As the aviation industry starts to regain its financial footing, it is likely that capital investments in terminals and other passenger-facing facilities will begin to ramp up. However, other capital investments in facilities like maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) hangars are likely to lag.
Rather than putting all those MRO improvement programs on hold, we should be thinking about affordable upgrades, fixes or additions that put less stress on budgets while keeping the momentum going. Let’s not forget that in the five-plus years before the COVID-19 pandemic, capital investments in MRO facilities were delivering real benefits in improved efficiency, safety and quality.
Here are some ideas that can help airlines and third-party maintenance organizations optimize assets, equipment and facilities with minimal investments — bridging to a time when financial conditions begin to return to levels we were seeing prior to the pandemic.
Retrofit Tail Doors in Old Hangars
It is widely known throughout the aviation industry that the doors on many older hangars do not have adequate clear heights for newer, taller aircraft. These hangars generally have sufficient ceiling height once aircraft are inside, because they were designed to allow planes to be jacked up for removal and servicing of landing gear. But getting many of today’s modern aircraft inside can be problematic.
One effective solution is to cut through the trusses supporting main hangar doors to install smaller doors immediately above. This requires a careful structural engineering analysis, sequence of construction and retrofit of structure, but this small upgrade can add the necessary clearance height for taller aircraft tail sections, adding new functional life to older facilities.
If this retrofit is feasible, it might also be cost-effective to make additional modest investments in upgrades to the main hangar doors.
The business case for hangar door replacements may not be obvious until we begin to factor in the cost in lost revenue from service delays when a balky hangar door won’t open. Assa Abloy Entrance Systems is one of our service partners that has developed parts and materials needed for new door panels, insulation additions, new safety items, drive replacements, and even entire door replacements. It also may be worth considering the addition of door features such as personnel doors and overhead doors that avoid opening the entire hangar door for vehicle access.
Many newer aircraft models are longer but do not have wider wingspans or taller tail heights. Though most existing doors and ceiling heights are still adequate, more floor space depth is often needed within the hangar itself. Hangar extensions on either the airside or landside may be a solution.
On the landside, an extension can be designed with a nose or tail pocket, provided offices or other finished space within the hangar do not present conflicts or can be reconfigured as well. On the airside, if setbacks can be maintained within Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations, an extension can be added with another structural bay and by relocating or replacing hangar doors at the new face of that extension.
If the budget doesn’t allow for a steel frame building extension, some innovative designs for fabric skin hangar structures may be worth considering. Rubb Building Systems is one company that offers options for these types of soft skin structural additions and can accommodate all types of hangar doors.
More Mobility in Aircraft Access Systems
Ease of access to the aircraft is essential for cost savings from more efficient turnarounds for required service. There are innovative aircraft access systems that can be floor-mounted, such as minilifts for tight spaces, floor-mounted teleplatforms, and reconfigurable scaffolding and mezzanine systems. Several suppliers such as CTI Systems and ModTruss offer these innovative and cost-effective systems.
Facilities that have adequate space for conventional scaffolding may be able to realize efficiency improvements with lift options that provide access to all points from nose to tail and even within the engine housing itself. Workspace flexibility is the key, and if budgets won’t allow for new ceiling-hung scaffolding or maneuverable work platforms, modest investments in smaller products and systems can be worth considering.
Don’t overlook simple solutions that might be available outside the hangar. Most airside ramps are designed for all commercial aircraft. By reconfiguring the aircraft parking apron, it might be possible to fit additional aircraft. If ramp layouts are “maxed out,” think about strategic uses of blast fences to recover ramp areas deemed too close to operating areas. Fences manufactured by BDI among others can be a key element in developing new ramp areas in tight locations.
If this option isn’t feasible, a minimal investment in additional concrete apron paving could be a solution. An airside ramp analysis can lead to options for revised aircraft parking configurations and strategic ramp additions.
Paint Booth and Paint Hangar Improvements
Many paint hangars have lost efficiency over time due to outdated air movement and filtration systems. That gradual aging is often unseen and not addressed. New, more efficient air movement equipment can save significant operating cost. Modern filter systems are more efficient, environmentally superior, and allow recirculation to reduce outside air requirements. Smaller and less expensive mechanical equipment can be installed as outside air requirements are reduced. Global Finishing Systems maintains a comprehensive library of how-to, safety and operational tips to help paint booths and paint hangars run more efficiently. Paint hangar audits can identify inefficiencies and environmental problems, and lead to lower operating cost and better environmental compliance.
Equipment and Shop Upgrades
With a few strategic upgrades, systems within the hangar and shops also can yield efficiencies.
One possibility is new, more efficient distributed 400-hertz (Hz) systems. Getting 400-Hz power as close to the aircraft as possible eliminates the need for long cable runs and the resulting problem of large voltage reductions. Dispersing smaller, more efficient systems from Cavotec and other suppliers throughout the hangar should result in lower electric bills.
Another obvious energy savings involves converting to LED lighting for all high-bay areas. These highly efficient systems will result in a net payback within the first 18 months and many years of savings thereafter, as these systems have a normal life expectancy of 10 years on average.
Additional efficiencies can be realized with paint hangar retrofits that deliver new, more efficient and environmentally compliant systems for air delivery and exhaust filtering. This can also pay dividends on the revenue side. Getting aircraft in and out of the paint hangars faster means they can be back in the air and earning revenue much quicker.
All these efficiencies and savings plus many more can easily be spotted in a retro-commissioning audit. By testing and inspecting all critical mechanical, electrical and hydraulic systems, as well as the basic building structure, commonsense solutions are likely to be identified.
Making Your Assets Work Harder
Though it’s likely the aviation industry will be cash constrained for the near term, we have seen what investments in MRO can do for the bottom line. By being judicious with continued capital spending, it is possible to keep driving toward the efficiencies we were seeing before the COVID-19 period. A few well-targeted investments can make your existing assets work harder for you, driving you toward sustained profitability sooner while positioning MRO facilities for a greater share of revenue from more work in growing markets such as air cargo.
Modern hangars must be optimized to accommodate evolving maintenance demands.
Patrick Brown contributed to this article. Over a career spanning more than 40 years, Pat has experience designing and building aviation support facilities of every type and size.