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Keeping A Small Fleet Maintained In South Pacific Islands Is Challenging

Local mechanic resources are very thin and hard to increase for Solomon Airlines in the South Pacific.

Those who think recruiting maintenance staff in North America or Europe is hard might try doing it for a small carrier on a chain of Southwest Pacific Islands. Lovely beaches and a nice climate do not always encourage ambitious young workers. 

Solomon Airlines flies from its base at Honiara International Airport in the Solomon Islands to Australia, Fiji, Vanuatu and destinations throughout the Solomons. A domestic fleet of four Viking Air DHC-6 Twin Otters and a single Bombardier DHC-8 is maintained in Honiara by a staff of 29 people. “This includes stores, the Part 145 maintenance workshop and the continuing airworthiness maintenance function,” explains CEO Brett Gebers. Maintenance of the carrier’s Airbus A320 is outsourced to Heston MRO, formerly the Aircraft Maintenance Services Australia unit of SIA Engineering, In Brisbane, Australia.

For the DHC-6s, Solomon mechanics do line maintenance, EMMA checks, engine changes, refurbishment and repainting. For DHC-8s, work includes line maintenance and engine changes. The airline has a single hangar big enough to handle one DHC-8 or DHC-6 at a time. There is also an air-conditioned stores facility, a training room and various offices, but no back-shops.

“No components are repaired,” Gebers says. “This is generally done on a service-exchange basis, or repairs are outsourced.” All A320 maintenance is outsourced, and DHC-8 C checks are also outsourced.

DHC-6 engines are supported by Pacific Turbine in Brisbane, and DHC-8 engines by Standard Aero, all under flight-hour contracts.

Geber says he has no plans to bring outsourced activities in-house any time soon for two reasons “We do not have the required scale to ensure that the outsourced activities would be done cost effectively. And there is a shortage of skilled, licensed and experienced engineers in the South Pacific.”

On adding staff or facilities in the future, Geber says he would consider a joint venture or perhaps partnering with an international aid agency that was prepared to contribute to building a new hangar. But getting staff is tough in his market. “Very few licensed and experienced engineers exist in the South Pacific, and we generally have to pay for all training at facilities in Fiji, New Zealand and Australia.”

Furthermore, “there seems to be limited interest in aviation, so finding motivated, quality staff is difficult,” Geber observes. Most mechanic training in the region offers very limited hands-on experience. “So engineers coming from a college or training organization are next to useless until we have spent a few years providing the practical element of the training.” And the Solomon CEO argues that the worldwide shortage of aircraft maintenance workers will hit small countries like the Solomon Islands very hard, as good staff leave to take up better-paid jobs elsewhere.

The government of the Solomon Islands does have a sponsorship program and pays for basic mechanic training. But Geber says this program is usually driven by political promises with no consultation with his airline about its needs. “So we interview and take the better graduates from the program.”

Solomon Airlines also works with other sponsors and pays for training. However, “the problem is that there is so little interest in self-improvement that it is difficult to get mechanics to study further and acquire licenses,” Geber says. “We have looked at various ways of trying to incentivize study with mixed success.”

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