Amid the faster-than-projected recovery following years of the global COVID-19 pandemic, the aviation industry continues to grapple with a multitude of challenges, with material and parts shortages emerging as particularly acute. The sector has navigated a turbulent course, experiencing shocks that have caused both demand and supply to fluctuate from one extreme to another. Yet, despite this volatility, the industry has consistently risen to the challenges more efficiently and swiftly than initial forecasts had anticipated.
While smaller businesses within the sector express optimism about the near future, they also highlight persistent challenges that are prevalent today and likely to endure into tomorrow— at the time when larger industry players are sounding alarm bells. The question arises: are these challenges genuinely causing acute issues, or is it a plea for decision-makers to further enhance the comfort of major businesses? To explore this, let’s delve into recent highlights and the latest insights.
Regardless of the aviation industry’s notable successes in recent years, evident shortages persist due to a complex interplay of factors. These shortages disrupt operations, drive up costs, and impact the passenger experience. Effectively addressing these issues requires a comprehensive understanding of the underlying causes and the exploration of potential solutions.
Root Causes of Material and Parts Shortages
The COVID-19 pandemic, with its sudden drop in air travel demand, had a profound impact on the aviation industry’s supply chain. Production disruptions, workforce reductions, and port congestion led to a build-up of inventory gaps. As demand rebounded faster than anticipated, the industry was caught off guard, unable to meet the surge in need for spare parts and critical materials.
Further exacerbating the situation is a global shortage of semiconductors, critical components in various aircraft systems. This scarcity, driven by increased demand from various industries, has led to protracted lead times and increased costs for aviation manufacturers.
The ongoing conflict in Ukraine has also had a ripple effect, disrupting the supply of raw materials such as nickel, palladium, and titanium, which are essential for aircraft manufacturing. Additionally, sanctions imposed on Russia have further hampered supply chains, affecting the availability of various components.
Yet, situation with both availability as well as prices of raw materials is getting significantly better. Nickel prices just reached two-and-a-half-year low at the end of November, demonstrating a substantial decline of 45% since the start of the year, attributed to ample supply from leading producers Indonesia and China.
Just like nickel, titanium supply hasn’t got to the shortages as acute, as the industry expected. While aerospace manufacturers are looking forward to finding alternative sources to the competitively priced Russian-made titanium products, the stockpiles, created for years prior to the war are still helping to mitigate potential deficiencies.
Palladium, which is used to produce spark plugs in planes, as well as fuel cells, essential for a number of models of next-generation aircraft, has also become a concern this year, as supply and demand has seen extreme fluctuations for months. Yet, in this situation as well, as regarding nickel and titanium, main problems have been mitigated – but what is true about raw resources, can be completely another story when it comes to parts produced form such materials.
Impact of Shortages on Aviation Operations
Titanium alloys are essential components in both airplane engines and various parts of the airframe, including the aircraft fuselage. They are also used to manufacture flap tracks, springs, and various components of landing gears. Shortages of the latter have already disrupted operations for a few cargo airlines, as freighter operators recently faced unexpected AOG situations or prolonged maintenance episodes, particularly for some larger planes, including a couple of 747s. Concerning later aircraft models, as they have recently ceased production, the once robust supply of aftermarket parts is destined to diminish. This is another concern for the industry, yet manufacturers have already found some ways to address the issue.
For instance, Satair, a subsidiary of Airbus Services, now produces a single component deploying a 3D printing technology for one of the airlines operating older aircraft, namely the A320ceo. This part, called a wingtip fence, is responsible for an effective air circulation around the wings. This not only proved to be more cost-effective but also significantly faster manufacturing solution, especially considering the much-smaller scale, compared to the times the component was produced in its largest quantities – these custom-designed components, exclusive to the A320ceo, are no longer in production.
The only available supplier of spare parts for the traditional cast version of these components faced challenges, causing a consistent shortage of the molds used to secure the wingtip fences on the plane.
The absence of these crucial parts could impede the aircraft’s operation. However, this innovative 3D printing approach serves a dual purpose: it helps keep older fleets operational and becomes particularly valuable when suitable spares from decommissioned aircraft are scarce as there are none of any new produced for some time already.
The material and parts shortages are still causing significant disruptions to aviation operations. Airlines are struggling to schedule maintenance and repairs, leading to flight delays and cancellations. This disruption is impacting passenger experience, causing inconvenience and frustration.
The shortages are also putting a strain on maintenance resources, as technicians are forced to prioritize critical components, potentially delaying less urgent repairs. This could lead to potential safety hazards if not addressed promptly.
Addressing the Crisis: Collaborative Efforts and Long-Term Strategies
Engines manufacturers are positive about the outlook for the next year, yet, with the increasing forecast in production capacity, some challenges are lying ahead. Modern turbofan engines, powering the majority of commercial aircraft worldwide are complex and require a wide range of precise parts, including turbine blades, seals, bearings, and various electronic components. The supply of these parts is still tight, and the situation could worsen in 2024 due to increased demand.
In addition to these specific parts, the shortage of precise airplane parts is also likely to affect a wide range of other components, including hydraulic systems, fuel systems, and landing gear. The situation is expected to be particularly challenging for older aircraft, which may use parts that aren’t manufactured anymore.
To effectively address the material and parts shortages, the aviation industry needs to adopt a collaborative approach, involving manufacturers, suppliers, airlines, and regulatory bodies. This collaboration should focus on more effective communication which, as some industry experts tend to point out, is far from ideal within the sector and beyond more often than not.
Yet, major manufacturers are investing in technology to improve visibility into its supply chain. This allows both Airbus and Boeing, as well as such manufacturers as Embraer or Comac to identify and address potential disruptions early on, reducing their impact on production.
The aviation industry is facing a number of challenges ahead of 2024, but the shortage of precise airplane parts is one of the most pressing issues. Airlines, manufacturers, and policymakers already work together to address this problem to ensure the safe and reliable operation of aircraft. While the industry acknowledges the existing challenges, the ongoing efforts to address them signal a determination to safeguard the reliability and efficiency of aircraft operations in the years to come.