Mesfin Tasew joined Ethiopian Airlines in 1984 as associate engineer and has steadily climbed the ranks internally, becoming director of operations and technical systems support in 1997, then vice president of maintenance and engineering in 2006. He is currently chief operating officer, a role he has held since 2010. Tasew talks with Victoria Moores about Ethiopian’s plans to add new maintenance hangars every five years and expand its technical capabilities, with the goal of becoming Africa’s leading MRO provider by 2025.
How has your maintenance business changed over the last 10 years, and what are your MRO capabilities?
Like all business units within Ethiopian Airlines Group, our MRO unit has seen significant growth over the past decade. Currently, Ethiopian MRO provides airframe maintenance on the Airbus A350XWB, Boeing 737/757/767/777/787, Bombardier Q100/Q200/Q300/Q400, Diamond DA40/42 and Cessna 172 training aircraft, including heavy maintenance checks and modifications. We carry out scheduled A, B, C and D checks, as well as unscheduled maintenance work and winglet installations on the 767 and 737.
In addition to airframe maintenance, Ethiopian MRO has developed engine overhaul capability for the CFM International CFM56-7B/3, Pratt & Whitney PW150A and Honeywell GTCP 331-200 and GTCP 131-9B auxiliary power units. Recently, we have become the first African MRO to develop repair capability for GE Aviation’s GEnx engine, which powers the 787. Our component shops also maintain most of the components installed on Ethiopian’s own fleet.
The MRO unit is a Boeing and Bombardier authorized service facility. Within our strategic road map, we envision making Ethiopian MRO the leading MRO service provider in Africa by 2025, with revenue close to $600 million. In line with this strategy, Ethiopian MRO continues to expand its reach in African aviation and the Middle East as well.
What facilities do you currently have, and how will they grow with your expansion?
Ethiopian MRO has six hangars, including three for widebodies, each with the capacity to accommodate one 747 and two 737s at a time. We have a state-of-the art, closed-door paint hangar and two hangars for narrowbodies and turboprops.
We have workshops for all the maintenance we carry out, including a 12,000-m2 (129,000-ft.2), GE-approved engine overhaul facility that does complete repair, modification, overhaul and testing. In addition, modular and other repair work is performed on the GEnx, PW4000 and PW2000. The MRO unit has two test-cell facilities, one for turbofan engines producing thrust of up to 100,000 lb., and the second for turboprop engines and APUs.
Under our Vision 2025 strategic road map, Ethiopian MRO plans to build hangars every five years and expand its engine maintenance shop to accommodate increasing volumes and new capabilities. We are also planning to build a modern RFID-based aircraft parts warehouse.
Are there any areas where you want to develop additional capabilities?
Ethiopian MRO has built up a comprehensive in-house component maintenance capability to overhaul more than 1,000 mechanical, electrical and avionics components. In our wire kit harness manufacturing plant, we also manufacture and supply electrical wire bundles to Boeing for use on its commercial aircraft such as the 737, 747, 767 and 777.
Ethiopian MRO has been working with major OEMs—including GE Aviation, Honeywell, UTAS, Boeing and Bombardier—to increase its capabilities and develop an aviation MRO and manufacturing hub in Ethiopia.
Can you tell me more about your plans to branch out into cabin interiors manufacturing?
We are seeking to expand into manufacturing aircraft seat covers, safety belts, carpets and other aircraft interior parts. We are partnering with ACM Aerospace of Germany to establish and develop a labor-intensive aerospace-manufacturing industry, with a wide portfolio of products.
Ethiopian has formed equity partnerships with several African airlines, like ASKY in West Africa and Malawian Airlines in southern Africa, and other startup airlines in Chad, Guinea, Mozambique and Zambia. Are you planning on setting up local maintenance operations there as well?
In line with the group’s multi-hub strategies, Ethiopian MRO is also considering establishing maintenance facilities at our partner airlines, and a project has been launched to identify areas for selection.
Are you looking to develop your third-party work?
Indeed. We perform maintenance for some African carriers including ASKY, Malawian, TAAG Angola, RwandAir, Camair-Co, Guinea Ecuatorial Airlines, Congo Airways, Arik Air in Nigeria, Jambojet in Kenya and many more. We plan to expand such services, in line with our capabilities.
Are you feeling the skills shortage in your maintenance operation? What are you doing to retain and attract new technicians?
Ethiopian MRO has over 2,000 highly qualified technicians and engineers, providing technical handling services at more than 60 stations on five continents. Thanks to our aviation academy, which is also an International Civil Aviation Organization Regional Training Center of Excellence, we are self-sufficient in training and producing aviation professionals, including technicians. We also offer attractive benefits packages to ensure staff satisfaction and retention.
How is digitalization changing Ethiopian’s maintenance business? What challenges does this create and how are you facing those challenges?
Ethiopian always keeps up with current technologies, in every aspect of its operation. In line with this, we install and operate the latest-technology machines, devices and applications to optimize our operations. Ethiopian MRO uses the internet-based Mxi Technologies Maintenix IT system to manage its maintenance activities, not only at its home base but across all the stations it flies to.
Do you see any structural changes in Ethiopian’s maintenance business, such as privatization or being spun off into a separate company?
Aerospace manufacturing is one area we want to develop through joint ventures, in line with the Ethiopian government’s decision to partially privatize state-owned enterprises, including Ethiopian Airlines. We will look into further partnership opportunities on this front; however, Ethiopian MRO will largely remain a business unit under Ethiopian Airlines Group.
What are your greatest challenges?
Some of the major challenges for the MRO business are the involvement of OEMs in MRO and limitations on developing new capabilities. As a successful airline-affiliated MRO, we believe we are in a better position, but challenges still remain.
Ethiopian Airlines Fact File
Average Fleet Age: Less than five years
Number of airports serviced: Services to 135 airports (including 20 domestic, 13 Middle East, 18 Asia, 61 Africa, 16 Europe, seven U.S. and Canada)
Freighter Destinations: 38
Headquarters: Addis Ababa
Annual revenue: Operating revenue for fiscal 2017-18 was 89.1 Billion Ethiopian Birr ($3.2 billion)