• News
  • Serving Africa

Serving Africa

For East African airlines it is cheaper to send for spares from Europe than keep them in stock

Michael Wakabi/KAMPALA

What Links Europe to a small scheduled operator in East Africa? A lot, according to Dick Turinawe, Uganda Airlines' general manager. Fleet size and configuration, capital constraints, frequencies and lease agreements are among factors not only at play in linking Africa with Europe, but also in shaping spare parts distribution and maintenance services in East Africa.

Cost and convenience are major variables as airlines seek to minimise expenses while sticking to lease conditions and local Civil Aviation Authority rules. Light aircraft operators seem to enjoy more flexibility than scheduled ones, because of the distribution for them in the region of training schools and service providers.

With average fleet sizes of fewer than 10 aircraft, and small operating margins, the region's scheduled carriers do not have the resources to invest in large spare parts inventories. As a result, with the exception of Kenya Airways, which has a comprehensive service centre in Nairobi, the other carriers in the area manage only routine maintenance, contracting major overhauls to larger centres on the continent.

Uganda Airlines operates a leased Boeing 737-500 and, according to Turinawe, the airline's service hangar is capable of up to B checks, on a scale of A-D, with D being the most thorough. Higher-level checks are contracted to Air Madagascar's service centre in Antananarivo. The same situation applies to Air Tanzania, which runs a small fleet that includes two 737-200s and a leased 737-300. The airline's Fokker F27s are grounded.

With such small fleets and the accompanying resource implications, operators can barely afford to invest in spare parts and tooling, let alone train adequate numbers of maintenance personnel to high levels. Uganda Airlines has responded by stocking only essential parts to meet minimum equipment list requirements and essential systems parts. Keeping such expensive components as spare engines ties up capital. With a spare engine for a 737 costing $3-4 million and with only marginal returns on operations, it is cheaper for Uganda Airlines to keep an aircraft down for 24h awaiting replacement parts from abroad.

"With daily flights to Europe out of the region, it is unnecessary to tie up capital in parts," says Turinawe. "It is cheaper for us to have spares flown in from the UK or other centres, as there are good connections to Europe daily."

European convenience

Nairobi and Addis Ababa have well-developed aircraft maintenance centres with big technical stores. But the small number of flights connecting with East African capitals mean that Europe is nearer in terms of time that would be taken between any breakdown and shipment of replacements.

There are also wide differences in fleets operated by carriers in the region. Kenya Airways, the largest airline in East Africa, has 10 aircraft: four Airbus A310s, four 737-300s and two 737-200s. The result is that, while the airline has the technical capacity to service all the region's aircraft, fleet disparities mean that carriers in Uganda and Tanzania cannot make full use of it.

Inherited from the defunct East African Airways, which was owned by Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, the Kenya Airways service centre in capital Nairobi is capable of performing major structural repairs including D checks. The facility's mechanics have learned skills on varying types of aircraft as fleets have changed.

According to Arun Patel, Kenya Airways' head of aircraft production, the airline's technical stores stock parts mainly to meet Kenya Airways' fleet requirements. These include a spare engine for the A310s, which has tied up $7 million. "We are self-sufficient for our fleet and order the necessary parts whenever we do third-party work," says Patel.

Kenya Airways has performed major work, including a D check on the A310 fleet leader and 737s. Earlier this year, the airline's technicians began installing terminal collision avoidance systems on the Airbuses.

Industry sources say lack of fleet commonality is one reason that an Ansett Worldwide-driven initiative to build a comprehensive aircraft service centre in Nairobi has stalled. The idea was to strengthen spares inventory management by getting hubs such as Nairobi and Addis Ababa to specialise in servicing particular types. Under the plan, inventories would be raised towards meeting at least 15% of conceivable requirements.

Fleets in East Africa are predominantly Western, featuring Boeing and Airbus aircraft. But there are wide disparities, even with particular family types, complicating planning for the needs of individual airlines.

Another constraint operators cite in accessing maintenance services are lease conditions and CAA regulations that limit their choice of service providers. To negotiate these hurdles, major airlines flying into East Africa only keep line maintenance officers at international airports while depending on their home bases for major supplies and repairs.

Uganda's CAA has recently licensed Air Serve to build a privately run service hangar at Entebbe Airport. The first phase of the facility, which will handle light aircraft, goes into service this year, with plans to upgrade to large aircraft in future.