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May 19, 2020

The Impact of COVID-19 on Airline Maintenance Schedules

Commercial airplanes cannot simply be parked on a runway to wait out the pandemic. Whether it’s fine-tuning an aircraft’s flight-control system, maintaining safe and effective brakes, or getting rid of nesting birds, planes need lots of time and attention, even while grounded.

Humidity can corrode parts while damaging a plane’s interior. Some planes must be filled with gas just to keep tanks lubricated and prevent the aircraft from rocking in the wind.

In Abu Dhabi, maintenance engineers at Etihad Airways PJSC work 24/7 to keep grounded planes in good condition. Their work includes firing up aircraft, running engines, and protecting high-tech components from penetration by dust and dirt.

Even so, all but the most essential equipment servicing is being deferred to balance expenses against income. The extent to which these measures continue depends on the duration of the current crisis and the pace of economic recovery.

Given the current uncertainty, total lost airline revenue is difficult to predict. In late February of 2020, it was roughly $29 billion. In mid-April, it was $314 billion. That’s 55 percent less revenue in 2020 than in 2019 so far.

How airline companies handle maintenance affects not just the fleets in question. It also impacts suppliers all the way down the supply line. When planes are parked and nonessential maintenance is deferred, all aftermarket sectors feel the crunch. As demand for air travel resumes, some areas will recover faster than others.

For green time engines, MRO services may be placed on hold indefinitely. According to Dietmar Focke, head of engine services at Lufthansa Technik, the longer the crisis continues, the longer it will take to restore aircraft operations to pre-COVID-19 levels and the bigger the impact on airline service providers will be.

Focke believes that the effects of COVID-19 on the airline industry could extend through 2021 or longer. Accordingly, MRO requests could shift further out into the future depending on the pace of recovery.

High-end maintenance jobs like engine overhauls are being postponed while mobile repairs, spare engines and on-wing services are likely to be employed instead. This won’t necessarily help MRO providers, but it can benefit engine lessors such as Engine Lease Finance, FTAI Aviation and Willis Lease Finance.

Engine lessors should see improvement once commercial airlines resume service. Lessors should also benefit when backed-up engine overhauls are again taking place.

Prior to the crisis, the impressive reliability of narrowbody turbofan airplanes led to stretched ratios of active to spare engines. As a result, there is now little room for deferred engine maintenance.

 

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