In Germany they say "Auf jeden Regen folgt auch Sonnenschein", a rough approximation of "every cloud has a silver lining". And while Spairliners, the joint venture Lufthansa Technik and Air France Industries founded in November 2005, could never be accused of issuing such platitudes, it does express a certain blind optimism about the troubled Airbus A380 on which its fortunes depend.
Spairliner's chief executive Jean-Luc Fattelay and his chief financial officer Dr Georg Fanta, representing both sides of the Rhine, are resolute in their confidence of a smooth operational launch of both the landmark aircraft and its own component offering.
Spairliners promotes itself as a business to service the component needs of the combined 25 A380s ordered by their parent airlines, together with a potentially lucrative third-party clientele. Had the storm clouds not broken so spectacularly over the A380 last year, Spairliners would have gone live with the original early 2007 launch of customers such as Singapore Airlines.
And while the maintenance joint venture has its own commercial and industrial logic considering the need to achieve optimal operational scale, no-one should forget that the marriage represented a radical coming together of two arch rivals in the European maintenance field.
Those early pledges of fidelity are now being operationally consummated with the integration of a SAP-based IT system between the French and German suitors to manage the 1,000-item inventory that Spairliners will need to carry to keep the A380 flying.
Speaking from Spairliners' Hamburg nerve centre Fattelay admits that despite the traditional rivalry, the advent of the A380 has brought about a new product-borne affinity. "Relations between the two businesses have evolved strongly since November 2005. Yes, we recognise that there was a lot of doubt in the market. Not surprising really, when you consider that we remain the strongest competitors in the European MRO market," he says.
Spairliners has in some ways benefited from the A380's delayed entry into service. "If you look at what has been achieved during the last 16 months, it has been well beyond our expectations. Last year, of course, there was much concern because of the announcement over the A380 delay and we have had to adapt initial planning to come up with a new timeframe," says Fattelay.
Spairliners has naturally had to adapt resources and minimise costs to be ready for a flying aircraft, although this important feature of cost control centres mostly on organisation and processes rather than on inventory that it still has to acquire.
"We have had to shift quite a few of our goals and develop a new perspective going forward in 2007, but there has also been some good news in the A380 market within that time, with additional orders coming from Qantas and Singapore, and a rumour that Thai Airways is planning to acquire another six aircraft," says Fattelay.
He says Asian operators that have traditionally had vast in-house maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) capabilities and cultivated direct commercial agreements with OEMs are now looking for innovation and creativity from the maintenance community in terms of its A380 proposition.
"These airlines will operate small fleets initially, so the pressure is on to develop a different approach," says Fattelay, who admits to having had promising discussions with one Asian A380 operator, which has expressed the likelihood of buying into certain portions of the Spairliners concept.
Over and above the ongoing dialogue with the potential third-party clientele, Fattelay says the new service entry timeframe is set to have positive benefits for airlines. "Airbus is busy maturing the aircraft and this heavy focus on actually comprehensively testing the aircraft until its entry into service will undoubtedly benefit A380 operators who'll be receiving a highly mature aircraft," says Fattelay.
Spairliners will bring together the A380 capabilities of two of Europe's airline-owned MRO power-houses.
Spairliners has further been requested by Airbus to give its insight into suggested maintenance tasks throughout the current schedule of route proving and maturity flights in an effort to give a clearer idea of the aircraft's in-service maintenance regime, taking into account both scheduled and unscheduled maintenance events and anticipating worst-case scenarios in the event of a stranded aircraft.
This will also allow Spairliners to engage in operational predictive scenarios. As Fattelay explains, all airlines have operational peculiarities - perhaps from operating in hot or cold countries, meaning that maintenance events are not all going to be the same for all operators.
"All these different problems will be integrated and fed into our systems, enabling us to develop an IT model that predicts accurately the nature of A380 MRO as it relates to an individual airline, allowing us to propose and manage an inventory that reflects actual needs," he says. The delay also allows Spairliners to hold extended talks with operators to finesse the likely impact of A380 MRO on their operations.
"There is more and more of an obligation here, understood very well by Air France Industries and Lufthansa Technik, to be prepared to customise our service to match exactly operators' needs, which are principally focused on achieving cost savings. Both our parent companies are set to be A380 operators and we can offer a varied scope of offering, either integrated support of all aircraft components or a more limited package of services," he says.
Spairliners' central proposition remains the leverage two established MRO subsidiaries of big parents can offer A380 operators. "We bring a new level of innovation to A380 operators. It is a brand-new aircraft and we are proposing to fundamentally change their traditional way of handling components while allowing them to retain their freedom from any monopolistic MRO trends. We also give them the flexibility to transfer all variable costs on the shoulders of the MRO. We can manage that very extensively," says Fanta.
"Our A380 MRO concept has not changed, however, and we remain committed on a price level. Spairliners is ideal for an airline operating a small to medium fleet of A380s and, even for airlines with larger A380 commitments, Spairliners acts as the ultimate insurance policy. A central proposition of Spairliners is that we commit on component availability. A second removal of a critical A380 component risks putting a airline in an equally critical situation."
Fanta says that when Spairliners looked closely at A380 operations, it found two areas where it could add maximum value: a maintenance solution that covers secondary removals, and one that additionally could make available the whole scope of high-value components in which not all A380 operators have the ability to invest.
Spairliners was consequently funded on the basis of it capturing up to a third of the A380 market - currently around 50 aircraft - meaning an annual inventory investment of an estimated $80 million-$90 million.
The business estimates savings at 15-20%, but reminds airlines that the potential costs of a stranded A380 could place its savings proposition at nearer 30% when the costs of secondary removals and overnighting are taken into account.
"There is also visibility of costs as we commit over several years to produce a budgeting plan," says Fanta. Spairliners offers a longer 10-year agreement rather than the more traditional seven- to eight-year plan: "We term it a 'partnership builder' based on a long-term vision," he says.
"In a real aircraft-on-the-ground situation, where airlines are operating a zero stock system, our heritage allows us to know exactly what is required to support a new aircraft into service."
Source: Flight International