MROs Working To Improve Sustainability, But Hurdles Remain

sustainability leaves
From application of AeroShark coatings to installation of solar panels, MROs are finding ways to decrease emissions.
Credit: LEAF ART: Bogdan Populov/Getty Images. Photos (from Left): AELS, HAECO and Lufthansa Technik

The global air transport industry’s goal is net-zero emissions by 2050—but to achieve that, the industry must take more direct action soon.

The use of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) is a key pillar in achieving carbon neutrality, but its supply is limited, and it will take years to produce adequate amounts. In addition, a next-gen, clean-sheet aircraft will probably not be ready for service until 2035. That means that the industry needs to ask itself: “What can we do with the current technology over the next 15 years to make it more efficient,” says David Doyle, Lufthansa Technik’s vice president for corporate strategy. “What can we do now?”

A critical first step is for companies to measure their own baseline emissions accurately. That includes Scope 1 (direct greenhouse emissions that a company generates itself, from furnaces and vehicles, for example); Scope 2 (indirect emissions associated with energy purchases); and Scope 3 (emissions associated with its supply chain, including raw material extraction and transportation). Scope 3 is the biggest bucket and also the hardest to measure.

For the MRO industry, the largest piece of the “Reduce, Reuse and Recycle” green mantra is to reduce.

In-Service Fleet Actions

“We’re really trying to focus on the next 5-7 years, developing retrofit products or adapting the aircraft to reduce drag or weight” to improve fuel efficiency, Doyle says.

Examples include its AeroShark skin, a surface film Luft­hansa Technik developed with BASF, consisting of ribs measuring 50 micrometers designed to act like shark skin, which has desirable aerodynamic flow characteristics. Similarly, AeroShark is designed to reduce frictional resistance. Swiss International Air Lines is applying AeroShark to its fleet of 12 Boeing 777-300ERs during maintenance layovers. This riblet film should save Swiss 4,800 tons of fuel per year while reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 15,200 tons per year.

Lufthansa Technik also has several digital products, such as its engine fuel analyzer and engine performance management system, aimed at reducing CO2 emissions. Working across airline operations, flight ops and technical divisions to optimize procedures for sustainability led it to launch the Clean Tech Hub, which aims to accelerate the development of new tools. “We really believe that the combination of flight ops and tech ops on the digital side using the full flight data and algorithms that sit above the traditional operation systems [is] what will achieve 1-3% incremental changes,” Doyle says.

GOL Aerotech is also using digital tools to become more sustainable. It hopes to transition its maintenance operations to become paperless by installing EmpowerMX over the next 6-12 months. The Brazilian MRO expects this initiative to reduce its paper consumption by up to 85% for recording aircraft maintenance activities, says Fernando Miwa, GOL’s maintenance and engineering director.

Analyzing Parts and the Supply Chain

Boeing has used life-cycle analysis to drive its airplane development process for years, but it has “turned up the amperage” around its supply chain and what goes into each component and how it is produced, says Sheila Remes, Boeing’s vice president of environmental sustainability. She says that working with suppliers and thinking about what goes into each part has contributed to Boeing achieving net-zero emissions for Scope 1 and 2 categories in 2020. In addition to conservation efforts and renewable energy purchases, it also bought offsets to reach those objectives.

Parts repair, by its nature, means reusing material, but the impact of what goes into reworking a part is also being considered to support sustainability efforts.

Beyond the composition of parts, aftermarket companies are trying to be smarter about inventory planning, so fewer parts need to be produced. Unfortunately, these days just-in-time parts ordering often does not work, given pandemic-related supply chain bottlenecks. This ongoing situation puts a premium on finding supply and demand balance.

Lufthansa Technik is one company that is scrutinizing the need for new parts and finding ways to use fewer. “We believe the industry is over inventory 30-40%,” Doyle says. That overstocking is wasteful, requiring excess material to produce unneeded parts, while having parts just sitting on shelves also contributes to obsolescence.

Restructuring the logistics of moving parts to where they are needed can also provide sustainability benefits. “If you think about where the removal takes place and often where the engines are shipped in order to be repaired or overhauled, there is a huge footprint in doing that. So we’re trying to really be smarter in how we correlate the removal and the induction,” says Antony Szafranek, senior vice president for the Americas at Rolls-Royce.

In addition to minimizing use of new parts, GA Telesis is working with suppliers to consolidate shipments, which reduces downstream emissions from the supply chain, says Jason Reed, president of the company’s flight solutions group.

Greening the MRO Infrastructure

MROs and OEM aftermarket providers have also been greening their building operations—from using LED lights to installing solar panels.

HAECO recently finished the “largest single solar panel installation in Hong Kong, on our hangar roofs,” and the company “expects to see a big drop” in its summer electricity costs, says Chief Commercial Officer Richard Kendall.

Rolls-Royce’s UK facilities are fueled by 100% renewables, and solar installations meet the majority of its Singapore Seletar facilities’ power requirements, Szafranek says.

Joe Sylvestro, Pratt & Whitney’s senior vice president for aftermarket and sustainment operations, says that the OEM has been on a green journey for years and is seeing technology changing to make that process even easier. For instance, water reclamation used to require massive equipment, and now it is a smaller element in the engine cell. Filtration has also improved, so Pratt & Whitney uses more recycled water and generates less hazardous waste than it used to. It has installed solar arrays at its facilities in Singapore, Arkansas and West Palm Beach, Florida, too.

Pratt also has been running a couple of engine cells in its Industry 4.0 Connected Factory concept for about two years, giving it more accurate data about its factory operations, he says. By knowing how many machines are operating and when, it can adjust HVAC to reduce energy use when fewer are running.

GOL Aerotech also cites its effluent treatment plant that treats all the water from its operations, including those involving stripping paint from aircraft.

When GA Telesis implemented ISO 14000, the environmental management standard, in 2021, it had to examine what each facility used—from oil and electrical consumption to paper. “There are guidelines in my building and KPIs [key performance indicators] behind all that to make sure that we’ve reduced everything, and we have,” Reed says.

Frank Stevens, vice president for global MRO centers for Embraer Service & Support, says the OEM’s facilities are also reducing energy through use of technologies like LED lighting, but “we’re also doing simple things like opening up the hangar doors to let air and light in.” Simple steps, such as turning off lights and unplugging equipment not in use can also help.

For hangar operations, electric tugs are increasingly being used to cut emissions related to repositioning aircraft. Embraer’s corporate aviation division has completed conversion to electric tugs, and its aftermarket operations are moving to electric power as well.

At GA Telesis, Jason Reed confirms that the ground support equipment group is seeing more requests for electric tugs and vehicles.

Recycling and Teardowns

The Aircraft Fleet Recycling Association’s (AFRA) best-practice teardown guidelines are the industry standard, but they have been unevenly implemented around the world. AFRA has now developed partnerships in China, however.

“That seems to be the last key piece of the puzzle for AFRA to getting sustainability built into the global teardown market,” Reed says. “The CCAR 145 authorities are working with AFRA so that they can compatibly work together on the teardown market so that it’s sustainable. Everything that’s in AFRA is incredibly efficient, and we don’t select suppliers today or teardown facilities today that are not AFRA-certified.”

Making Progress on Scope 3

Lots of efforts to reduce water, emissions, energy and waste are underway, but “you don’t really know what you have until you start really measuring it,” Stevens says.

“How many gallons of gas does it take to get a part from A to B? You have to measure those things. So that’s the mountain of data in front of us. We’re looking at that and trying to say: ‘Where do we start, and where do we want to go?’”

To understand the issues around Scope 1, 2 and 3 emission measurements, consider what HAECO is doing.

“Regarding Scope 1 in our engine-testing facilities, we’re working very hard with Rolls-Royce and GE, our OEM partners, to improve the testing rates so that we can get more engines passing tests the first time [and to] improve the reliability of the components that will enable us to reduce the amount of fuel that we consume in test,” Kendall says. HAECO also is trying to use more SAF as part of that testing as it becomes available in more places.

But then there is Scope 3, the trickier part. The MRO community is a Scope 3 emitter for airlines, as part of their supply chains. “And we in turn, as an MRO industry, use a lot of suppliers ourselves,” Kendall notes, so MROs’ supply chains fall under Scope 3. “Particularly for those of us that are part of listed companies for which the investment community is increasingly expecting us to be adhering to the science-based target initiative and to identify and reduce our Scope 3 emissions.”  This is an important topic because “we’re very immature as an industry in terms of understanding our Scope 3 emissions and how we can manage that,” he says.

“We know that with parts, prices escalate every year,” Kendall continues. “Value of inputs is a very poor indicator of efforts that are being made to reduce emissions. So I think we’ve got a lot of work to do as an industry to really identify how we can measure Scope 3 emissions before we can even address how we can reduce them.”

Lee Ann Shay

As executive editor of MRO and business aviation, Lee Ann Shay directs Aviation Week's coverage of maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO), including Inside MRO, and business aviation, including BCA.