Can U- Tapao Airport Be Developed Into an MRO Campus?
The recently signed Memorandum of Understanding ( MOU) between Airbus and Thai Airways to evaluate the development of U- Tapao International Airport into a major new maintenance, repair, and overhaul ( MRO) facility may have marked an important step for Thailand in developing its footprint in the aerospace sector. The advantageous location together with a state- of- the- art MRO aerospace hub is bound to attract many potential customers, especially in the Asia Pacific region where the air fleet is expected to triple over the next 20 years. There is no need to compete at this stage, as demand for the services still trumps the supply. Therefore, this development contributes greatly to Thailand long- term strategic plan.
The results of the evaluation as specified in the MOU could highlight many benefits in developing a major MRO hub in Thailand: from its geographical location, market trends in Asia, government support, etc. However, risks are bound to be identified through the evaluation as well, and risk mitigation will need to be planned and managed accordingly to ensure the successful realization of the MRO hub plan. Therefore, the evaluation taking place through this MOU will need to be looked at from the perspective of “how to get to that stage efficiently and effectively” – and this is no easy task.
There are many factors participants in the aviation industry should consider. Being financially equipped and receiving support from various government campaigns will ( definitely) help. However, the most important factor in gaining success in projects such as this is more about building a good reputation as well as winning the confidence of customers. Therefore, certification and qualification are requisite, especially as they pertain to manpower.
INVESTMENT IN PEOPLE IS CRUCIAL
In addition to the investment in facilities and equipment, investing in people is, undeniably, a crucial element in ensuring the success of this venture. Manpower in all key areas is critical: certified personnel to perform the operation, trained maintenance personnel to maintain the newest equipment and technology, qualified state personnel to regulate and grant approvals to proceed, certified quality assurance and quality control personnel, etc. This is not about training people on the as- needed basis, but about developing the mindset of the people who operate in the aviation industry, where they are aware that their work is critical to the safety of thousands of people who board the plane. Being a highly industrialized country, especially in automotive and electronics manufacturing and repairing, Thailand has an advantage in already having a pool of skilled workers. However, it is also critical to manage turnover, both organizationally and nationally, as the training period for aviation personnel may take years longer than training for the automotive or electronics industries, mainly due to the high safety standards involved in aviation.
Another key area of development needed to boost the aviation sector is the law: the regulation framework for original equipment manufacturers ( OEM)/ MRO activities in Thailand may need to be assessed to ensure that it is up to date, in line with requirements and fully supporting the industry and the strategy in place. For example:
• Incorporation of part 145 ( Maintenance Organization Approval) will need to be looked at from the perspective of obtaining Design and Manufacture approval ( i. e. Technical Standard Orders Authorization) in addition to Repair Station certificate. The approvals can only be granted through an agreement with State of Design ( i. e. agreement with Federal Aviation Administration ( FAA) to manufacture Boeing products, agreement with Eu- ropean Aviation Safety Agency ( EASA) to manufacture Airbus products, etc.), Otherwise, all manufactured products will need to be exported back to State of Design for quality acceptance, thus causing inconvenience as well as adding unnecessary cost. • U- Tapao airport with its ‘ one airport two missions’ statement, playing both civil and military roles will need a clear segregation between the two missions, in addition to taskforce separation, to ensure that there is no overlap and thus prevent potential conflict in the control over civil and military activities. This should allow the governing body ( the Civil Aviation Authority of Thailand – CAAT) to regulate ALL civil activities taking place in U- Tapao airport, in line with defined regulatory framework.
Setting up an MRO hub in Thailand is not just about getting acknowledgement or boosting economic confidence levels, but also about setting up a new foundation in developing the people, the infrastructure, and planning for a continuous growth and long- term success of the country.
Today Thailand is host to a number of national automotive suppliers and service providers, which is a result of the gradual buildup of skills and knowledge since having established the foundation of the automotive industry in Thailand more than 50 years ago. The same can be true for the aviation industry, with its untapped potential being recognized globally. This high potential toddler will mature into an important player nationally, regionally and globally. One day, Thailand may see local suppliers and service providers nationwide, and who knows – in the not so far future, we may be able to find an avionic repair shop just around the corner.