As with many companies across the world, MROs have faced daunting challenges during the pandemic. Here, AeroTime investigates how the MRO industry has risen to these challenges, and the changes they have had to make.

COVID-19 has had an enormous impact on the aviation or aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) industry. While passenger traffic has experienced a substantial decline, alongside airport workforce numbers, revenue has also decreased. Additionally, international travel restrictions have seen commercial aircraft placed in storage sites across the globe. Subsequently, providers have also faced a decline in demand for MRO services, particularly at the height of the pandemic in 2020.

But as the aviation sector is beginning to edge towards recovery, have MROs been able to rise to the challenges caused by an unprecedented global pandemic? How did they manage to adapt to the ‘new normal’? And what does this mean for the future of the industry?

Diligence and disinfectant

MROs often require staff to carry out manual work, either on the ground, aboard aircraft or in an air hanger, and many tasks have been challenging during the pandemic. Not only has it been compulsory for technicians to work within socially distant parameters and to follow rigorous sanitation procedures, including hand washing and disinfecting, but they must also wear Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) such as masks, aprons and gloves.

For important aviation maintenance and repair work to continue, significant changes had to be made to the safety guidelines and procedures. Afterall, the fight to stop the spread of coronavirus depends on the keen observation of hygiene and safety regulations. This includes rigorous cleaning activities, disinfection and the introduction of sanitization stations, alongside adhering to social distancing measures, including staggering shifts and the adoption of PPE.

But the biggest change to aviation MROs is an increase in requests regarding aircraft sterilization. In an interview with Avionics International Digital, D. Anand Bhaskar, the managing director and CEO of Air Works, India’s largest, privately-owned, integrated provider of aviation services, said: “The biggest proportion of requests pertain to undertaking aircraft disinfection.”

A quick look at a guidance document entitled Aircraft cleaning and disinfection during and post pandemic (Ed. 2-22 January 2021), which was published by The International Air Transport Association (IATA), gives some indication of the rigorous disinfection procedures upheld by aircraft maintenance staff.

The document, which was developed in cooperation with various IATA expert groups, aircraft manufactures and industry stakeholders, states that while the standard cleaning procedures “remain largely unchanged, additional disinfection measures need to be added”.  These extra concerns include pandemic management (readiness and availability of cleaning companies at airports, availability of PPE), personnel readiness (availability and allocation of cleaning personnel to perform the tasks, existing competency and training) and operational readiness (cleaning and disinfection types, methods and application frequency and events causing health risks).

Additionally, the document states that according to the IATA Medical Advisory Group, “the cleaning and disinfection procedures, in excess of the previous norms, are likely to form part of the range of measures required in a restart process”.

So, it’s highly likely that increased routine sanitising will be a significant portion of MRO requests and responsibilities for some time to come. Not only is this an important process in the fight against coronavirus, “but a way to reassure passengers and increase their confidence in the reduced risk of the transmission of communicable diseases in aviation processes”.

If people are going to be encouraged to commence flying again, then ensuring passenger safety and comfort is paramount. So, expect a ramped-up cleaning schedule to become part of the norm.

Managing maintenance and storage solutions

The pandemic has forced many airlines to ground their fleets and put aircraft in short-term storage. Aircraft has even ended up parked in desert sites, or ‘boneyards’, such as Pinal Airpark, 90 miles south of Phoenix, where the dry desert air helps to keep them in good condition and stops them from rusting.

A grounded plane is expensive. When aircraft are considered ‘in storage’ they must undergo an extensive maintenance processes, including the mechanics and in-flight systems. Speaking to Executive Traveller, Etihad Airways said its engineers worked nonstop to preserve its grounded fleet, a process that includes running engines and powering up aircraft, checking flight controls and covering sensors and engines to protect inner workings from sand and dust.

Another way that aviation MROs are varying the way they operate is by turning to cargo aircraft or servicing business and private jets, turboprops and helicopters instead of commercial fleets.

A helping hand

With passenger demand for commercial flights at an all-time low, the global aviation industry turned its efforts to delivering supplies. At the start of the pandemic, airlines, including Virgin Atlantic, utilized passenger planes to transport hospital equipment and PPE from China to other parts of the world.

In April 2020, the New England Patriots, plane was used for a COVID-19 relief flight to Shenzhen, China to pick up 1.2 million N95 masks to aid health care workers in the United States. According to the Wall Street Journal, the transfer was the result of multiple global negotiations and the Massachusetts governor, Charlie Baker, calling on Patriots team president Jonathan Kraft for his help in obtaining the masks.

The plane, a Boeing 767-300ER, was upgraded for international travel by Aircraft Maintenance and Engineering Services (AMES), an MRO and a subsidiary of Air Transport Services Group (ATSG). A waiver to avoid a 14-day quarantine in China was granted if the crew did not leave the aircraft.

At the end of 2020 and as the vaccination rollout was being prepared for early 2021, MROs played another significant role when they helped to deliver billions of vaccine doses, including airports, like Delhi's Indira Gandhi International Airport, ensuring that specific sections of the cargo terminal have been allotted for the storage and transportation of the temperature-sensitive vaccines.

Most recently, Dubai-based long-haul carrier Emirates said that it has flown around 100 tonnes of COVID-19 relief material, free of charge to India.

Maintenance technicians and engineers were heavily involved with these relief efforts, including ensuring the airworthiness of jets and making any necessary modifications, such as upgrading avionics and utilising passenger planes to carry cargo instead. MRO companies worked hard, and in extraordinary conditions, which include observing strict measures to minimalize the spread of COVID-19, to ensure the smooth-running of these relief missions.

Is the future digital?

But what can a company do when a reduced number of personnel are permitted on site? Well, as with many other industries across the globe, the answer is to make processes digital and, therefore, compliant with social distancing regulations, which seem likely to remain in place for the foreseeable future.

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, airlines and MROs were looking at testing or, in some cases, even beginning to adopt emerging tools, including paperless software, wearable technology and automated aircraft inspection. However, interest was ultimately slow. But owing to COVID-19 restrictions, which rendered old, mostly paper-based, systems impractical, MROs are beginning to implement new digital procedures at a faster pace.

An example is REINSTATE, a new project led by Rolls-Royce in Derby, UK, with support from the ATI Programme. Rolls-Royce describes the projects aims “to make future aerospace servicing technologies a reality. Engineers will work on 20 technologies that aim to reduce disruption for airlines and lessen [its] environmental impact by repairing components rather than scrapping them”. These technologies “include, snake robots, which travel inside jet engines to access complex parts and enable repairs” which are currently not possible. Additionally, advanced automated repair technologies will “target parts which cannot currently be repaired” and reduce waste.

So, if we were searching for a pandemic silver lining for the aviation sector, it could well be that the MRO industry is beginning to embrace innovation and technological advancement at a more rapid pace.

So, what’s next?

It’s expected that demand will return slowly as we see the coronavirus crisis begin to come under control with the rollout of vaccinations and countries beginning to lift travel embargos. Relaunching a global commercial air fleet will have to be a staggered process, rather than an immediate return to the way things once were.

The legacy of COVID-19 will be felt for quite some time to come. But the MRO industry has managed to keep its head above water and embraced new duties, tasks and even new technology, while acting as an integral part of keeping the aviation industry afloat during the biggest crisis we’ll probably see in our lifetime.