A surge in demand for landing gear overhaul has prompted Lufthansa Technik to form a division dedicated to the activity and consider adding shifts at its four facilities while launching a total landing gear support (TLS) program.
“There will be a massive increase in demand in the next few years,” said Michael Kirstein, head of the landing gear business unit. “Our facilities are full with the current workforce. We can increase the workforce and the number of shifts, but it will be interesting to see whether we will be able to cope without new facilities.”
The demand is relatively predictable, since airliner landing gear needs overhauling every eight to 10 years. And because the process takes several weeks, almost all work is done on an exchange basis, with the overhauler supplying a newly overhauled set of legs–usually three of them, but four in the case of the A330/340 and five for the Boeing 747–in return for the operator’s time-expired set.
LHT itself overhauled more than 900 legs last year in a world market that reached around 1,300 sets, a 30-percent increase over 2005. This year demand will exceed 1,500 sets and by 2009 it will pass the 2,300 mark.
The company’s landing gear product division embraces the full-service shops operated by subsidiary Hawker Pacific Aerospace in London and Sun Valley, California, and by joint venture Ameco Beijing, as well as the company’s Hamburg headquarters. Until 2006 it formed part of component services, but that division normally handles smaller items, Kirstein said, “so it made sense to have a separate division.”
Hamburg, with 140 staff, is the center of excellence for Airbus aircraft, though both the U.S. and Beijing facilities have A320 capability because of the high cost of transporting the gear back to Europe. The facility also handles legs for the Boeing 737 NG, but those for 737 Classics go to Czech Airlines’ maintenance department.
Hawker Pacific, with its 590 personnel, specializes in the Boeing range, including McDonnell Douglas types, and the 80 staff at Ameco handle 737, 747 and 767 gear.
Supporting the A330/340 and Boeing 777 landing gear involves a big investment in spare gear, Kirstein told AIN. To avoid duplication, Hamburg and London are the respective centers of excellence for the Airbus and Boeing widebodies. The bigger gear also requires big tanks for the plating processes required in the course of the overhauls. The London facility, which Hawker Pacific acquired from British Airways in 1998, has tanks up to 23 feet deep.
One of the organization’s strong suits is its stock of 197 spare legs–“a huge volume of investment,” Kirstein terms it–which enables customers to keep flying while their landing gear is being overhauled. But it is the availability rather than the economics of spare leg provision that makes it questionable whether future supply will be equal to the growing demand.
An undercarriage shipset costs $1.8 to $1.9 million for the A320, $5 to $6 million for an A330 or A340, and around $7.5 million for a 777, so airlines have to work hard to justify the investment. Overhauls generally cost between 10 percent and 20 percent of the price of a new set, ranging from around $200,000 for an A320 to between $700,000 and $800,000 for a 777 and $1 million to $1.2 million for an A330/340.
But even if the investment in a new set is justified, actually acquiring one may not be so easy, since a worldwide shortage of the hardened steels whose only application is in aircraft undercarriages means lead times are long. Kirstein has been quoted an order time of 900 days for a 737 NG shipset. “If a customer hasn’t booked in advance they may be running into trouble,” he commented.
The only alternative to a spare set is a closed-cycle repair of an airplane’s existing gear, and that can mean an economically unpalatable six weeks on jacks for the legless airframe.
LHT’s TLS offering includes much more than the overhaul activity. One element is a sampling program to support the extension of time between overhaul (TBO) intervals: last year the company succeeded in extending the MD-11 TBO from eight to nine years.
Airlines can choose from a menu of services such as spare parts, engineering, on-wing and AOG support and the tracking of life-limited parts. Back-to-birth traceability is another option, and one that has gained importance in recent years. “Parts used to be just life-limited but it’s no longer enough to know the TBO. If there is no traceability you have to scrap the part,” Kirstein said.
A spate of recent contracts includes 777 gear to be overhauled in London for Emirates, and next year will see the first landing gear shipped from Virgin Blue in Australia to Hamburg, initiating a nose-to-tail rolling program of overhauls scheduled to run through 2030.
Ameco also has a 737 NG capability, but shipping costs from Australia to Hamburg are almost the same as those to Beijing, thanks to special containers designed by LHT engineers in Hamburg. “They save a lot of money by reducing weight and volume,” Kirstein said. “They mean we can ship the landing gear complete and completely protected from damage.”
In any case, Ameco is focused mainly on mainland China. “Almost all the 737 NGs in China are contracted and the shop is almost completely full,” Kirstein said. However, Virgin Blue has more than 150 legs to be overhauled, so some may go to Beijing or London.
LHT was 95 percent booked for this year by mid-March, and next year’s capacity was almost sold out for the 737 NG and growth versions of the A330 and A340. Again, the availability of assets is the deciding factor: worldwide there are only four spare shipsets for the Airbus widebodies.