MIAMI – The global supply chain is in a state of disarray, plagued with disruptions, delays, shortages, and beyond. It has certainly kept everyone on their feet, and it has affected nearly every industry from automotive and consumer electronics to commercial aviation. Dealing with those supply chain challenges is no small feat.

As if to make matters worse, a resurgent demand for parts and a slow return to normal manufacturing operations means that costs are also being driven up. The aerospace and commercial aviation industry is seeing some major slowdowns as a result. Preparing for those obstacles is going to be vital to success, especially in the tumultuous market that we’re surely heading into. Not to mention, there are many other concerns that will limit production, such as manual labor shortages.

In light of that, these are some of the biggest supply chain challenges affecting commercial aviation, whether today or in the near future:

View of the cargo ramp at MIA. Photo: © Brent Foster / Airways – @5starflight

The Great Resignation

Even with highly advanced levels of automation, you still need people behind the scenes to support those systems and technologies. Today’s workforce is needed and that’s not going to change anytime soon. Yet, we’re seeing an unprecedented number of people not just retiring but also leaving their careers, whether for new opportunities or just to free up their time. It means that companies are struggling to find skilled workers across the board. Major airlines saw delays throughout 2021 so much that politicians have requested receipts for federal funding. Those worker shortages caused flight cancellations, layovers, and even full shutdowns.

As production and demand begin to rise at the same time, that need for manual labor continues to grow, as well, and it’s creating an anomaly, at least like we’ve never seen before. Adequate staffing and manual labor will be necessary to meet production increases in the years ahead and to say it’s a challenge, well, it’s doing the issue a disservice. The problem is exponential and it will continue to become even more so. Commercial aviation is not exempt from this challenge, and those shortages are going to limit and hinder every segment of the industry from customer service to manufacturing.

Photo: Airbus

Meeting Production Demands

As demand ramps up, and production increases, materials, inventory, and supply chain operations will directly affect output. Commercial aviation companies are going to have to prepare differently than ever before if they want to deal with some of the shortages coming down the pipeline. While demands may call for producing new parts and systems, the reality is going to look much different, especially if the resulting components are not available or difficult to acquire. Operators will need to be resourceful to find alternatives and continue production despite the shortcomings.

Swapping to a repair, over-replace, strategy can alleviate some of those issues, but it’s certainly not a catch-all solution. Planning is going to become absolutely essential, as parts shortages, and limited maintenance support, combine with many of the other issues to create the perfect storm. With aircraft engineering constantly evolving with the introduction of new technologies, it’s safe to say tomorrow’s market and demands are going to look completely different. Meeting all of those production demands and processes is just one problem on a long list of supply chain challenges plaguing the industry.

Korean Air Cargo HL7439 Boeing 747-4B5F(ER). Photo: Luca Flores/Airways

Managing the Outliers

Everything about commercial aviation and the airline industry is coming up against obstacles, from the consumer side of the market to more private and industrial areas. But it also means that it’s affecting other facets of aviation, or other outliers if you will. As an example, supplies needed for and within those aircraft are becoming more difficult to manage, as well. 

From the meals and snacks served to passengers to the aircraft fuel and even safety equipment. Some are instrumental to standard operations while others will become necessary in the event of an emergency, but that does not make them any less of a concern. It is absolutely necessary to keep all safety equipment in good repair. All of those items need to be inspected, repaired, or replaced, whether we’re talking about the cabin and flight crew oxygen systems to the evacuation tools, like escape ropes, evacuation slides, and crash axes. Personal flotation devices, fire extinguishers, protective breathing units, and all of the components and supplies that go with these items or systems — all need to be cared for.

Then there’s the upholstery for the seating, the parts, and materials for the cabin elements, the electronics for the flight systems, the list can go on and on. One of the age-old supply chain challenges has always been managing these things, but again, the market itself will facilitate new demand and supply considerations.

Cargolux LX-VCH Boeing 747-8R7F. Photo: Misael Ocasio Hernandez/Airways

Demand is Transforming

As all of this is happening, the parts and aircraft market is transforming to focus on new technologies and new designs. It means that many of the demands commercial aviation companies have been dealing with, for years, will change in scope and focus, some even rapidly. New materials, new designs, and new technologies call for fresh development processes, which can create an uncertain outlook.

Electric and hybrid aircraft propulsion systems, for example, are growing more prevalent by the day — their market alone is expected to reach $74.90 billion by 2035. So, on top of all the expected challenges — and some unexpected — commercial aviation crews are going to have to deal with retooled production lines and entirely new aircraft.

Boeing announced plans to open three new freighter conversion lines and signed a firm order with Icelease for 11 737-800 Boeing Converted Freighters. (Photo credit: Boeing)

What is the Answer?

Supply chain complexities, market changes — like COVID — rising materials costs, less availability, and the introduction of new technologies all collectively present new and dynamic challenges within the field of commercial aviation. What’s more, as things slowly return to normal, all production and demand will ramp up considerably, right along with those labor shortages, mounting even more pressure on top of industry players.

There is no comprehensive solution, unfortunately, but one answer is to utilize contextual and predictive analytics with the help of smart technologies. They can assist in better inventory and supply management, and aid in both predicting and preparing for incoming shortages. Smart technologies can also empower automation to reduce labor requirements, at least in many areas. They can even enhance production and output by achieving unprecedented levels of productivity. Every facet, and every solution, informs smarter decision-making through gathered insights, even within commercial aviation operations.

Forging strategic global partnerships can also help alleviate some of the supply chain issues. Technology partnerships, for example, that allow for materials and parts alternatives, in the event of a major delay or shortage, are always a good idea. They can also add expertise to the operation if or when the labor shortages become overwhelming.

When all is said and done, a little bit of ingenuity can go a long way towards addressing many of these supply chain challenges, and any others that appear in the years to come.

Featured image: LH Cargo MD-11F. Photo: Luca Flores/Airways