There’s a bit more nuance to it than that, so let’s try to break down the exam question: How will climate change impact the future of MRO?
1. Passenger demand
Passenger demand is the primary driver of airline growth and MRO spend. More planes and more flight hours mean more money spent on MRO. There is some disagreement within the industry on how much passenger demand may be affected by passengers choosing not to fly for environmental reasons. Some say it is very much a geographic issue (“it’s just in Europe”), some say there are too many other benefits it brings for this to make any material impact (“tourism, business, jobs, etc.”). The jury is out worldwide – even in Sweden where the Flight Shame movement started and is most visible, passenger demand weakness is argued to be driven by a weak Krona as much as changing attitudes.
Generally, public awareness of the subject is increasing, especially among the younger generations. They may not have made up their minds to fly or not yet, but maybe younger generations will select the most environmentally-friendly carrier in the years ahead. Consequently, the bottom line is that aircraft will need to be even more efficient – and MRO will play a big role in that future.
2. Airline behavior
Airline fleet procurement decisions also impact MRO spend. Retirement and replacement strategies drive the need for heavy maintenance, new investments in spares, training, tooling etc. A central question here: will climate concerns drive a rethink in fleet plans to accelerate new technology (i.e. brand new aircraft types or in service modifications like winglets or engine tech insertions)? In complex fleet selections, mission capabilities, price, financing, operating cost and slots tend to drive decisions. How will carbon fit into these equations? Will retirements come sooner? A few recent factors: the MAX and 787 engine issues and delayed retirements, increased demand for older aircraft maintenance and changing availability of surplus parts. Will this suddenly shift with a clamor for new technology?
In addition to fleet decisions, airlines have been in the spotlight for their operating decisions that save money but add to the carbon footprint. Case in point is fuel tankering, where airlines save money by lifting extra fuel in cheap locations to need less in more expensive locations. However, it’s important to note that extra weight means extra fuel burn and carbon. You may ask, how dare they make that trade-off? The same could be said for maintenance fly away kits. Adding weight just to avoid storing some wheels in remote locations. Seriously? Then there’s the common practice of ferrying empty aircraft for hours to other countries for the heavy maintenance just to exploit lower labor rates! Where does it end?
Well, I can see corporate policy of MRO RFP procurement shifting. In the same way that procurement demands compliance in areas such as equality, financial integrity, watch out for insistence on having a strong environmental policy. How long before this moves from being a nice-to-have to a decider all other being equal to entry ticket? IATA rolled out a new environmental standard, IEnvA, which is a voluntary program for airlines and their respective supply chains. In the same way that IATA’s safety standard IOSA has become de facto mandatory to join alliances and code shares, I am sure IEnvA will soon become the required norm.
3. Climatic effects on aircraft operations and maintenance costs
Here we need to think about what a changing climate (i.e. it’s getting hotter, colder, wetter, more ice or snow) does to an aircraft operation.
We know that operating in hot conditions is harsher. Engines hit EGT restrictions, their MTBR reduces and they wear out faster when burning more fuel and needing more inspections. Consequently, future engine designs, materials and coatings will need to be more tolerant of higher average temperatures.
Parking and turning aircraft in hotter conditions also creates problems. Among the most immediate issues: an increase in the time needed to cool down the cabin beforehand, brake cooling, unacceptability of APU and pack inops all need different maintenance policies. It might be that more facilities are needed as checks done outside today become less feasible.
More runway de-icing causes higher fan blade erosion, more money on de-icing fluid and more corrosion. Parking in colder conditions brings more cost, draining water, de-icing etc..
Sustainable fuels may bring new issues to the maintenance and reliability of engines. They may prove to be perfectly switchable, but bio diesel in other forms of transport such as marine engines on boats has caused early failure of engines. The concern is whether they have the same lubricating and stability qualities. The same with some motor vehicles, oxidizing in the tank, break down of rubber in carburetors etc. Much cost and effort would be needed in aviation to understand the long term effect to fuel systems, combustors etc.
For airlines to hit their carbon reduction targets, they will have to dramatically increase their use of sustainable fuels. Targets cannot be hit with the current technology pipeline and delivery rates.
4. What can I do as an MRO?
As I wrote previously, it’s crucial to understand that there are many things you can do to reduce the MRO environmental footprint and, in doing so, position yourself to be an airline supplier of choice.
Airports offer great examples of how to be a low polluter in the aviation stakeholder world. Case studies include net zero carbon buildings, sustainable material usage, restricting employee parking to encourage public transport and large scale electrification of ramp vehicles.
MROs can adopt these same policies and build on them to access more opportunities to enhance sustainability across the workstream. Have you ever seen solar panels on large hangar roofs capturing rainwater for aircraft exterior water washes? Airlines were quick to digitize paperwork, but paper continues to reign supreme in hangars. Electrical vehicles are rare in line maintenance fleets of cars. Pushback tugs for positioning to and from the hangar are still mostly diesel. APUs are still used on remotes for maintenance in the cabin.
Plastic use is often discussed in the same breath as climate and environment. That’s why it’s important to look at how plastic is used in MRO facilities and how it can be reduced. Vending machines, packaging for spares and media for cleaning – including all the aerosol cans. Oil and fuel recycling is common for fast food joints, but how many MROs use this? Too few, if you ask me.
Once you improve your own house, look at sustainability of further down value stream, your suppliers.
There are also some cool examples of how to re-purpose unserviceable parts previously thrown into the trash – turning old seat covers into branded amenity kits, watches made from old engine titanium LLPs, theater seating at home, seats made from engine cowls, windows turned into clocks. It’s an aviation geek’s dream.
To conclude, it’s a widely held belief that climate change will affect passenger demand in some form. It will change airline behavior in fleet decisions, procurement and operations. Attention from regulators, industry players and the public will flow down to MRO. In the meantime, there’s no shortage of things MROs can do to improve their own footprint and prosper.