Like all other maintenance, repair, and overhaul organizations, Etihad Engineering (Stand 1110) suffered from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, as uncertainly wrought by widespread flight restrictions and lockdowns made it difficult to plan for virtually anything. But rather than wait and rely on its cash-rich shareholder, the government of Abu Dhabi, for support until the skies reopened, Etihad Engineering quickly realigned its strategy in order to keep staff retained and its hangars occupied, explained David Doherty, the company’s head of sales MRO sales.
Aircraft hangars at Etihad Engineering’s 500,000-sq-m facility cover approximately 66,000 sq m, including 10,000 sq m of aircraft painting facilities and a custom-designed hangar that can accommodate up to three Airbus A380 aircraft simultaneously. The company previously maintained Etihad Airways’ fleet of 10 A380s, but all 10 aircraft remain in long-term storage.
“We took a fresh look at how we could support our customers, deliver value, and keep our revenue streams flowing. The key to this was being proactive and flexible,” Doherty told AIN. “Instead of viewing grounded aircraft as a problem, we helped our customers capitalize on this rare downtime by making upgrades to their fleet,” he said, noting that while some airlines delayed routine maintenance, others brought it forward.
Etihad Engineering adapted its business to the Covid-19 environment by expanding its long-term aircraft parking capacity considerably. At the height of the coronavirus crisis, airplanes occupied the majority of parking slots at its 140,000-s-m aircraft parking area adjacent to Abu Dhabi International Airport. For its in-house customer, Etihad Airways, the MRO provider conducted a full cabin refresh on all parked passenger aircraft, including interior detailing, seat repairs, and a full sweep of the inflight entertainment system. All aircraft arriving for parking at Etihad Engineering underwent preservation maintenance to ensure that they remain serviceable in accordance with the manufacturer’s guidance.
In addition, every aircraft arriving at the facility for parking or maintenance goes through a deep cleaning process—lasting about four hours for a narrowbody aircraft and eight hours for larger aircraft—by the disinfection team before any work commences.
The company also enhanced its health and safety protocols by investing in thermal cameras, conducting regular PCR tests, and launching an on-site vaccination program. “This allowed us to not only protect our people but honor our commitments and deliver aircraft to customers from all over the world,” Doherty noted. “Despite all the challenges, we managed to deliver more than 300 aircraft in 2020, thanks to good planning and crisis management, diligent cost control, and being adaptive to the changing needs of the market.”
Outside the scope of its customary aircraft maintenance work, Etihad Engineering invested in its own onsite face mask production facility that to date has produced more than 5 million masks—not just for its own staff but also for its customers.
Its state-of-the-art 3D printing facility produced reusable and lightweight face shields for distribution to the UAE’s frontline health care providers. The MRO division of Etihad Aviation Group first received European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) approval to 3D print with filament technology in 2017 and became the first airline MRO in the world to certify, print, and fly 3D printed cabin parts. In 2019, it received EASA approval for 3D printing using powder-bed fusion technology to design, produce, and certify additively manufactured parts for aircraft cabins.
Etihad Engineering will need to apply its ability to adapt to a changed environment during the Covid pandemic again in the post-Covid era, Doherty asserted. “The marketplace has gone through a transformation, and so has our approach and strategy to cater to it,” he said. “As restrictions ease, we want to understand what airlines are really looking for, and we try to be as flexible and competitive as possible in doing so. Our ability to understand and adapt with changing market needs has meant our services have been in high demand—we have worked hard through the pandemic and have been successful in bringing in new customers.”
Building more hangars and increasing capacity is one way to expand, but “it limits us within the same revenue stream,” Doherty remarked. “New avenues of growth” the company has begun to explore include servicing of large components in partnership with OEMs and forging strategic partnerships with other industry players. Examples of such partnerships include the recent deal with Israel Aerospace Industries to establish two passenger-to-freighter conversion lines for the “Big Twin” 777-300ERSF at the MRO’s facilities in Abu Dhabi. Another example—a multi-year cooperation agreement signed in 2019 with Argentina’s main aircraft manufacturer, Fabrica Argentina de Aviones (FAdeA)— established narrowbody aircraft maintenance services for airlines in South America at FAdeA’s hangars in Córdoba. The partnership capitalizes on the facilities and manpower of FAdeA, coupled with Etihad Engineering’s MRO expertise and deep customer footprint in Latin America.
Leveling to the New Normal
Since its establishment in 2003, Etihad Engineering developed a wide range of capabilities and services including heavy maintenance, advanced composite repair, cabin refurbishment, livery paint, and component repair on all major commercial Airbus and Boeing aircraft. It serves third-party customers as well as Etihad Airways, although work for the latter is gradually declining as a restructuring process at the airline curbs fleet growth. The resizing exercise, from a super-connector airline with global ambitions and stakes in multiple airlines to a focused midsize point-to-point carrier, started before Covid-19 disrupted air travel. As of the end of this year’s first half, Etihad Airways’ fleet consisted of 64 aircraft, compared with 103 in the first half of last year, although the airline had grounded most of those due to Covid.
Doherty expressed optimism in the recovery of the MRO market in the Middle East. “In my personal opinion, there is likely to be an increase in demand for MRO services as more aircraft are brought back to service, with routes being opened up locally and internationally. Airlines will be eager to serve the initial spurt in passenger traffic,” he said. Yet, he cautioned that “with the passage of time, there will be a reduction in airlines’ fleet sizes both regionally as well as globally.” As airlines retire older aircraft, less work for MRO players might result, he noted. “I think within a couple of years, things will level out to the new normal and the MROs that have prepared for this well will sail through,” concluded Doherty.