By Daniel Omale
ast week, Aerocontractors rolled out, fresh out of “C” check, one of its B737-500 from the airline’s maintenance hangar in Lagos, Nigeria. The grand ceremony was worth the euphoria; no major schedule carrier in Nigeria has attempted to delve into such a maintenance project since the demise of Nigerian Airways. As heartening as it seems, it is also quite disheartening to witness a grand celebration of an aircraft out of a major inspection that was, before, a routine exercise in the defunct national carrier.
In those days, Nigeria Airways was equipped with both skilled- manpower and tools to successfully maintain, repair, and overhaul most of its aircraft components, including the Douglas DC-10. The standard of repairs and other forms of in-house maintenance performed in the airways Hangar at its Murtala Mohammed domestic terminal were beyond the current mediocrity of professionalism. Nigeria Airways was equally capable of sheet metal repairs on the airframe, with trained avionics and powerplant technicians; not just for its fleet of F-27, F28, B737, B727, B707 and DC-10, but for third-party airplanes.
Training of crew and engineering personnel was the airline’s core competence. It also enjoyed worldwide respect with reputation for quality and standards.
Why Aero’s achievement is of importance to the industry, in addition to its political undertone, is the depreciated level Aero has found itself. Otherwise, the airline had, on several occasions, maintained its fleet of Hawker 700A/B, 800XPs, and DHC-6 (twin-otters) beyond “C” checks. Aerocontractors, as it was then known, was the most elite aviation company in Nigeria from 1960 up to its peak in 2013. The Ibru family finally brought the carrier to its knees before Asset Management Corporation of Nigeria (AMCON) came to its rescue two years ago.
The two big questions we must ask ourselves are: is the “C” check on a B737 classic the best Nigeria can attain at this age? And, were the associated costs of reviving the aircraft cheaper than what’s obtained elsewhere?
If the answer to the first question is in the affirmative, then Nigeria’s aviation industry, especially for schedule carriers, is still as backward as ever, because, other African Airlines—South African, Ethiopian, Egypt Air, and Royal Air Maroc have exceeded our horizon. It is, therefore, not yet time for jubilation, self-adulation, and proclamation of victory. Aircraft technology has transcended the Boeing 737 classics, and other African airlines mentioned-above are streaming along with modern jetliners– in operation and maintenance support.
Indeed, Ethiopian airline, the fastest growing airline in Africa, and one of the most active actors in aviation industry in the world, has some of the youngest fleet of airplanes on the planet. It is noteworthy to explain to those with myopic view of what’s happening in aviation -world today that, the oldest aircraft in Ethiopian airline’s fleet is less than nine years old, and the its youngest airplane was manufactured three months ago, the B787-9.
These ultra-modern jets are not just flown by Ethiopians, but are maintained, repaired and overhauled by Ethiopians. Ethiopian airline is a Boeing accredited maintenance center, with maintenance approval by the Federal Aviation Administration of USA. With over 800 aircraft engineers, Mechanics, and Avionics experts, Ethiopian’s in-house maintenance facility is comparable to Lufthansa Technik and AirFrance-KLM E&M. In addition to comprehensive maintenance of its fleet of over 100 aircraft, Ethiopian’s facility engages in third-party repair contracts for other airlines up to “D” checks (for the classics). Aircraft maintenance, repairs, and overhaul account for nearly 25% of the airline’s annual income.
South African Airways(SAA) was established in 1933, along with its Maintenance, Repair, and Overhaul (MRO) facility, which caters for SAA, and third-party carriers like British airways, Lufthansa, Alitalia, and Iberia.
Egypt air has just placed orders for 24 Bombardier C-300 series aircraft for its regional affiliate Egypt Air Express. With deliveries commencing in 2022, the airline has earmarked programs to train its mechanics and technicians. The in-house maintenance advantage always yields immense flexibility in operation and cost-cutting benefits.
These are a few African carriers striving and successfully competing on the global stage.
The next question which I seek an answer to is: comparing to the cost of using a third-party facility abroad, was the in-house adventure cheaper for Aero?
It is no secret that Aero partnered with South African Airways engineers and technicians to accomplish the inspection, but the collaboration is worthwhile, only, if there is marginal gain in cost. If this is just an experiment to showcase Aero’s maintenance capacity, then what is the future plan? Will Nigerian mechanics be trained to singlehandedly attain the required skills / know-how to maintain the rest of Aero fleet of seven B737 classics before venturing into third -party contracts?
These questions might sound mundane, but after so many years in the aviation industry in Nigeria, it is a natural tendency for aircraft operators to save money on maintenance. Therefore, if the costs of doing C check or other schedule inspections are higher in Nigeria than elsewhere, operators will opt for cheaper maintenance facilities abroad. In order for Aero to compete with other MROs, in-house maintenance must involve Nigerians for cheap-manhour -labour.
Although most schedule heavy- maintenance involves inspection of various parts, with less emphasis on parts, several of them have become costly because of replacement of parts, in addition to intensive hours of labour. Without cutting-corners, the best incentive and attraction for Air Peace, Arik, or Azman Air to engage Aero are cost and downtime. If the experiment with this first aircraft is worthy of improvement, the challenge of flying abroad for C check of the numerous B737 classics in the country should be something of the past.
The internet of things has been up and running for some time. Modern aircraft and engines are parked with sensors that relay huge volumes of data, both in-and post -flight, to ground team teams that can sometimes react even before wheels are on tarmac.
The biggest concentration of sensors in any aircraft is in its engines. New powerplants such as the Leap, PW1000G, GEnx and Trent 1000 deliver about 1 terabyte of readings per flight. This equates to the storage capacity of the average home computer, and with a growing fleet incorporating ever-more advanced technologies the volume of data generated is surging.
Along with the Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEM), maintenance companies are also developing their data analysis capabilities. Exhaust -gas temperature (EGT) margins, vibration, fuel flow, shaft speed, oil pressure and the position of variable stator vanes are all important measurements for MRO providers.
The future of new Generation aircraft maintenance lies in predictive analysis, not the conventional, hindsight hourly usage, cycles or calendar time. Therefore, as far-fetched as it seems, if Ethiopian, Airfrance -KLM E&M, South African, and Lufthansa Technik are gravitating to modernity, Nigeria should aim higher than our current leveraged mediocrity. To me, the ovation associated with Aero’s success is considered a “paradox of weakness.”
While I join the large number of aviation enthusiasts, stakeholders, service providers, and the regulatory agency to congratulate Aero’s belated- milestone- achievement, it is not yet Uhuru for the industry until qualified Nigerian technicians, engineers, and quality controllers are 100% in charge.