The builder of 1900 Yak-52s in the Soviet era and now a growing MRO specialist and aerospace parts manufacturer, Aerostar has put Romania on the industry map. Despite its home base in Bacau being situated at the outer reaches of the European Union, and with Romania becoming a member of the EU only in 2007, the company has wasted no time in getting fully involved in European aerospace and modernizing its facilities, as AIN discovered on a visit just before the Farnborough Airshow.
Alexandru Filip, director of business development, said Aerostar celebrated its 60th anniversary last year although it became a private company, listed on the Bucharest stock exchange, only in 1998. Since 1953, he said, it has overhauled 3,500 aircraft and 6,000 engines, more recently gaining approvals for Western types to become a narrowbody MRO specialist.
At one time its MRO activities were mainly defense-related and it still maintains expertise in MiG-21s–having upgraded 110 Romanian aircraft to MiG-21 Lancers in the 1990s–and Let L-39s, and of course Yak-52s. The company has just completed the re-life and upgrade of eight MiG-21s for the Mozambique air force, and is looking for other opportunities (these aircraft had not been used for almost 20 years), while it also overhauls the Lancers one by one.
Filip told AIN that, “With the market shrinking for older platforms, a strategic decision was made to use the knowledge for other markets. We got Part 145 [EASA] maintenance approval and have been maintaining Boeing 737s for ten years, and now also do [Airbus] A320s, BAe 146/Avro RJ and the Rolls-Royce 250 engine, and we can also do BAe146 cargo conversions.” The latter is something pioneered with BAE Systems, although, to date, only two aircraft have been converted.
“The hangar where the MiG-21 upgrade [to Lancers] was carried out was allocated to commercial MRO, but aircraft [fin] heights meant that we invested in a new hangar, which was commissioned two years ago,” said Filip, an aerospace engineer who joined the company–which is run by his father, president and general director Grigore Filip–four years ago to help modernize the business.
The company has been particularly successful in securing civil MRO customers from Africa, including airlines Starbow, Royal Air Maroc and, more recently, FastJet. Looking around the vast plant in Bacau, however, it is the aerostructures business that shows Aerostar is really leveraging and modernizing its previous expertise. Some 49 percent of its sales now come from civil aircraft production work, 18 percent from civil MRO–although the company is looking to establish overseas bases, through partnership or acquisition.
“More than ten years ago, we started small, with fabrications and machining. Now our biggest customer is Airbus and we are well integrated into its supply chain. We started with Airbus UK at Filton [now GKN], manufacturing A320 inner flap shroud boxes, which we still do with GKN. We manufacture all the parts, assembly, do special processes and deliver ready for installment,” said Filip. “It is very important to us because of the volume”–a set of two for each narrowbody aircraft, of which 42 a year are now being built by Airbus. “We produce 25 shipsets a month,” said Filip.
He said that the company had “diversified to build assemblies for other platforms,” such as the Dassault 7X airbrakes and spoilers, and landing gear doors for the Gulfstream G450/550, which are delivered to Fokker Aero. “But our main goal is to grow our footprint in the Airbus supply chain,” he stated, “and different assembly work from other customers that could be from the States”–alluding to a wish to get similar work packages from Boeing. “We have also started the process of qualification for Bombardier,” said Filip.
Aerostar still “has the capability” to produce Yak-52s, said Filip, a couple of examples of which were on the production floor (in for maintenance), along with the little general aviation aircraft that Aerostar designed and built (along with doing some replica aircraft) when it was looking to keep its workforce busy in the early 1990s. The “Festival” ultralight has never sold in large numbers, however, because it came just before the composite era and was overtaken by lighter machines that fit the U.S. LSA spec. Nevertheless, as “a transition between the Yak-52 and the global supply chain,” as Filip described it, the project was vital. “It helped us as it was civil, but it was designed before the LSA regulations in the U.S.”
Beyond that, after 2000, Filip credits Fokker with getting Aerostar into the mainstream by awarding it work packages, allowing it to secure funds to invest in modern CNC machines and develop new processes.
The company has updated its expertise in landing gear and hydraulic systems, gaining contracts from the likes of Airbus and Socata for landing gear assemblies. While it produces significant assemblies for Airbus A320 family and A330 aircraft, for Airbus subcontractor Messier-Dowty-Bugatti, it builds the entire landing gear assemblies for Daher-Socata TBM 850/900 single-engine turboprops. “We’ve also started on a new project to do undercarriage actuators for the Boeing 787,” said Filip (again, this is for MDB).
Yet another area of aerostructures investment and success has been the aircraft components and spare parts unit, which manufacturers Airbus A380 flap-track raceways (for Fokker), “and we’re also doing S-76 helicopter parts for Sikorsky,” said Filip. “We started last year with the qualification process and now we’re in the industrialization phase.”
The company has also been diligently expanding its capabilities in special processes, including surface coating, heat treatment, shot-peening, painting and nondestructive testing, said Filip. “We are growing our NADCAP accreditations,” he said. Along with all this it has been building up its workforce, adding 300 employees in the past year to take the total to around 1,850. “In engineering, they’re mainly from Bacau as there is a technical university here, but we also employ aero engineers from Bucharest, and occasionally we get applications from the rest of Europe. We are the biggest employer in Bacau,” he added.
Grigore Filip, Aerostar president and general director, said the company’s ambition is “to continue with the success” of conversion from military to civil business and “continue the growth both in the maintenance market and subcontracting…but in parallel we will not abandon our defense-related activities…and we estimate this will in the long-term account for one third of sales.”
Asked about the company’s business plan, Filip told AIN, “We have a strategy that we have been updating every five years–so the horizon is five years and we are in year two. This year we plan to change the concept to have a permanent five-year rolling horizon in front of us.” He added, “We have a growth target to reach 100 million Euros [$120 million] a year.”
The company is “convinced we have the capability to grow the footprint in production–but our intention is not to grow in Bacau to more than 2,500 employees. Growth beyond that has to be in association with other sites–and not necessarily in Romania.
“We are on the stock market and the stockholders are very happy now–each who already got shares got another three for free.” He said that some 14 percent is owned by S.F. Moldova, an investment fund; another 16 percent is owned by various small shareholders; and 70 percent is owned by Iarom, a closed company that has a smaller number of shareholders, including Grigore Filip. “Iarom has control but at the same time does not sell shares,” said Filip, who added that it was the only aerospace company in Romania to privatize successfully in the 1990s. Even Romaero in Bucharest failed, and remained state-owned, and has failed to expand so that now Aerostar represents a growing proportion of the country’s aerospace sector–currently about 50 percent.