Alice Springs welcomes kaleidoscope of aircraft
Like a good wine, Tom Vincent’s idea to set up Australia’s first aircraft storage facility in Alice Springs has taken time to mature but it is now hitting its stride.
The Asia Pacific Aircraft Storage (APAS) chief executive came up with the idea in 2009 and it took another decade to set up the facility and progressively get in place the most important approvals from authorities such as the European Union Aviation Safety Agency, Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority and the US Federal Aviation Administration.
But with those approvals and more under its belt, APAS is now in a key position to help airlines looking to park planes because of the devastating impact of COVID-19.
Alice Springs Airport has found itself receiving a kaleidoscope of aircraft types ranging from Airbus A380 superjumbos to ATR turboprops from customers that include blue-chip carriers such as Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific.
Vincent says the facility, one of its type worldwide, had seen 50 to 60 aircraft come in and out of storage prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
It had entered 2019 expecting an influx of Boeing 737NGs but this all changed when the grounding of the 737 MAX meant airlines needed to keep the older planes in service.
The result was a quiet three months prior to the arrival of MAX aircraft from SilkAir and Fiji Airways.
“There was quite a process there to get them ferried into Alice,’’ Vincent recalls.
“Then towards the end of last year we saw the demand increasing significantly for storage, particularly for widebody aircraft like the (Boeing) 777-200s, the (Airbus) 330s.
“That had already triggered our investment decision for stage two, so that was going to lift our capacity from 25 to 50 or 60 aircraft.
“And then in March, we started seeing coronavirus causing so many issues for the industry.”
The pandemic prompted a period of “pretty incredible growth” and prompted APAS to move straight from stage two of its expansion plan to stage three.
That was completed on April 11 and the company is now moving into stage four.
“Today we have 72 aircraft on the ground,’’ says Vincent. “We’ll have 96 by the end of September and we’re pushing ahead and forecasting 150 plus by late November.”
A commercial lawyer by training, Vincent has always been fascinated by aviation and had decided to return to Australia in 2009 after working for Deutsche Bank (Distressed Products Group) in the UK.
The idea to create an aircraft storage facility to compete against the famous sites on the US West Coast came as he was learning to fly.
He reasoned that, like California, Australia’s dry climate lent itself to aircraft storage — humidity and corrosion are the enemies of aircraft — and it had the added advantage of being close to the rapidly expanding aviation markets of Asia.
The desert town of Alice Springs, just five hours flying time from Singapore, ticked the boxes as a prospective site.
Infrastructure at the central Australian airport infrastructure included a runway long and robust enough to handle widebody aircraft as well as a fuel farm, a Cat 1 Instrument Landing System and emergency services.
Deciding on a site proved the start of a long and involved process that included lease negotiations with the airport’s owner, pavement engineering, capital raising and construction.
There was also the need to get the maintenance approvals to service the aircraft while they were on the ground in Alice Springs.
“So you have the facility but most critically there’s the maintenance capability to support the aircraft in storage,’’ Vincent says.
“Most people have a misconception that you just park aircraft and they sit dormant when that’s far from the truth.
“There’s a pretty intensive induction program and then periodic maintenance on aircraft after storage as well as a significant return-to-service process.”
For an arriving aircraft, this means servicing the fuel and oil systems in the engines, adding desiccant and sealing them for up to a year.
“We do a full lubrication, so that’s all the flight controls, landing gear and typically, the wheel bearings are all repacked,’’ Vincent explains. “We do chlorination of all the potable water, different avionic system checks.
“There’s a big close-up of the aircraft — typically the pitot static systems, open ports, parts on the fuselage, the wing, the vertical and horizontal stabilisers, covering all windows — and cabin protection.
“So there’s a huge amount of work that gets undertaken on the aircraft in the first one to two weeks.”
Nor does the work stop there: there are also regular checks that need to be done in accordance with aircraft maintenance manuals (AMM).
These include flight control tests, lubrication of flight surfaces, landing gear and wheels as well as moving and powering up the aircraft from a ground unit.
“Periodic checks are every week basically, but they escalate,’’ says Vincent.
“So for Boeing aircraft, that involves 7, 14, 30, 60, 90, 180 and 365 days. And when you do a check you do all the lesser checks. For instance, at 180 days you’ll do a 180, a 90, a 60, a 30, a 14 and a seven-day check.”
APAS does the aircraft maintenance in house through a Part 145 Group, Aerotech Aviation, under the approvals from EASA, CASA and the FAA as well as those from jurisdictions such as Singapore, the Philippines and Thailand.
It currently employs about 65 people and expects its workforce to grow as more aircraft head in.
Vincent recalls the long process involved in obtaining the approvals.
“We obtained our CASA approvals back in 2014 and then we lodged our EASA and FAA 145 approvals in October-November 2015,’’ he says.
“We managed to get EASA approval by March 2016 and it wasn’t until January 2018 that we got FAA.
“The FAA took so long due to a backlog because they actually had moratorium on foreign repair stations. That was lifted and they had to work their way through.
“We’ve added regulatory approvals over time but certainly we have a pretty extensive PART 145 approval scope.”
The range of those approvals can be seen in the aircraft parked at the facility. Joining the seven giant A380s and 737 MAX planes are Fokker 100s as well as members of Boeing 777, Airbus A330 and A320 families.
The parked aircraft are becoming something of sightseeing drawcard for locals driving along the airport perimeter, with the arrival of the A380s particularly notable.
“People had always talked about the runway being capable, but it had never seen one, even in a diversion scenario,’’ Vincent recalls. “it was interesting day seeing those arrive.”
APAS has parted out two aircraft and while Vincent says the company has an appetite to eventually enter that business, he notes the current situation means the parts business is suffering from falling demand and price disruption.
Instead, he says, APAS for now is solely focussed on storage and maintenance.
This will include at some point the significant job of returning aircraft to service, with the 737 MAXs likely to be early contenders as the type gets recertified and airlines move to bring their most efficient aircraft back into service.
“it’s big job,’’ he says. “We have, again prescribed by the maintenance manual, a program that we run.
“Depending on how long they’ve been in storage, there are always going to defects that arise and we work through those and clear them to eventually get an aircraft to a point where we can ferry it back.”
By Steve Creedy
About Steve Creedy
An award-winning journalist, Steve began covering aviation in the United States in the early nineties before returning to Australia later that decade and editing The Australian’s aviation section for 17 years. He is editor of Airline Ratings and has co-authored books on industry initiatives aimed at reducing greenhouse emissions.
Steve has joined the AAA to write interesting and informative editorial on the aviation industry.