When a mechanic at Chinese MRO GAMECO requires certain tools for an aircraft inspection, he is able to get them with the simple touch of a button — on his smart device.
Without having to leave his bay, the mechanic will have his tools delivered to him, allowing him to commence inspections quicker.
Meanwhile, on board the aircraft, engineers inspecting in-seat life vests can do so faster, and more accurately, thanks to RFID technology, which helps in inventory tracking.
These are some of the smart technology solutions that GAMECO has introduced in its work processes. Chief executive Norbert Marx says the coronavirus outbreak has given technology adoption “a big push”.
Marx tells FlightGlobal: “Especially during this time [with travel restrictions], we have improved a lot on remote processes, remote inspections, remote engineering support…artificial intelligence, and also augmented reality. I think this is a good way to be more competitive.”
The Guangzhou-based MRO firm adopted some of these solutions a year ago in all of its heavy maintenance bases, as part of a pilot scheme working with China Telecommunications.
While the coronavirus pandemic has led GAMECO to double down on adopting smart technology, thereby giving productivity a fillip, Marx says the outbreak has predictably impacted operations, especially at its onset.
REAL RECOVERY ‘BEYOND OUR CONTROL’
When the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the first known coronavirus cases were reported, was placed on lockdown in late January, it coincided with the Lunar New Year period, traditionally a peak travel period.
GAMECO’s line maintenance unit was already scheduled to put in extra shifts during the busy period, but the imposition of lockdowns crimped some travel demand and impacted the line maintenance business.
It saw business nosedive further in February and most of March, when travel demand both domestically and internationally ground to a halt. However, line maintenance saw a gradual business recovery from March, alongside a recovery in domestic travel demand.
“Especially during this time [with travel restrictions], we have improved a lot on remote processes, remote inspections, remote engineering support…artificial intelligence, and also augmented reality. I think this is a good way to be more competitive.” - GAMECO chief executive Norbert Marx
On the heavy maintenance side, Marx notes that it was “still going strong” at the onset of the outbreak, as most maintenance work had been scheduled in advance.
However, as countries around the world began imposing restrictions for travel into and out of China, he notes that some foreign customers have pulled back on sending their aircraft for maintenance. In total, Marx estimates the heavy maintenance business to have dipped 10-15%.
Nonetheless, GAMECO took the period to bring forward heavy maintenance works, especially for China Southern Airlines, which owns part of the MRO.
This could still present some risk for GAMECO, as it means the second half of the year might “have many empty [heavy maintenance] slots”, and that the MRO would have to double down on efforts to get business back.
Even as China’s domestic market is showing signs of recovery, Marx points out that elsewhere in the world signs of recovery are still murky.
“There are really a lot of factors that are beyond our control…but that will affect the recovery a lot,” he says.
CABIN SOLUTIONS, MORE THIRD-PARTY CUSTOMERS
Still, he tells FlightGlobal that parent company China Southern offered a piece of advice for the MRO — to not sweat the small stuff.
“[China Southern] told us…don’t waste energy on forecasts — there are so many variables out of [our] control. Take care of your people and staff, keep your company safe, and be focused on the day-to-day operations,” Marx recounts.
While it takes the challenges in its stride, Marx has big plans for the MRO and is optimistic about future prospects. It recently opened a base maintenance unit at Beijing’s new Daxing airport, and has clinched foreign regulatory approval to conduct maintenance works at the airport.
Building on that, Marx hopes to grow the proportion of third-party customers. Currently, the MRO sees about 30% of business coming from third-party customers. It hopes to expand that amount to about 40-50% of its total business.
Other than spurring it on to adopt smart technology, Marx says the pandemic is also providing GAMECO opportunities to delve into other businesses. For instance, it is studying cabin solutions to help passengers fly safer in a post-pandemic world.
To tap on the rising demand for cargo, GAMECO is also studying opportunities in passenger-to-freighter conversions. FlightGlobal previously reported in May that the MRO inducted its first Boeing 737-800 for freighter conversion.
As GAMECO looks to a post-pandemic future, Marx says the company stands on one key advantage: stability.
“Our [big] advantage is that our company is very stable — we don’t lay off people…we keep our team together. We are operating in an environment here in China, where you can say that the [coronavirus] seems to be under control [and] is monitored closely,” he tells FlightGlobal.
“We are, I think, a spot of stability, of predictability, where you can get maintenance [done safely],” Marx adds.