A New MRO Player Emerges

Oct. 20, 2014
Turkish Airlines' goal is to rank among the world's five largest MRO providers; a new facility and an investment of $550 million shows its dedication

Founded in 1933, Turkish Airlines (TK) spent the 20th century as a nondescript regional player with little notice outside its operating area — but in 2003 the game changed. Capitalizing on Istanbul’s strategic location, the airline has since grown to be one of the world’s most prominent carriers, with a route network larger than that of any other airline. In some ways, this growth arc and geographic advantage appears to be a variation on the model established by the Gulf carriers that have also, in the past decade, reached round the world and created new patterns of travel for millions of flyers.

But the comparison is tenuous at best. While the Gulf carriers are building flying hubs, Turkey, with a population of 75 million, is interested in becoming an aviation hub, replete with manufacturing and support facilities. Istanbul’s geographic position puts 55 countries within a 3.5-hour flight radius; a huge demand pool for aviation services.

And with the opening of a striking new MRO facility at Istanbul’s Sabiha Goken (SAW) Airport earlier this year, the airline has vastly increased its capacity and resources. Begun as a greenfield project in 2010, it is one of the largest MRO facilities in the world and, unlike many of its counterparts, was built as a single complex designed to provide full MRO facilities as well as a certified training center. The complex, which represents an investment of $550 million, is one of the largest infrastructure projects ever undertaken in Turkey and provides 380,000 square meters of space.

A manufacturing site as well

It also is the nucleus of a growing aviation industry in Turkey, with Turkish Seat Industries (TSI) and Turkish Cabin Interiors (TCI) already producing seats and galley sets for the Turkish Airlines fleet, with the intent to become a player in the global market.

The facility is operated by Turkish HABOM (an acronym for the Turkish full title), an MRO company established in 2013 within the Turkish Airlines group. It was created when labor and wage disputes at the existing MRO company, Turkish Technic, threatened the viability of future plans. However, those issues have been resolved and within the year, the full MRO program will again operate solely under the Turkish Technic logo.

The new campus is in addition to an existing facility at Istanbul’s main international gateway, Ataturk Airport, which has an MRO infrastructure large enough to handle the current Turkish Airlines fleet. Therefore, the size and scope of the SAW campus is a measure of the group’s dedication to the expansion of the MRO sector, a means by which to achieve the group’s goal of ranking amongst the world’s five largest MRO providers. Like the airline it serves, Turkish Technic is determined to be a major player in the global aviation marketplace.

Two years to full utilization

As the new facility becomes fully functional, a process estimated to take as long as two years, the focus will be on third-party work, with a major Gulf operator being the first major customer and work on six A330s and one A320 already scheduled. Eventually, the breakdown of work will be 75 percent third party/25 percent TK at SAW and 75 percent TK/25 percent third party at IST. Some functions will continue to be located at Ataturk but there is room at SAW should additional facilities be required.

The new campus has full certification from U.S. and EU authorities. While the focus remains on traditional metal aircraft, they have bought autoclaves that will be installed soon, allowing for the inclusion of carbon fiber aircraft maintenance.

There are two maintenance hangars at SAW, a narrowbody hangar with capacity for 11 aircraft and a widebody hangar capable of holding three aircraft simultaneously. The widebody section also includes a paint bay that can accommodate one widebody aircraft or be subdivided to handle two narrowbody aircraft. At present, four bays are operational with others being brought online as demand increases. Beginning in the fall, with the high summer flying season completed, the facility is fully booked.

Adjacent to the hangars is a composite shop that is divided into bays dealing with specific parts and components. As with the hangar bays, the shop space is only partially occupied at the present time and will grow with expansion.

The facility currently employs about 1,000 staff, roughly 20 percent of the anticipated 5,000 that will eventually be employed. And staffing is a primary concern, as the need for licensed workers will grow rapidly in the next few years.

Meeting the personnel needs

To meet that need, one of the buildings is a university level training and classroom facility that will be used by Turkish Technic, but is also available to third parties needing state-of-the-art training facilities. Like many of its European peers, Turkish Technic will train many of its staff in an apprenticeship program: beginning with a six-month course, followed by a period of oversight and mentoring until the staff member is fully trained and licensed.

Since Turkish Technic also does line and ramp maintenance, the rapid expansion of Turkish Airlines has created a need for continual increases in staff numbers. In view of this heightened need, the airline group is also working with local technical universities to provide the necessary programs to meet its needs.

The entire campus is designed to be LEED Gold compliant and a great deal of effort has been put into environmental certification. The entire facility is self-sufficient in power generation, with gas turbines capable of providing 30MW — supplemented by solar and geothermal installations as well. The complex is temperature controlled by 150 kilometers of pipes linked to a geothermal generation unit, providing the heating and cooling essentially for free. There is also a full on-site recycling program as well as a building dedicated to chemical storage and waste.

It is also designed to be a good place for people to work with fitness facilities, a full clinic, cafeteria, and even a mosque capable of holding up to 2,000 for Friday prayers.

And yet to come?

The new installation is able to handle any current aircraft with the exception of the Airbus A-380. With Turkish Airlines rumored to be in the market for a larger aircraft, and a decision to be made before the end of 2104, one is led to ponder whether this limitation will favor the Boeing 747-8 — an aircraft compatible with current facilities.

And there is the unanswered question regarding the MRO installations that will be a part of the New Istanbul Airport, now under construction and due to open phase 1 in 2017. Upon completion of the third and final phase, it is envisioned to be the world’s largest airport with an annual passenger capacity of 150 million. When it becomes operational, Ataturk will cease commercial operations and the new field will become Turkish Airlines’ main hub. By that time the TK fleet could number up to 450 aircraft and the maintenance needs at the new airport will be substantial. At the present time, it is unknown as to whether yet another major MRO facility will be constructed at the new site or if TK aircraft will be ferried to existing installations for major overhaul.

Since the newly opened campus at SAW is designed primarily for third-party work, the real question concerns the future location of major workspace for Turkish Airlines’ aircraft. What is clear is the determination by the Turkish Group to become a major player on the global MRO stage, and given the astonishing success of the airline at its core over the past decade, one would be ill advised to wager against its successful achievement of that goal.

About the Author

Ronald Kuhlmann

Ron Kuhlmann has spent his entire life in the aviation industry. Beginning with a 30 year career at Swissair, he moved to an aviation consulting firm which eventually was absorbed by Unisys Transportation. He has written for numerous aviation publications and has been a speaker at industry events, including being the keynote speaker for Lufthansa Systems' global meeting in Berlin.