MROs Find Silver Linings During COVID-19 Crisis

Duncan Aviation hangar
Credit: Duncan Aviation

As the novel coronavirus pandemic continues to disrupt business in the aviation industry, some MROs and specialized service providers are finding ways to press on with operations—as well as some silver linings.

At Flying Colours Corp., which provides MRO for business aircraft at locations in Canada, the U.S. and Singapore, some projects have been delayed, but it is still mainly conducting maintenance and repairs as planned. “We imagine that we may have to maximize the opportunities of having locations either side of the Canada/U.S. border,” says Eric Gillespie, executive vice president, Flying Colours Corp. “Some aircraft due to come to one site may now have work undertaken at the sister site.”

The company is also implementing a variety of safety measures to protect employees while business continues to operate, including increased working from home, social distancing, hand sanitization stations and thorough cleaning of aircraft that are in for service.

KF Aerospace, which provides both cargo operations and MRO, has seen additional cargo volumes that it predicts have likely been driven by increased online shopping. However, due to a reduction in airline maintenance work, it is transferring staff to its conversion program to expedite aircraft deliveries to customers.

KF Aerospace cargo conversion
Credit: KF Aerospace

“There have been numerous cancellations for heavy maintenance; however, some of our customers have the foresight and the resources to continue some of their maintenance programs in an effort to avoid the capacity crunch when the pandemic subsides, and to be ready to capture the increase in demand when it transpires,” says Bryan Akerstream, director of business development, KF Aerospace. “This maintenance work combined with our cargo modification program has been a tremendous help.”

According to Akerstream, KF Aerospace has also implemented Canadian Health recommendations to keep employees safe and limit the spread of COVID-19. “This includes social distancing, working from home where possible and reducing the risk of cross-contamination by restricting travel between hangars, off-setting shift changes, etc. This has had a significant impact on how we work on a daily basis,” he says.

For Duncan Aviation, which operates a wide variety of MRO, avionics and engine rapid response facilities across the U.S., business is continuing to operate at full staff. According to Jeff Lake, chief operating officer of the company’s Lincoln, Nebraska facility, Duncan Aviation has some additional capacity to help operators interested in taking advantage of aircraft downtime by moving maintenance or other projects up in schedule. The MRO is also reducing certain expenses and delaying capital purchases in the short term, although Lake says these reductions will not negatively impact customer service, delivery turn-times or the company’s ability to meet long-term goals.

Starting this month, Duncan Aviation is offering an aircraft disinfection service for operators scheduled at its main MRO facilities. Aircraft are both disinfected upon arrival and before delivery using the AeroClave RDS 3110 decontamination system. The company has ordered additional disinfectant units and plans to offer the service through its satellite avionics shops and at customer locations in the coming weeks.

Duncan Aviation sews medical masks
Credit: Duncan Aviation

Lake says Duncan Aviation has also begun manufacturing protective masks in-house for both its own employees and for area hospitals and medical facilities. Using instructions from a hospital in Lincoln, Nebraska, the upholstery team created patterns for two mask designs and digitized them for cutting at a rate of approximately 100 units per hour. Duncan Aviation’s upholstery teams in Lincoln; Battle Creek, Michigan and Provo, Utah have been sewing the masks for internal use and additional masks for medical facilities are being sewn by volunteers from area churches. According to Lake, Duncan Aviation is now looking into production of other items in critical need, such as medical bonnets and gowns.

Also indirectly supporting workers on the front line of the coronavirus crisis has been rotable parts provider AirStart, which supplies critical components for aircraft that fly passengers, freight and medevac—including some relief agencies. According to Anne Vinet, executive vice president, marketing and business development, AirStart has seen a shift in demand, with customers deferring normal purchases but purchasing material for heavy checks and some critical flights.

Vinet says AirStart shifted to remote work for office staff six weeks ago and employees in its logistics facilities have been implementing social distancing and equipment sterilization protocols. While the situation is obviously not ideal, she says it has been an opportunity to reinforce and expand AirStart’s digital and mobile capabilities.

“We adapted very quickly—from all of our meetings migrating to Zoom or Microsoft Teams, daily check-ins with all team members, rolling 12-week cash flow forecasts, reaching out to trading partners and vendors such as landlords keeping them apprised of the situation, and negotiating for better payment terms during this crisis,” she says. “In a way, it forces us to be more creative in our way of thinking and operating.”

Betting on companies shifting to more creative, digital operations are technology startups within the MRO landscape. Israeli startup Pzartech, which has developed a machine-learning based digital tool for part recognition, sees the situation as a bit of a mixed bag.

“We have quite a few projects that were postponed with obviously no mention about when they will return, so it’s been a bit of a disaster. But on the other side, what has been interesting in terms of business development is that people are a lot more available than they used to be, so it has enabled us to reach out to people and identify potential new opportunities,” says Jeremie Brabet-Adonajlo, founder and CEO, Pzartech. “I guess time will tell if they are real opportunities or if they will be killed with the whole industry during this crisis.”

Pzartech digital tool recognition
Credit: Pzartech

Brabet-Adonajlo is hopeful that airline operations will return to normal soon based on the COVID-19 timeline and how China is beginning to recover, but he is still worried about the impact on business—particularly since Pzartech’s technology is aimed at raising productivity. According to Brabet-Adonajlo, clients are telling him that what they are struggling with right now is not improving technician productivity, but simply to keep them working at all.

However, one digital startup aimed at maintenance efficiencies is actually seeing increased interest from prospective customers, as well as increased usage by existing customers. AireXpert, which provides software to streamline communications during maintenance events to accelerate aircraft return to service, has seen an increase in activity that CEO Andy Hakes says is even greater than anticipated.

“What we’re seeing is that leading up to this crisis, airlines and MROs were really starting to feel the pain of the skills shortage and were starting to wrap their heads around how they could do more with less,” says Hakes. “Now that this crisis has controlled every single decision, airlines are doubling down on the spending cuts. Most management teams will admit that they waste a lot of money, but it’s not that easy for them to eliminate the waste without causing more pain.”

According to Hakes, existing AireXpert customers are now becoming more reliant on the system for compliance purposes and there has been increased adoption by airlines looking to reduce spending. He believes the coronavirus situation will likely push more operations to tools that provide better efficiencies.

“Virtually every company that operates or supports aircraft will eventually adopt a real-time collaboration system, it’s guaranteed. If your competition is operating in real-time and you’re content with managing your business via email, it’s easy to figure out who wins,” he says. “The ability to communicate effectively across an entire networked operation is a huge asset if you have it and a costly liability if you don’t.”

At AirStart, Vinet believes the company is well positioned to thrive again once the industry begins its recovery. “There is no question that all MRO aftermarket companies are—and will continue to be—affected for months to come. Companies that are over leveraged will feel the most exposure. Companies that have good assets, recurring cash flow and, most of all, great teams will bounce back after one financial quarter,” she says.

However, this may also prove an opportunity for companies to set themselves apart. “This is the time that companies’ reputations are being formed, and people have long memories in aviation,” says Vinet. “Those that have helped customers will be remembered and rewarded in the future.”

Lindsay Bjerregaard

Lindsay Bjerregaard is managing editor for Aviation Week’s MRO portfolio. Her coverage focuses on MRO technology, workforce, and product and service news for, Aviation Week Marketplace and Inside MRO.