Dr. Johannes Bußmann

MIAMI — If you’re the CEO of a 26,000-person maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) workforce split across over 30 sites in nearly as many countries, maintaining 3200 aircraft from 800 airlines, you’ve got to have your finger on the pulse of the business that keeps aviation flying.

Sitting across a table upstairs in Lufthansa Technik’s enormous Hamburg headquarters complex — it’s so big that I’ve been here before and never sat down in the same building twice — the first question I put to Bussmann is, “how is the world of MRO these days?

“Competitive,” Bussmann laughs. “ No, really. A lot of new aircraft are coming into the market in the next five to ten years. A lot of the traditional airlines had in-house capability, but now they’ve ordered five, ten, fifteen 787s, and it’s not worthwhile to invest in any in-house capability, which means that there will be a lot of consolidation on the one hand. On the other they have employees, hangars and workshops, and that’s on the mind of many MROs in Asia. I spoke to four airlines in Asia this morning, and three of them have this problem. They’re trying to work out how to do it. I think we’ll be seeing a lot of change.” So what shape will the MRO industry be left in after that?

“It’s a good question. There is a danger of further monopolization, because the manufacturers are trying to take a bigger stake in the game. They monopolise the entire supply chain, so that’s a big danger. But there will be definitely fewer outlets, fewer companies in MRO,” Bussmann warns.

The crux of the problem (and, for airlines, it’s a nice problem to have) is that newer aircraft are significantly more reliable and require less maintenance less frequently than the aircraft they are replacing.

“It’s like new cars: how often do they break?” Bussmann asks. “If you have a new car versus one that is twenty years old… it’s the same with the aircraft. The intervals between the scheduled checks are twice, three times as long. Removal rates from the components have halved. That means per aircraft flying hour there is less work to be done, and that will have consequences.”

And what are the implications in terms of maintenance time, hangar space, skills and investment — within Germany, within Europe and worldwide?

“That’s a very difficult question, because at the moment the reliability of new types is on paper. But reality is different most of the time. If you remember the Rolls-Royce engine on the A380, we expected not to touch them for the first five years, but in the first two years we touched every single one. And for other things, they’re planned for three years and they last five,” Bussmann says.

“But I would assume that even though the number of aircraft is increasing, there will definitely be no increase in capacity. The question is whether the sector is shrinking. That’s something where we really need to see where the reliabilities are. But if you talk to Qatar or a couple of the 787 operators, they’re quite happy with the operation, and technical data is good. So there is no reason to assume that the efficiency gain that we expect will not happen.”

Are those 787 technical data also reflected in the reliability statistics of the A350 so far?  “Yep.” Bussmann says, then knocks on the wooden table with a grin. “It’s pretty good.”