also acquired Apple Aviation’s business, which includes a hangar in Newquay, where it offers base and line maintenance services. How has this hangar performed in 2020, and how is it working in synergy with your Birmingham operation?

The Newquay facility has been busy with the care, maintenance and storage of a significant number of aircraft; particularly those owned by lessors. There has also been some teardown work taking place, including work on phasing out British Airways’ 747s with eCube, whom we’ve partnered with for this work. 

While Birmingham has seen modest MRO volumes to begin with on the commercial and military lines, the Newquay hangar was already established and has seen things pick up very quickly. This has meant increasing the permanent headcount at that location, and this will continue into 2021. We also plan to increase engine shop facilities, which is focused more on areas such as component changes and borescope inspections. Newquay will keep its attention on some of this lighter engine work rather than venture into heavier things like complete overhauls.  

Has COVID-19 impacted the supply chains you operate within? What sort of challenges has this created?

Our supply chain partners have worked incredibly hard to help us get set up in Birmingham, as this is essentially an 18-month program condensed into a period of about six months. The downside, however, is that with a squeezed timescale, we have had to run a number of time pressured tenders. In addition, being in a niche market, there’s not a lot of suppliers out there for specific types of components or systems. Given these limitations, trust in long-term relationships has been very important between the company and its suppliers. The real impact of COVID has been felt by supply chains, and we have had to increase our procurement teams during this time to help deliver.

What are STS’s plans in Europe for 2021?

Being busy during COVID meant accelerating the integration with our three STS-owned companies in Shannon, Ireland. These companies are in the process of amalgamating into one business to become an extension of STS Aviation Services. After this, the Ireland team will be further integrated into STS’ broader European business. One of the drivers of this merger is the offering of complimentary services. For instance, the C-check line of commercial maintenance that will begin in January next year will bring our fuel tank specialist unit in Shannon to Birmingham to undertake tank-related work. This is driven by their experience having that certain skill set. 

Beyond that, line maintenance is an area of attention for us in 2021. We have opened several UK-based line stations this year, with Birmingham being one of the latest locations. STS Aviation Group has one of the largest line maintenance footprints in North America, and we would like to mirror that to some degree in Europe. The key value proposition for this is the long-haul market, particularly on aircraft operating transatlantic routes from Europe to the U.S, which will hopefully start showing signs of recovery over the next one to two years.

James Pozzi

As Aviation Week's European MRO editor, 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.