Despite the best efforts of suppliers and OEMs, supply chain disruptions continue to pose challenges for business aviation stakeholders, with no clear end in sight. How can operators and support providers adapt to mounting shortages of critical parts and materials?
Worse Than Last Year?
“In some ways, the situation has gotten worse than it was last year, when it was safe to assume supply chain issues were related to the pandemic,” said Greg Hamelink, senior manager of flight operations and maintenance for Stryker Corp. and past chair of the NBAA Maintenance Committee. “That’s undoubtedly still part of it, but some issues seem to go beyond that.”
Difficulties with sourcing tires, for example, appear to be tied to constrained rubber supplies and manufacturers’ focus on other transportation segments.
“They make more truck tires in a day than they produce aviation tires in a year,” Hamelink said of his tire supplier. “They’re hugely backlogged right now, and [they are] saying it will be 2024 before the aviation side is out of the woods.”
That said, business flight operations have proven resourceful in adapting to the situation.
“More so than ever, I’ve relied on interpersonal support, as virtually no one has [a given part] in stock.”
Shannon Hotchkin Maintenance Director, Nike
“More so than ever, I’ve relied on interpersonal support, as virtually no one has [a given part] in stock,” said Shannon Hotchkin, maintenance director for Nike. “An OEM may have all their gear holed up with a watchful eye on their inventory, so you need your representative’s help to leverage your position on their AOG (aircraft on ground) list.
“In my experience – and because P1 [priority international shipping] exists – it has been best to keep pretty close to a just in time inventory, with the aim to mitigate expensive obsolescence,” said Hotchkin. “That’s no longer the case.”
“Lately, we’ve experienced more shipping issues than parts availability problems,” added Ed Mursko, aircraft maintenance manager for 3M Aviation. “Until recently, we’ve been able to rely on the MRO to support overnight or P1 shipping, but we’re noticing parts not arriving when promised. They either do not get picked up at the MRO, or they get stuck at a terminal.”
As with Hotchkin, industry relationships have helped Mursko stay flying.
“There is some [inter-industry] knowledge of who has a particular piece of test equipment or ground support equipment needed,” said Mursko. “I’ve also purchased pieces of equipment based on what is not already in the area.”
Hamelink cited difficulty sourcing brakes from his OEM.
“I ultimately went AOG for [the OEM] to send me a set of brakes, because they were that tight on the brake assemblies. It was a little unnerving.”
Even when components are available, Hamelink continued, OEMs must weigh availability against other factors.
“The waiting list for new aircraft is two years,” he noted, “so, of course, the manufacturers don’t want to run out of tires for those deliveries. They must balance that backlog because it’s a snowball effect all the way down the line.”
Components in Short Supply
Other components in short supply may range from airframe parts to engine seals, computer chips for avionics and sensors, and even basic wearable components. In some cases, Hamelink said, MRO personnel have had to get creative with where they look for materials, as the common path to procure items is just not there.
Simple bad luck can also conspire to cause supply shortages. As one example, Hamelink noted that critical shortages of a common aircraft lubricant grease are not due to the pandemic, but to a major fire in June 2021 at the manufacturer’s production facility.
“That fire literally took out all their manufacturing [capability], in addition to the warehouse and storage,” Hamelink explained, adding that officials allowed the fire to burn for several days to consume products that would otherwise have leached into a nearby river.
As existing stock was used up, “they couldn’t backfill it, so last fall we started seeing critical shortages,” Hamelink continued. “It’s just a tube of grease.”
Maintenance facilities have looked to other sources, including overseas suppliers, for comparable products, he added. Where possible, OEMs have issued engineering orders permitting extensions of a few months for the required lubrication intervals.
Such cooperation is key to combating the multiple factors that have conspired to create a “perfect storm” for the industry.
“We’re at historically high levels of flight activity, and manufacturers are building out backlogs of new aircraft,” Hamelink concluded. “Add limited supply availability, workforce issues and other factors, and all these things are starting to really come around and bite us.”
The Ethics of Combating Shortages
Parts and supply shortages may place aircraft maintenance technicians in an awkward position when it comes to balancing OEM maintenance and expiration intervals with the need to maintain flight operations.
“We had a session at the NBAA Maintenance Conference earlier this year where this question came up: ‘If I have a tube of grease that’s expired, can I use that?’” Hamelink said. “It was met with awkward silence, because everybody’s in a little bit of a pinch on that one, in particular.”
Similarly, operators may feel compelled to go past established life-limits on critical components, including tires and brakes.
“There’s only so much you can do,” Hamelink noted, “like going flush on your [brake] wear measurement, but that’s it.
It goes without saying that, ethically, we cannot use a product that’s expired,” he stressed, adding that he’s not aware of any operators utilizing components past their absolute wear limits.
The situation may also tempt operators to hoard components and other supplies to ensure they can stay flying.
“For the most part,” Hamelink concluded, “everyone knows we’re all in this situation together, and it’s in our interests to help each other as we can.”