The introduction of composite aircraft may lead European carriers to reverse a trend of sending widebodies for heavy maintenance to far-flung locations with low labour costs.

As the largely carbon-composite airframes of the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350 are expected to reduce regular, labour-intensive maintenance work, European MRO providers expect low man-hour rates will become less relevant in the overall economics of a heavy check.

European carriers, such as Air France-KLM, Lufthansa and Virgin Atlantic, have outsourced heavy airframe maintenance for long-haul aircraft to MRO providers in Asia and other regions.

Long-distance ferry flights are viable only for widebody heavy maintenance checks, says Sascha Leitner, head of network sales for aircraft base maintenance at Lufthansa Technik.

This is particularly the case for aircraft with traditional letter checks, such as the Boeing 747, which require high numbers of man-hours.

For example, Air France-KLM sends its 747s for D-checks to Asian MRO providers, but the airline group services its 777s in Paris and Amsterdam because the overhaul tasks are packaged into smaller C-checks.

Rising fuel prices have led to higher ferry flight costs and thus reduced potential labour cost savings. This is aggravated by salary increases in Asia.

However, the reduced need for regular structural maintenance work on composite aircraft versus conventional aluminium airframes will be the central driver in the check economics.

While it makes sense to complete a 747 D-check with around 40,000 man-hours in Asia, James Kornberg, general manager for customer support, products and business development at Air France Industries’ aerostructures business unit, says that he is doubtful how the same approach will work for the 787 and A350.