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Learning to Switch Gears

Canadian helicopters are coming off a strong second half of 2012, which should translate into good news for the maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) sector heading into 2013.


January 16, 2013
By David Carr

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Canadian helicopters are coming off a strong second half of 2012, which should translate into good news for the maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) sector heading into 2013. At the same time, a shift to newer machines by some operators is going to put added pressure on the existing demand for workplace skills.

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The Royal Canadian Armed Forces is having a difficult time finding the skills to keep its helicopter fleet flying. (Photo courtesy of the Royal Canadian Armed Forces)


 

“It has been a couple of rough years,” says Fred Jones, president of the Helicopter Association of Canada, especially for shops that struggled to adapt. “The MRO community was experiencing the same fallout from the economic downturn as the rest of the industry. Fortunately, the industry is starting to climb out.”

Operators did not scrimp on safety items during the lean years, but were more likely to put off the type of discretionary spending decisions that keep shops ticking. It is this level of MRO that is expected to come back, especially in western Canada and Quebec, and that is rebounding from a couple of very bleak years.

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As in previous rebounds, not all shops will be positioned to cash in, with some having to limit the scope and amount of work they can take on due to a lack of in-house skills. “The name of the game seems to be adapting to changing circumstances,” Jones says. “The larger ones are busy and the Canadian shops with a global reach seem to be doing particularly well.”

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There’s a growing demand in Canada for skilled MRO engineers to keep aircraft in the air. (Photo courtesy of Pratt & Whitney Canada)


 

A recent report by ICD Research, an international consultancy, noted a global shift to military maintenance by civil aviation MRO providers. “In the current economic environment, companies in the aviation MRO domain are finding it hard to sustain strong revenues by focusing solely on civil MRO services and are looking to use their expertise for providing military MRO services,” according to The Global Military Aviation MRO Market Report 2012-2022.

The scope for military work is less in Canada, especially among smaller MROs, although the report notes that the Canadian Forces are having a difficult time finding the skills to keep helicopters flying.  “A good example of the shortage of skilled personnel is the Canadian military helicopter MRO market, which is witnessing a public bias against manual labour as a career choice and many youngsters are now opting for other vocations such as computer technology,” notes Jones.

Delta, B.C.-based Heli-One is one Canadian shop that has recently extended its reach into the international paramilitary sector. Last year, at the ILA Berlin Air Show, Heli-One, the world’s largest independent provider of helicopter MRO services, announced a 10-year, multimillion-dollar contract to support the German Bundespolizei’s (BPOL) fleet of Eurocopter Super Puma AS332L 1 helicopters. BPOL is a uniformed federal police service that engages in a variety of activities, including border security, counter-terrorism and air rescue.

“We have enjoyed a long-standing relationship with BPOL with regard to providing helicopter maintenance services, and to have been entrusted with delivering long-term depth maintenance for a fleet we have previously supported is a testament to the quality we deliver to the critically important national defense and security markets,” says Larry Alexandre, president of Heli-One. The work will be carried out at Heli-One’s operations and maintenance base in Stavanger, Norway.

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The overriding challenge that continues to impact both rotary- and fixed-wing MROs in Canada is that the demand for skills is outpacing supply. (Photo courtesy of StandardAero) 


 

As Helicopters went to press, Heli-One scored another major international MRO deal, setting itself up well heading into the New Year. On Dec. 18, the company received Part 145 maintenance organization approval from the Polish Civil Aviation Authority. With the certification, Heli-One’s Rzeszow, Poland facility is up and running and ready to provide customers with a range of base maintenance services. The first project in the hangar was set to start Jan. 7 – the overhaul and modification of a Super Puma AS-332L aircraft for CHC Helicopter.

Organizations such as Heli-One, Vector Aerospace and Standard Aero have been successful in planting the Canadian flag on the global helicopter MRO market. But will smaller Canadian rotary-wing MROs see more of their business go to international competitors, as has happened in the fixed-wing sector? Not as likely, says HAC’s Jones. “Certainly components, engines and transmissions can be moved over longer distances, but moving an entire helicopter is more difficult than moving a business jet and presents cost issues that tend to make the MRO market more national than international.”

Even so, Jones cautions “local” shops to not get too complacent. “There will always be things that can offset proximity, including economies of scale. If a larger shop with economies of scale can do the work cheaper, then an operator might deal with distance. But it’s a fairly complicated equation.”

The over-riding challenge that continues to impact both rotary- and fixed-wing MROs in Canada is that the demand for skills is outpacing supply, especially in the north where operators have had to keep machines on the ground because of a lack of flight crews and maintenance support. Like his counterparts at the Canadian Council for Aviation and Aerospace and the Canadian Business Aviation Association, Jones reports that HAC’s telephone is ringing as companies look for skilled workers, and rings loudest during the June/July peak periods.

“If there is any good news in an economic downturn, it’s that didn’t aggravate skilled labour. Now that we are seeing the industry climbing out of bleak economic circumstances, we are seeing the shortage in spades.”

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Although components, engines and transmissions can be moved over long distances, moving an entire helicopter is more difficult than moving a business jet and presents cost issues that tend to make the MRO market more national than international. (Photo courtesy of Vector Aerospace)


 

The problem will grow more acute as some of Canada’s larger operators go through a fleet renewal process, moving out legacy aircraft for more sophisticated machines that are going to require a different MRO skill set. Fortunately, there should be some breathing room. Unlike the last rebound when several operators rushed out to replace the fleet, renewal this time is likely to rise on a much slower slope. Operators have learned that one good season does not mean the industry has turned around. Still, MROs are going to have to prepare.

Likewise, the resource boom in the north, where the cost of shipping helicopters over longer distances is greater than in the south, is going to require a steady supply of engineers to execute day-to-day maintenance and overhaul. “It is not going to be a seasonal thing,” insists Jones. “Even in the north demand for aircraft is at its peak in the summer, but the MRO work can be steady year round, which creates opportunities for MROs with a shop in the north with close proximity to the customer.”

Both community colleges and OEMs are doing their part to feed demand and provide the training that engineers require to stay on top, but for now at least, it remains a race against time. Jones suggests that a trademark of the broader Canadian MRO sector has been its resilience. “As always the biggest opportunities will present themselves to operators that are nimble enough to take advantage at home and internationally. It is about turning lemons into lemonade – and helicopter MROs are particularly adept at that.”


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