Will 2023 be the year that the aviation industry finally returns to normal?
That question weighs heavily on the minds of everyone from airline executives to manufacturers and maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) shops as the new year gets underway.
The official expectation, as voiced by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), is that the industry will fully return to pre-COVID levels in 2023, something that at the depths of the crisis wasn’t expected until 2024.
Judging by the dozen-plus interviews the Satair Knowledge Hub conducted at the MRO Europe conference in London, most industry players are cautiously optimistic that 2023 will be the best year aviation has seen in quite some time. The general sense of optimism comes despite a number of challenging headwinds like the global supply chain crisis, increased fuel costs, geopolitical instability and the industry’s long-standing labour shortage.
Many of those we spoke with said the evidence of the industry’s rebound is easy to see at airports around the world.
“I think the aviation industry is on its way back. We are seeing very, very full flights and very high demand for air travel,” Frank Preli, VP of Propulsion and Materials Technologies at Pratt & Whitney, said.
Like several others, Preli conditioned his optimism on the eventual lifting of remaining travel restrictions, particularly China’s ‘zero COVID’ policies that have caused the Asia-Pacific region’s recovery to lag behind the rest of the world. As of December 2022, all travellers entering China were still forced to show a recent negative PCR test and subjected to an extended quarantine, measures that are but a distant memory in other parts of the world.
Shaking off the remaining coronavirus restrictions is but one challenge that awaits in 2023. The global supply chain crisis that arose as a result of the pandemic was still very much on the industry’s mind at MRO Europe. Although the supply chain problems are not specific to aviation, their effects on the industry are compounded by a labour shortage.
“There are a variety of things happening at the moment,” Joost Groenenboom, aviation principal at the consultancy ICF, said. “There are part shortages, driven by a lack of resources and raw materials. But we’re also still struggling with the remnants of COVID, which led a lot of the older generation of staff to retire early, taking their knowledge and experience with them.”
Groenenboom added that some technologies, like the new engine types that have been introduced in recent years, “are still so new that they’re a bit unpredictable”, which makes it even more difficult to ensure a consistent aviation supply chain.
The situation also presents an upside, Groenenboom added.
“The biggest opportunity for the industry as a whole is overcoming these supply chain issues and thinking outside of the box,” he said. “I think the normal and the standard solutions don't really work anymore.”
Karine Lavoie-Tremblay, Director of Commercial Engines Digital Transformation at Pratt & Whitney, agreed that the industry needs to make changes.
“Considering the supply chain conditions and limitations that we have today, we have to be very purposefully taking action on maximising the hardware that we have available,” she said. “What can we do to extend the life of the part and develop repairs in a faster way?”
As the industry considers how to futurise its supply chain, there are indications that the worst of the logistical problems may be behind us.
The Logistics Managers’ Index wrote in October 2022 that “future predictions hint at normalisation and a return to business as usual over the next year,” while the supply chain research and analysis firm Sea-Intelligence said that “congestion issues have been cut in half” and “a full reversal to normality should come in March 2023.”
Manufacturers and MROs aren’t just rethinking their supply chain processes. They’re also continuing to look for new technologies that can boost efficiency.
“I think many have used the COVID era as a [catalyst to] reset the foundation of their business, which is a perfect opportunity to apply the right kinds of technologies within the MRO environment,” Sajedah Rustom, the CEO of AJW Technique, said.
Adam Mallion, Senior Business and Project Manager at OC Robotics, which specialises in snake-arm robots that can service enclosed aircraft sections, agreed that the MRO industry is undergoing a technology revolution.
“Being able to make our operations more efficient and standardise our work, improve throughput and productivity, I think is a really important theme for us going forward,” Mallion said.
For more on digitalisation in the aviation industry, be sure to read this month’s related article.
Another clear theme that emerged in our discussions at the conference was the need for industry players to work together for the common good.
“My competitors are my partners and there's enough space for us to all open up data, work together, focus on our key core competencies, and create a safe space where everybody can really partner and make the best of each other for the sake of the industry and the customer experience, Rustom said.
After all, as Lavoie-Tremblay said, those who work in the industry are also affected by its challenges.
“There's still a theme there about competing against each other. And we really need to find a way to work through this to survive because we all have common customers,” she said. “And ultimately, the customer at the end of the day is ourselves. We want to fly and we want our flights to be on time and we want to pay the lowest price possible.”