Commercial aviation in Africa is only about a quarter the size of its counterpart in Latin America, making Africa the smallest continental aviation market. But Africa’s recent economic growth has been healthy, leading to hopes for more aircraft and commercial airline service.
African maintenance has been dominated by in-house shops at a handful of airlines, frequently assisted by European carriers and MRO companies. That may be changing, as the continent opens to new providers.
Challenges to aircraft maintenance in Africa include huge distances, sparse infrastructure and other difficulties—including transferring parts between countries—caused by having many borders and governments. But these challenges provide reasons to welcome new companies that might bring new solutions to old problems.
In June 2014, AAR landed a five-year deal to provide power-by-hour component support for Kenya Airways’ Boeing 737NGs. The U.S. MRO is putting inventory in Nairobi as needed, and will service the contract from a rotable-parts pool at its Brussels warehouse—launched in 2014 via assets purchased from Sabena Technics. AAR was the first company to obtain a multi-year aviation deal under the Obama administration’s Doing Business in Africa initiative.
AAR Chairman and CEO David Storch says the U.S. Commerce Department’s African program helped his company win the Kenya deal against stiff European competition. “They can help if there is only one U.S. company competing,” notes Storch, who is the sole aviation executive appointed to the president’s Advisory Council for Doing Business in Africa. “If there are multiple U.S. competitors, they cannot pick one to back. They definitely showed support for us and raised our visibility, but a company also has to prove its ability to do the job.”
The U.S. government is engaged in Africa because there is plenty of competition from other countries. European aviation companies still enjoy relationships built up during colonial days, and China has been very aggressive across the continent.
“It’s a market with less than 400 commercial aircraft now,” Storch observes. “But Africa has a huge population and major natural resources. Over time we hope it will grow like the Middle East has over the last 20 years.” African economies grew more than 5% in 2014, and U.S. exports to the continent have been increasing at a 10% annual rate.
AAR is no stranger to Africa, having done business there for three decades. Most of this work has been transactional. For example, AAR serviced landing gear on Kenya Airways’ 777s in 2013 and has supplied cargo systems for South African Airways. Now that the African market has grown a bit, Storch expects to continue to do transactional work but hopes there also will be more long-term programs.
The early centers of aviation growth in sub-Saharan Africa are likely to be in South Africa, Kenya, and Ethiopia. “We have done a lot of work in Egypt,” Storch notes, as well as work for the U.S. government in the middle of Africa, which Storch hopes will open up some opportunities.
The AAR chief thinks the West Coast of Africa, while experiencing some immediate problems, also has potential for aviation growth. “The Ivory Coast and Senegal are interesting, but really the whole West Coast is.”
Philippe Albrecht, regional sales manager, Southern Europe, Middle East, Africa at StandardAero, says starting up a fully functional MRO facility in Africa is costly and training staff not easy. Existing African maintenance facilities often drive work abroad by overcharging to cover overhead. “The real driver of cost is on component repairs, which are mostly carried out at overseas facilities, creating many challenges, long delays and additional expense,” Albrecht argues.
So StandardAero has partnered with South Africa’s Airteam to establish a facility that can release maintenance under StandardAero’s EASA tag. The MRO is training Airteam staff and has supplied tooling for the facility. It hopes to do more African business in the future. “We are very confident in the growth and sustainability of the African market and see this as a long-term dynamic partnership,” Albrecht says.
Though airline shops have been the prime MRO centers in Africa, there are some independent MRO providers serving specific markets. For example, Vector Aerospace at Lanseria Airport near Johannesburg offers MRO support for Pratt & Whitney PT6A, PT6T, PW100 turboprops and JT15D turbofans. Vector has full overhaul capability on PT6A engines and recently obtained designated overhaul facility approval on Pratt & Whitney PT6A-140 engines. General Manager Glen Burnet says Vector supports business and regional airline aircraft across the African continent.
Burnet believes the maintenance needed by African operators is available at the continent’s main aviation hubs. He predicts that current MRO providers will grow as airlines grow, but admits that African MROs face some special challenges.
“The first challenge is obtaining spares quickly, as these are mostly shipped from North America,” Burnet notes. “Distance can also be a huge challenge, as there are operations in remote Africa.” Having tools and parts shipped into some areas is also very difficult because of many customs obstacles.
Burnet says it usually takes two to three days to clear African customs, which adds to downtime for engines. And there can be economic penalties as well. “In Kenya, they charge a nonrefundable railway tax of 17%, which has resulted in customers wanting engines shipped to other areas to be fitted.”
Vector’s long experience with African conditions has enabled it to build up stock levels to mitigate such delay problems. “This has enabled us to help with AOG situations rapidly and get our customers flying with minimal downtime,” Burnet says. Strong relationships and constant examination of shipping problems also help when dealing with challenges.
Training is one clear need for African maintenance operators. Much may be supplied by companies that provide maintenance services and want to expand their operations on the continent.
Based in the Netherlands, Direct Maintenance performs line maintenance at two airports in Kenya, three in Tanzania and one each in Uganda and Zambia—and it is considering opening more line stations in and outside Africa.
Technical Director Roger Meels believes several African maintenance providers are well able to cover future growth of their own airlines, despite challenges. Meels says the in-house engineering divisions of South African Airways, Ethiopian Airlines, Kenya Airways and Egyptair have erected solid foundations, on which they can build capabilities as necessary. Smaller African MROs will have to make significant investments to keep up.
One challenge is increasing the pool of skilled and qualified maintenance labor. “Human resources management and training will be essential,” Meels stresses. Training will be required as new models replace old ones, for growth in current fleets and to replace skilled MRO workers lost to what Meels calls a “brain drain” of talented maintenance workers out of Africa.
To help meet this training challenge, Direct Maintenance recently launched on-site EASA Part-66 module tutoring, plus official exams, in Nairobi. Combined with adequate experience, this training leads to a Part 66 Aircraft Maintenance License. The company is training its own East African staff, but has also opened the course to the entire African aviation community.
After Part 66 licenses are obtained, type training—including structured on-the-job training—can begin. Meels emphasizes training is a multi-year project, requiring persistence and investment.