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Business News/ Industry / Manufacturing/  Airplane-parts shortage imperil air travel
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Airplane-parts shortage imperil air travel


Airlines say they face difficulty getting replacement components, adding to their other challenges such as staffing woes

A Klm airplane landed from Johannesbourg is parked.  (AFP)Premium
A Klm airplane landed from Johannesbourg is parked.  (AFP)

Airlines are increasingly hard-pressed to find engines and other spare parts to keep their planes flying, another complication threatening to disrupt air travel.

Passengers this summer have faced delays and cancellations because of labor shortages that have left air carriers with too few pilots to fly planned schedules, airports without enough ground and baggage handlers to meet demand, and insufficient numbers of controllers to manage air traffic.

The resurgent air travel has caught aircraft manufacturers and their supply chains off guard too, leaving makers of parts unable to increase production quickly enough to provide components not only for new aircraft but also for planes already back in service.

Supply-chain bottlenecks that have delayed everything from car production to furniture delivery during the pandemic are now colliding with reviving demand to fly. As a result, airlines are struggling to find replacement parts to keep planes in the air, and industry officials say it has at times led to delays, cancellations and grounded aircraft.

“We’re finding it really hard to get our hands on parts," said Steve Rossum, chief executive of Florida-based Silver Airways LLC, which flies primarily to Caribbean destinations.

Mr. Rossum said one or two of his airline’s roughly 20 planes have been grounded on any given day due to needing parts, often those related to air-conditioning. One plane was marooned for more than a week with a broken axle because it was difficult to get specialized tools, he said.

German airline Deutsche Lufthansa AG has had to ground some aircraft because of waits for various components that are taking longer to source, people familiar with the matter said. Whereas the airline group had previously been able to source missing items from within Europe, it has had to broaden the search for some parts across the globe, especially for rarer items such as panels for its cabin interiors, one of the people said.

Qatar Airways has been avoiding disruptions by taking the unusual, and expensive, step of keeping aircraft—including one of its eight Airbus A380 superjumbos—on standby in case planes can’t fly because of parts shortages, said CEO Akbar Al Baker.

The airline is battling with extended turnaround times at engine-maintenance shops caused by labor shortages, the executive said, adding that Qatar Airways is operating its aircraft for fewer hours a day to limit the impact of maintenance delays and avoid disruption seen across the industry, and particularly in Europe.

“It’s very difficult," Mr. Al Baker said. “I have issues in the cabin, I have issues in avionics," he added.

Airlines are also operating with lower inventory. With the pandemic-induced collapse in air travel, carriers found different assets to sell to raise cash, including their stores of spare parts, expecting a slower, yearslong recovery, said Geoff Murray, a partner at the consulting firm Oliver Wyman in Chicago.

The shortage of parts is leading to an increase in the time it takes to move an aircraft through a heavy maintenance check. For some engine types, overhauls that typically take 60 days can last up to 100 days; on airframes, heavy maintenance checks are now about seven weeks instead of four, according to Oliver Wyman.

The longer wait times are being compounded by competition for space at repair shops as airlines return to service aircraft that were parked at the start of the pandemic. Some carriers are taking parts from parked aircraft to keep others flying, according to people familiar with the matter, in part to avoid maintenance delays.

Engines are a big bottleneck. Engine makers such as CFM International, a joint venture between General Electric Co. and Safran SA, are about two months behind on deliveries of new engines, according to people familiar with the matter, while Pratt & Whitney and Rolls-Royce Holdings PLC are also facing delays, executives at those companies have said.

CFM said it was working with its suppliers to accelerate engine deliveries to plane makers. Rolls-Royce said it was working with its customers to support their operations. A spokesman for Pratt & Whitney’s parent, Raytheon Technologies Corp., referred to a statement from CEO Greg Hayes, who said that the company was managing the delays and that its engine deliveries would significantly increase later this year.

“There are shortages of spare parts, including engines, that are impacting the ability of our customers to operate efficiently," Airbus SE CEO Guillaume Faury said, adding that there wasn’t a quick fix to the problem. “It’s going to take time," he said.

In addition to snarling airline operations such as Lufthansa’s, Airbus has been left with about 30 “gliders," the industry term for newly produced aircraft without engines, the European plane maker said. The company on Wednesday cut its delivery guidance for this year and slowed its ramp-up plan as suppliers battle to provide enough components to meet targets.

GE CEO Larry Culp said the engine maker is working to keep airlines up and running as it deals with the pandemic’s sharp downturn and equally abrupt recovery. “In any manufacturing business, that is a tremendous amount of adjustment in both directions over a relatively short period of time," he said.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has also contributed to the strain. For example, a part used to cool hot engine air known as a heat exchanger is becoming harder to find, industry officials said. Airlines are in some cases extending the lives of the components through repairs rather than replacements, they said.

Collins Aerospace, which makes heat exchangers for certain aircraft, had relied on Russia but is now shifting production to the U.S. and U.K., a spokesman for parent company Raytheon said. He said the manufacturer expects normal production levels to return next year.

Boeing Co. commercial chief Stan Deal said the plane maker’s airline customers have so far seen minor disruptions, without significant numbers of aircraft being taken out of service as a result of parts shortages. “That’s why our vigilance—for both of us, Airbus and Boeing—[with] the supply chain to help the industry recover is really important right now," Mr. Deal said earlier this month at a news conference in London.

Delta Air Lines Inc., an Atlanta-based carrier, hadn’t experienced significant disruptions stemming from the shortage and is working with manufacturers to increase the flow of spare parts, finance chief Daniel Janki said in a call with analysts this month. “But," he added, “it’s day to day."

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