Since its birth in 1934, South African Airways (SAA) has ranked as one of the top African airlines. Its subsidiary, South African Airways Technical (SAAT), has been in operation for more than 80 years and bills itself as the largest MRO in Africa. Fanus Meyer, head of operations, talks to Daniella Horwitz about its place in the global market and growth plans.
SAAT lists itself as the largest MRO in Africa. How has it achieved this position?
Ever since our start, shortly after 1934, quality, safety and turnaround times have been the important legs of existence. I think what people may not know is that we are not only a South African Airways (SAA)-serving MRO. We also manage more than 100 aircraft as a customer-financial-and-operational-needs (CAMO) operation, with SAA, Mango and Comair [South Africa-based airlines] as our biggest customers. There has been a steady increase in heavy maintenance visits to SAAT, and this number has doubled significantly since 2011, to an average of 80 maintenance checks per annum, thus making us the largest MRO in Africa.
What are the particular challenges faced in Africa?
The challenges are not unique to Africa; they affect MROs worldwide. I can identify four general challenges: First, how do airline maintenance and engineering divisions stay relevant with increasing activity in an OEM-centric world? One can see the dominant position already occupied by engine OEMs. I believe it is only the beginning; airframe and components will follow shortly, if they are not already in the same position. Second, given the big orderbooks in the world, the need for good technicians is real. I believe that MROs all across the globe are seeking skilled workers. There are people hunting in your backyard for good technicians already. Third, with new-generation fleets, efficiencies will increase tremendously. This will decrease the volume of maintenance work. So that is where MROs need to adjust very carefully. Fourth, the fast pace of technology is something we all will need to keep up with.
What in-house MRO facilities does SAAT have in terms of hangar size, numbers of staff and capabilities?
SAAT has an ample technical area of 85,000 sq. meters (914,932 sq. ft.) and a staff of approximately 2,600. Capabilities include: mechanical components (landing gear for Boeing 737-800s, Airbus A319s and A320s, wheel assemblies and brake assemblies) as well as hydraulic, electrical and avionic components. We also have the capability for flight-control components, which include nacelles, fan cowls, nose cowls, acoustic panels and cowl doors, etc. And we conduct extensive aircraft structure work such as scimitar modifications, chord replacements on the 737 legacy fleets, nondestructive inspection and special processes.
Over time, what have been the most significant changes in how you approach MRO?
I believe the following rule is the golden one: Determine how deep you want to play, with what you want to play and with whom you want to play. What I am saying is that cooperation coupled with collaboration is the key, not necessarily competition.
What are the crucial elements of SAAT’s current maintenance strategy?
We identify demand in certain fields such as our line maintenance growth because we want to increase our footprint in Africa. We also want to build capability with the right people. For us that means taking into account our engine and component capability. That is one of the areas we need to expand on. Another is capturing the Africa market within the right segments. And then, if we collaborate with the right partnership, we shall improve our competitiveness and continue to deliver world-class services.
SAAT was the first in Africa to introduce the Boeing 787 line-exchange program. What were the reasons for introducing it? How have customers responded?
I think it is quite strategic. Johannesburg is geographically southern-most on the world map and is a big hub with 787s flying in. Strategically, it was the best customer-support solution for Boeing, and with SAA being the main base in Johannesburg, it was logical we would be in the best position to manage this program for them. For the customer, there is the peace of mind; when you sit with a maintenance defect, we can react with alacrity and assist as soon as possible.
What do you foresee as the next big challenge for your airline maintenance teams?
It has become a cliche now, but for sure it is the growth of new technology and the speed with which this growth is happening. This is a real big challenge for any airline maintenance team. There is a saying in the airline world: The later-generation aircraft entering our fleets are computers with wings. I think that is the crux of the story when we are talking new technology. Everything is changing and we need to adapt with speed to ensure we can maintain and keep up with what is happening in the world.
What technologies have you recently invested in to support your MRO teams?
We are busy with a program on the CFM International CFM56-7B, which is not a new engine. But we are sitting with a big footprint in Africa, where we are focusing on performance restoration, modular stripping and on-wing services. Recently, we invested in an APU [auxiliary power unit] overhaul shop for the APS3200 and for legacy APUs. We are also increasing our offering further to see where we can serve the African market; we put some investment into our landing gear 737-800 and A319/A320 program capability, which will benefit SAA and other customers in Africa. Then on the line business, we also focus on training for servicing new-generation aircraft so we can service large-aircraft customers coming into Johannesburg and the regional Africa stations, up to the Airbus A350. We will be ready to provide A350 service in November.
What technologies do you think will have the biggest impact on MROs in the future?
I think e-technology is quite important and that you must become au fait with this. New-generation fleets coming into Africa will force MROs, especially those of us located in the south, to focus on e-tech; this is a war we cannot lose.
What does SAAT look for in an MRO partner, be it a supplier, logistics firm or service provider?
I refer back to my golden rule answer. We want any partner to understand why we are in business and the importance of developing skills in South Africa. [It] must be an innovative partner, sharing our passion for competent business, safety and quality to complement aviation. We would be interested in a partner that could help take us to the next level.
Much has been said about a skills gap in the MRO sector. How is SAAT working to bridge this?
Again, this is a problem common among most MROs. When you combine that with the size of the orderbook and the number of available skilled technicians, it has become a real challenge. We have an apprentice program at SAAT. Will it be enough? Of late, we are the hunting grounds for good technicians. Workers who have exemplary skills, thanks to our training, are highly sought after. So it is actually two challenges we face. We are continuously assessing our present needs as well as looking forward. There are also a fair number of personnel who are approaching “the gray tsunami” of retirement age. So that is another metric we are watching carefully to ensure that we have the full complement of skilled technicians to cater for our customers.
South African Airways Technical
History: South African Airways (SAA) came into existence in 1934, when the South African government bought Union Airways. A few years later, the technical division began operations. South African Airways Technical (SAAT) is a full customer-financial-and-operational-needs (CAMO) operation and is said to be the largest MRO operating in Africa. Customers include: Air Austral, Air Botswana, Air France, Air Madagascar, Air Mauritius, Air Namibia, Air Zimbabwe, Arik Air, Global Aviation, LAM-Mozambique, Lufthansa, Rwandair, TAAG-Angola and Trans Air Congo.
Fleet: SAA’s 53-aircraft fleet comprises A320-200s, A330-200s, A340s and 737s/737NGs. SAA flies to 38 destinations worldwide from its O.R. Tambo International Airport-Johannesburg hub.
In-house facilities: The main operational base in Johannesburg provides line and heavy maintenance services. Line maintenance services are available at Cape Town, Durban and Lanseria, which are all major airports, as well as at regional airports in Kigali, Kinshasa and Windhoek. The Johannesburg base has extensive component repair capability.
Third-party MRO capabilities: SAAT provides line maintenance services to more than 30 customers at domestic and international stations. It has European Aviation Safety Agency Part 147 training approval in aircraft-type training. Component workshops offer services such as nondestructive inspection. The composite workshop is currently the largest commercial composite repair facility in southern Africa. The engine and APU (auxiliary power unit) workshops have limited capability for the following models: CFM56-3C/5C/7B, IAE V2500, Rolls-Royce Trent 500 and Trent 700 and Hamilton Sundstrand APS3200.