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United 787-9 Factory Rollout - April 8, 2014

Commentary: Airline Execs Distill What They Seek In MRO Suppliers

What do airlines look for in an MRO provider?

A version of this article appears in the April 21 edition of Aviation Week & Space Technology.

When we asked airline executives during Aviation Week’s MRO Americas Conference in Phoenix this month what they want from maintenance service providers, several said true “partners” and ones that have a common corporate vision.

“Cultural alignment is important to JetBlue [Airways],” says Dave Ramage, a senior advisor for the airline who until recently was vice president of technical operations. But they are not just words on a page—companies must “show and behave” accordingly, he says, because it affects workforce attitudes.

In this environment if something goes wrong—such as a fuselage being dinged during maintenance—Ramage says, “Call me! I don’t want to hear it from the FAA.” Communicate, and then “own up and fix it,” he advises.

Airlines operate on razor-thin margins, but that doesn’t means carriers such as JetBlue simply seek the lowest price. “We’ll share our success,” but it should be a two-way street, because it “doesn’t feel right when MROs are making double-digit margins” from airline work, Ramage says.

Searching for the truly good partnerships that include solid communication reaps benefits and allows business partnerships to evolve into “thought partnerships,” Ramage says, in which an airline and MRO host town hall meetings to collaborate on upcoming work, such as JetBlue’s Airbus A320 sharklet project.

JetBlue, which subcontracts all of its maintenance except for line work, takes partnerships seriously. “If we call you a vendor, you’re probably on your way out,” Ramage says.

Like JetBlue, United Airlines looks for long-term reliability from vendors. “We don’t want to look to grow our supplier network every year,” says Mike Arata, managing director of engineering. But being a large airline with a “legacy MRO structure”—United has inhouse airframe and engine capability—means suppliers must understand the airline’s operation “at the shop level.” Arata also stresses that carriers call the shots. They hold the operating certificate, not the OEMs. “I can’t emphasize this enough,” Arata says.

Like Ramage, Arata believes MROs should be extensions of the airlines. “I can see other tails in an MRO,” but they should “adapt to each airline” and “default to my operation and culture” when working on United aircraft, he says.

Kal Rebin, Jazz Aviation’s vice president of maintenance and engineering, agrees and looks for quality, cost control, on-time performance, operational excellence and a strong culture from its vendors. “We are always looking for innovation, but we want to be on the leading edge, not the bleeding edge,” says Rebin, who leads strategic negotiation teams for Jazz’s primary customer, Air Canada.

Rebin says Jazz, a regional Canadian carrier, looks for technology outside the aviation industry that it can incorporate—and vendors that can facilitate its use.

However, he advises MRO providers to “understand your business, because we’ll both struggle if you don’t.” He has seen disconnects between vendors’ sales and technical departments. “If you can’t do what we’re asking, don’t do it,” he says. Never overpromise.

Carriers are also looking for MRO providers to deliver flexibility, because not all work can be squeezed into a heavy maintenance check. 

Arata points out that United is making significant investments in its fleet—from next-gen aircraft to cabin configurations and automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS‑B) equipment. Large carriers look for stand-alone lines for scheduled maintenance, but if a “special hold” could be available as an option for things such as ADS-B wiring during a heavy check, that would be “ideal,” says Arata.

From staffing to finding flexible solutions, two-way communication is key—a factor that underpins all of the airline executives’ requests. Holding quarterly review meetings and using scorecards go a long way toward tracking details, but do carriers and MROs take full of advantage of using this time to innovate?

Quarterly reviews may be routine, but “MROs could break away from the pack” by showing airlines how they are preparing for future fleets, says Arata.

That’s almost a request for a proposal. 

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