The Middle East’s challenge: can MROs keep up with growth? | MRO Network

The Middle East’s challenge: can MROs keep up with growth?

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The demand for Middle Eastern MRO services is predicted to double within the next decade. Can Middle Eastern MROs keep up? James Careless reports on this ‘mixed blessing’ scenario.

The Middle East commercial aviation market is expanding with no end in sight. According to the Airbus Global Market Forecast 2015-2034: “Over the past 10 years, Middle Eastern airlines have spearheaded growth in the region … They have extended their presence to five continents, enabling air traffic to grow twice as fast as the economy.” In the last decade, travel to, from and within the Middle East has quadrupled, earning it the nickname of ‘Aviation’s Crossroads’. Looking ahead, the Airbus Forecast predicts that Middle East commercial aviation traffic will grow six per cent annually from 2015-2034; outstripping the projected world average of 4.6 per cent. “This will drive a need for nearly 2,460 new passenger and freighter aircraft valued at $590bn,” according to a November 2015 Airbus news release. “Of these nearly 1,890 will be for growth and 570 for replacements. By 2034, the fleet of passenger and freighter aircraft in the Middle East region will almost treble from nearly 1,100 in 2015, to over 2,950 by 2034.”

The aviation and aerospace consulting firm ICF International is similarly bullish about the Middle East. The region currently has about five per cent of the 27,100 aircraft global fleet; which works out to about 1,360 airframes. ICF predicts that the region’s fleet will grow to six per cent (about 2,300 aircraft; two-thirds more than in 2015) by 2025, while the global fleet grows to 37,900 aircraft.

Many trends driving growth

Given that the Middle East’s economy is currently being depressed by Saudi Arabia’s ongoing crude oil price war, one has to wonder why this region’s commercial air traffic future has been predicted to remain strong? The answer lies in the many factors driving the Middle East’s commercial aviation traffic growth. 

In particular, “about 80 per cent of the world’s population lives within an eight-hour flight of the Gulf, allowing carriers in the Middle East to aggregate traffic at their hubs and offer one-stop service between many city pairs that would not otherwise enjoy such direct itineraries,” says the Boeing Current Market Outlook 2015-2034. The Middle East is also experiencing an increase in migrator workers and their families. The result of thismulti-faceted growth in commercial aviation traffic is that Middle Eastern carriers are buying more aircraft to keep up with demand. 

Middle Eastern LCCs are also snapping up new aircraft, due to their success in attracting new customers. “The region’s low-cost carriers have ... been innovative, reducing shorthaul fares, setting up cross-border subsidiaries, and developing mobile booking portals to improve access to air services,” says the Boeing Outlook. “The business model is evolving as carriers broaden offerings to include business class seating and as they expand networks into previously under-served areas, such as the Commonwealth of Independent States.”

One big customer for new aircraft is Iran Air, the country’s flag carrier that has been saddled with ageing A300/A310s/A320s and 747-200s due to economic sanctions. Sanctions are being lifted thanks to the Iranian/US nuclear deal and ICF says Iran Air has recently ordered 118 Airbus jets (12 A380s, 16 A350-1000s, 18 A330-900neos, 27 A330ceos, 24 A320neos, and 21 A320ceos) and 40 ATR 72-600 turboprops.

The ATR turboprop sale marks the importance of short-haul aircraft in “the only region in the world where the twin aisle fleet is bigger than the single aisle,” says the Airbus Forecast. “ATR has been under the radar in the Middle East due to its carriers’ focus on widebody aircraft, but the Iran Air ATR 72-600 purchase shows that we are a real player here,” explains Milco Rappuoli, ATR’s sales director for Middle East and North Africa. “We now have Egypt and Saudi Arabia as active prospects for further turboprop sales.”

The bottom line: “Though not all airlines in the Middle East are profitable, the upwards trend since 2013 is set to continue into 2016,” according to the ICF presentation “MRO Forecast and Market Trends,” presented by ICF principal Richard Brown at the MRO Middle East conference in Dubai in February 2016. [Comments attributed to Brown in this article are from that presentation.] 

And the impact of low oil prices? In the long-term, “the potential for sustained reduction in oil revenues will drive painful budget cuts in the Middle East region,” warns Brown. In the short term, it is motivating Middle Eastern airlines to keep older commercial airliners in service. 

“Low jet fuel costs means that Middle Eastern carriers can afford to keep flying older generation aircraft that are not fuel-efficient” says Osama Fattaleh, CEO of JorAMCo; the independent MRO headquartered in Amman, Jordan. “So we are seeing a lot of these aircraft coming into our MRO facility. We are also seeing European carriers considering outsourcing maintenance activities to JorAMCo due to our aggressive pricing and flexibility driven by our skilled labour force, our lower cost base and our geographical location.”

MRO demand set to double

As a result of ongoing commercial traffic growth, “there has been a tremendous number of airliners purchased by Middle Eastern carriers over the past decade,” says David Stewart, head of ICF’s Aerospace and MRO team. “Many of these aircraft are due for their first major heavy checks, which means they will be keeping their MROs busy.” ICF’s projections indicate how busy. 

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