The race is on to plug west Africa's MRO gap

It’s no secret that African airlines bleed cash to maintain their fleets. Has the struggle to recover from Covid created an opportunity to change that with new MRO capability in west Africa? Chuck Grieve reports.

Aerojet signing
Done deal: Representatives of Aerojet Aviation and the US Trade and Development Agency after signing the funding agreement. Picture: Aerojet

A commercial battle is taking shape in west Africa for dominance in the potentially huge MRO market.

While veteran industry observers may be thinking they’ve seen it all before, the planning in Ghana and Nigeria shows a new determination to tackle the flight of capital – estimated at $2-3 billion a year – associated with sending regional airlines’ aircraft abroad for heavy checks, modifications and interior refurbishments.

Aerojet Aviation, a Ghanaian consultancy, is aiming to make Accra’s Kotoka International Airport (KIA) a regional hub and centre of excellence for MRO. However, it faces stiff competition from at least four projects in neighbouring Nigeria intent on the same outcome.

The Aerojet plan took a major step forward in July when the US Trade and Development Agency announced grant funding for a feasibility study. Aerojet hopes to attract private finance based on the research and designs of its appointed consultants, New York-based Alton Aviation. Their target date for operational launch is the end of 2024.

According to one source, that puts them “at least four years” behind work under way in Nigeria on a new MRO centre of excellence at Abuja Airport.

That’s the assessment of AJW Group, which leads the consortium named by the Nigerian authorities after a “rigorous” selection process to develop the project as a public private partnership (PPP).

An AJW spokesman said the Ghanaian project, which is also being developed as a PPP after a rigorous selection process, “appears to still be at the feasibility phase, while we are in the process of commencing execution”.

The Abuja project, an integral part of Nigeria’s ambitious aviation roadmap, is on track to break soil in mid-to-late 2022.

Jennifer Ince, an aviation finance specialist in international law firm, Reed Smith’s, transportation industry group, said the proposed MRO facility at KIA was “an exciting opportunity” for the region, not least because it could eventually find itself in “healthy competition” with the new set-up in Abuja.

“The prospect of not one, but two, MRO facilities in the region will, hopefully, reduce MRO overheads and shop visit times for operators, and boost regional growth in the sector,” she said.

MRO remains a headache for the 17 countries of west Africa. The region has more than 30 airlines and almost no heavy maintenance capability. A C-check for the dominant Boeing 737 types costs at least $1.8 million; domestic capability could save around 35% of maintenance budgets – in some cases enough to ensure viability.

Aspirations abound. A partnership of Air Peace and the new Nigerian carrier, United Nigeria Airlines (UNA), is reported to be planning a heavy maintenance facility at Enugu airport, mainly for Embraer types. Although the partners said they wanted to be open for business in 24 months, they appeared to be waiting for airport authorities to allocate space at UNA’s Enugu base.

Observers suggest that, while the move is to be encouraged, it is “purely speculative at this stage”.

Elsewhere, 7Star Global Hangar has reportedly received a licence from the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) to operate an all-inclusive MRO facility. Its authorisations include C-checks on regional aircraft and up to 8A inspections on B737 Classics.

Dana Air, which operates a fleet of mainly legacy types, is also looking into establishing its own MRO capability. Its chief operating officer, Obi Mbanuzuo, told reporters: “We have the knowledge and capability to do it.”

West Africa’s potential is not lost on outside interests. One such is UAE-based Global Jet Technic (GJT), a Part 145 approved organisation, which harbours plans to establish a base... in Ghana.

The economic cooperation agreements signed between the UAE Government and Ghana in 2019 make such commercial initiatives attractive, says GJT chief executive, Captain Khamis Al Kaabi.

Chuck Grieve

Chuck Grieve

Chuck Grieve is an award-winning writer and editor with more than 40-years experience in consumer, corporate, trade and technical journalism on a global scale.