As low-cost airlines reach critical mass, they are pulling more ground services and technical support in-house to achieve maintenance efficiencies

The high utilisation rates and quick turnarounds demanded by low-cost airlines place particular emphasis on efficient line and light maintenance operations, as carriers aim for minimum aircraft downtime and schedule disruption. With Europe's low-cost operators growing, "outsource everything" is no longer always the most efficient business model, and the larger low-costers are seeking greater control of their technical operations.

Some are blurring the line between "traditional" airlines and themselves by pulling more of their ground services and technical support in-house. UK low-cost operator EasyJet is using its EasyTech joint venture with third-party maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) provider FLS Aerospace to exercise greater control over its fleet support, and German low-fares airline Air Berlin hopes to bring even heavy maintenance such as C-checks in-house as it looks to expand its hangar capacity.

Paul Kimberley, general manager at EasyTech, says one of the biggest advantages of the joint venture is the feeling that staff are part of the EasyJet group. "Because we sit with the airline's operations staff, we can react more readily to the airline's needs," he says.

EasyTech is 75:25 owned by FLS and EasyJet, with the MRO provider supplying the company's 170 staff and the airline providing hangar facilities at London's Luton Airport, where 10 of EasyJet's Boeing 737s are based. Line personnel wear EasyJet's orange overalls, and the engineers adhere to the company's informal no-tie dress code.

This January, FLS renewed its prime maintenance provider (PMP) contract for EasyJet and Go's combined fleet of 68 Boeing 737-300s and -700s, providing total maintenance support until 2011. Under the agreement, EasyTech carries out front-line support including line and light maintenance, with FLS covering heavier checks.

The joint venture is one of several EasyJet service divisions that have gradually pulled peripheral services back in-house as the airline expands. EasyJetServices handles check-in, departures, boarding and flight despatch, while EasyJetRamp provides baggage handling, refuelling and passenger boarding at Luton and Geneva, Switzerland.

Kimberley says about 40% of EasyJet's line maintenance is now handled in-house by EasyTech, with the rest contracted out to third-party providers at destination airports. The 80-person Luton operation has a single-aircraft hangar, with rotables storage and technical operations. One Boeing customer service representative and a shared CFM International representative help with technical queries.

Line operations

EasyTech also maintains a hangar at Liverpool, where it employs 40 staff, and has smaller line operations at Aberdeen, Geneva, Malaga and Nice.

"We do our light maintenance at night at Luton," says Kimberley. "We've got aircraft downtime built in between 11pm and 6am each night to work through scheduled and unscheduled tasks. Ideally, we like to do all our required maintenance in the night-time blocks, so we only have to remove the aircraft from service every 18 months."

The line maintenance team at Luton are the main troubleshooters for EasyJet's fleet. "We've got eight guys on our tech ops team," says Kimberley. "The real key is crew notification; we need to know of any problems the aircraft has on approach or taxi. This gives us the time to have solutions ready." Depending on the severity of problems, corrective action can be deferred by three or even 10 days, says Kimberley.

Although the 737-700s have longer maintenance intervals than the -300s, Kimberley says they are much more prone to "transient glitches". The -300s need A-checks every 300h, or 28 days, whereas the -700s need to be brought in only every 500h, about 42 days of operations for EasyJet. "We keep a lot of -700 LRUs [line replaceable units] as spares for in-service faults, only to find later that the originals run fine once they're powered off and on again," says Kimberley.

EasyTech's Luton rotables store holds roughly equal numbers of Classic and Next Generation 737 parts, with the -700 racks heavily populated by electronic items. "We keep an inventory of about 200-250 items, mainly instruments, back-up equipment and cabin equipment," says Kimberley.

The first of EasyJet's 120 Airbus A319s will be introduced in September to the airline's Geneva-based arm, EasyJet Switzerland, and EasyTech is working with the manufacturer to prepare for the type's arrival. "For the A319s, we'll have to redefine the maintenance tasks to fit them into our seven-hour block," says Kimberley. "We have 10 guys at our Geneva base now, but that will ramp up for the A319s."

The A319's avionics may present similar transient problems to those seen on the newer 737s, but Kimberley says: "Airbus's onboard aircraft management system already sanitises the stream of transients." Airbus is sending a team of staff to help with maintenance and operations at Geneva for the first six months. "There will be at least three Airbus personnel assigned on a permanent basis to assist in logistics and support," he adds. Eventually, the Airbus and Boeing aircraft will be interchangeable on all EasyJet's routes, maintaining the "any aircraft, any route" aspect of EasyJet's business model.

Air Berlin, mainland Europe's biggest low-fares operation, has always done its own light and line maintenance since it has been in the low-fares sector. "We never outsourced everything, unlike some other low-cost airlines", says Ralf Toebelmann, engineering manager at Air Berlin.

Air Berlin started life as a charter operation and changed to low-fare scheduled operations in 1991. Toebelmann says its maintenance operation hardly changed during the transition. "We had to alter a few of our schedules to account for the different flight-hour/flight-cycle ratios, but that's all. Some of our aircraft are now running at a peak 4,400 block hour utilisation per year."

The airline uses Mal‚v subsidiary Aeroplex, CSA Czech Airlines and UK-based ATC Lasham for its C-checks and heavy maintenance, but carries out everything else itself. With hangar facilities at its Berlin Tegel home base that can accommodate two aircraft, as well as another two-aircraft hangar at Nuremberg and a smaller single-aircraft hangar at Muenster Osnabrueck, the maintenance division employs about 200 people.

The airline also has its own engineering department, which prepares maintenance and modification programmes. With JAR21 modifications approval expected next year, Air Berlin will be able to perform its own minor modifications, such as seat layout changes.

Toebelmann says Air Berlin's mixed fleet of three BAe-146s, five 737-400s, two -700s and 32 -800s causes no maintenance difficulties. "The 146s are wet-leased so we don't have to worry about them," he adds.

Like EasyJet, Toebelmann schedules 300-500h between A-checks for the 737 Classics and Next Generation aircraft, respectively, but says the airline aims to C-check its aircraft every year. "We can have about 4,800 and 5,000 hours between C-checks for each of the types, which gives us about 15 months of operation," says Toebelmann. "It's a comfort zone in case we can't schedule a check every 12 months."

Toebelmann agrees with EasyJet's Kimberley that the newer aircraft are more prone to electronic glitches, but says: "Most of the trouble was at the start, when we first introduced the type, and now they're OK." The airline also has some other equipment, such as in-flight entertainment systems, which Toebelmann says adds to the maintenance workload.

Greater capability

Air Berlin already provides line maintenance for other operators, such as Hapag-Lloyd, and hopes an expansion of its facilities will allow greater capability.

"We're planning to put a hangar in Paderborn," says Toebelmann, with the airline pondering a 40-aircraft fleet expansion and renewal order later this year. In the long-term, he hopes the new facilities will allow the airline to perform its own C-checks, and even extend its maintenance provision for other carriers.

"One possibility would be to do C-checks for other carriers during the summer months, when we'd have spare capacity," he says.

The development of such in-house capabilities could one day see the low-cost carriers approach the capabilities of the more established mainline carriers. But they will have to keep a close eye on costs if they want to retain their competitive edge.

Source: Flight International