Middle Eastern maintenance providers need to focus on training staff to sustain the region's aviation growth.
MRO business leaders have highlighted the importance of investing more in technical training in the Middle East, warning that if the fleet continues to grow faster than the number of maintenance technicians rises, the region will lose its competitive edge.
While MRO companies in densely populated regions, such as Western Europe or Latin America, already have to compete strongly to attract young talent to a career in aircraft maintenance, this situation is even more difficult in less densely populated regions such as the Gulf states, said Ralph Kaeding, sales director for Asia, Middle East, Australia and Pacific at Lufthansa Technical Training, during the MRO conference in Dubai.
Sam Sayani, deputy managing director of Pakistan International Airlines, expects a shortage of technical staff to surface within the next three years. This has been accelerated by, among other reasons, the re-activation of parked aircraft and provision of previously deferred maintenance, which contributed to an overall increase in MRO activity.
Pay disparities across the Middle East region further aggravate the problem. Airlines and MRO companies in locations with comparatively low salaries, such as Pakistan, lose trained - and sought after - staff to countries with higher pay levels, such as the Gulf states. "The shrinking pool of people is subject to a bidding war," says Sayani. "That's okay for the short-term but not for the long future. A lot of these exercises will not serve the purpose."
He expects labour costs to increase so much that they will surpass growth rates in aviation. Efficiency gains, for example through lean manufacturing initiatives, could alleviate the problem, but not solve it. On the other hand, staff pay is becoming the main means to control overall MRO cost, with other factors such as the price of fuel, raw materials and ever more intensive repair processes expected to rise.
Ahmed Al Reyes, director of Bahrain-based Gulf Aviation Academy, urged the regional MRO industry to invest more in training local talent, because the Middle East would otherwise not be able to sustain its position as a main growth region. This is true especially for heavy airframe maintenance, which forms a large part of the current business. However, the profit margins in this segment are small and any advantage can quickly evaporate.
"We have a huge skills gap with components and engines," says Al Reyes, adding that the Middle East lags behind most other regions in its investment in training and building a future workforce. "Localising know-how will become a major challenge," which would require a multilateral approach such as internal training within MRO companies as well as courses at technical colleges and academies abroad.