Dealing with Aircraft Maintenance Issues While in China

> | March 28, 2012 | 2 Comments
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Aircraft Maintenance, Aircraft on Ground (AOG)

This aviation blog post is part of a series on operating a business jet into China.

While there’s no good place to have an aircraft on the ground (AOG), the situation can be more challenging in China, where you may face the prospect of days or weeks in the country organizing a repair. Even items such as topping up oxygen, nitrogen or hydraulics involve ground handler coordination and typically take time to set up in China. In the event of an AOG, an experienced and well-prepared local aircraft ground handler will be your most valuable asset in guiding you through requirements, avoiding potential challenges and minimizing operational delays.

1. What is the availability of corporate-aircraft repair in China?

Repair capability for corporate aircraft in China is very limited, and you’ll need to coordinate with a ground handler or 3rd-party provider. You won’t find specialty tools or aircraft maintenance technicians/engineers certified for specific business aircraft. The three major maintenance facilities in China are AMECO/Beijing (ZBAA), GAMECO/Guangzhou (ZGGG), and TAECO/Xiamen (ZSAM). Most outlying airports can only provide very basic maintenance support for corporate aircraft and, for security reasons, airline maintenance facilities prefer not to service non-Chinese-registered business jets. Nearest business aircraft maintenance facilities and parts depots are in Hong Kong and Singapore. Even locally based Chinese-registered business jets are routinely serviced (with the exception of line maintenance) outside of China. If you’re operating larger ‘airline-category’ equipment (Airbus or Boeing) it will be easier to source maintenance assistance in China.

2. What should an operator do if a mechanical issue occurs in China?

In the case of AOG, your ground handler can liaise with original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) or major maintenance facilities outside of China to coordinate repair and technical support. This may involve flying in an aviation maintenance technician/engineer and/or parts from Hong Kong or Singapore. While these two bases can support over 90% of all business jet types, you may have to go farther afield for support of less common aircraft types. For example, some maintenance facilities can have an aviation maintenance technician/engineer and parts on the way within two hours to fix a grounded aircraft in the region. If you’re dealing with a minor repair/maintenance issue, an experienced local ground handler may be able to source ground support equipment (GSE) from local airlines (assuming you’re not at a remote domestic airfield), arrange basic assistance from local aviation maintenance technicians/engineers, and deal with language and cultural barriers. If you have an aviation maintenance technician/engineer on board with a fly-away parts kit, you may be able to source GSE equipment, as well as local aviation maintenance technicians/engineers (without specific aircraft-type training), to assist with basic procedures (i.e., topping off oxygen and nitrogen). It can, however, be very difficult to borrow tools in China and, in some cases, even minor line services will involve more time and coordination than you’re accustomed to back home.

3. What problems/issues are likely to occur in the event of AOG in China?

There are two significant challenges facing an AOG business jet in China.

  1. Customs clearance – Customs clearance for aircraft parts and/or spares will require a customs agent to act on your behalf. The process can be lengthy and delays of up to several days or weeks can be the norm.
  2. Ramp access – Gaining ramp access for the flight crew and an aviation maintenance technician/engineer to effect repairs can be challenging. Prior notice does help facilitate the process, but again, delays of one to three days are the norm, noting that every airfield has different procedures for ramp access. In order to overcome the local barriers (processes, language), it is strongly recommended that an experienced local ground handler assist and escort the flight crew and aviation maintenance technician/engineer. At some airports, you may also find that you must be escorted by the local airport-authority representative.

4. Any tips on “fast tracking” replacement aircraft parts through customs?

If a part is small, the inbound aviation maintenance technician/engineer may be able to hand carry the item or bring it in checked luggage. Otherwise, your ground handler must coordinate shipment with a local customs agent. Be aware that importing costs and taxes can be very high when importing replacement aircraft parts. Importation procedures vary from airport to airport, depending on the local customs office. We don’t recommend trying to coordinate importation of parts or negotiating ramp access on your own, as you may be faced with unfamiliar procedures and language barriers, including different dialects, depending upon where you’re operating within China. An experienced ground handler is indispensable in managing AOG situations in China.

5. Is obtaining ramp access particularly challenging?

Yes. Every airport has different rules and procedures in terms of ramp access. All personnel must have correct Chinese visas to access the ramp. (We discussed Chinese visa requirements more in-depth in our post on airport operations and customs in China.) A pilot should be with the aircraft and aviation maintenance technician/engineer to supervise items such as engine/APU start, to taxi aircraft for testing purposes, etc. Keep in mind that approval to fly a test-flight circuit is extremely difficult to set up, as this is not considered standard procedure. Often, the best way to flight test an aircraft after repair is to file a flight plan to a nearby city (although this may also involve additional days to set up permits).

6. How can an operator mitigate inconveniences of AOGs in China?

When flying to China – particularly on extended, multi-stop or remote airport missions – advance planning is advised in order to prepare for repair and AOG eventualities. Many operators may take an aviation maintenance technician/engineer and an extended flyaway kit on longer operations to China. Check with your OEMs before departing to China on the availability of technical and parts support within the region. Be aware of your next major inspections and take that into consideration when operating to China. The more pre-trip planning you do the better, particularly if you’re not operating a common type of business aircraft. Work with an experienced local ground handler and 3rd-party provider, as they’ll be able to assist you should an AOG occur.

7. Is business aviation aircraft maintenance support likely to improve in China?

There has been much business aviation growth in China. OEMs are looking to invest heavily in China, and local repair capability should improve over time. We’re seeing steps taken at both Beijing (ZBAA) and Shanghai (ZSPD) to have facilities available for business aviation aircraft maintenance, and this may be in place within the next few years. However, it takes time to set up new maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) facilities in China. Even locally based business aircraft operators routinely send their aircraft for servicing to Hong Kong and the U.S. or, alternatively, flying in aviation maintenance technicians/engineers to do repair and maintenance work at their facilities.

Conclusion

Anticipate challenges and operational delays if an AOG occurs while you’re in China. Consider contingency plans and be aware of your options should a breakdown occur. The good news is that technical and parts support for most aircraft types is available out of Hong Kong or Singapore, and your local ground handler in China will be able to orchestrate best possible solutions to AOG events.

Questions?

If you have any questions about this article, contact me at christinevamvakas@univ-wea.com.

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About

Mike Hutchinson has more than 34 years in the aviation industry, including the military, United Nations, civil, and business aviation sectors. Mike served at Universal from 2011 until 2013 and at the time of his leaving held the position of Universal Aviation, Regional Director, Operations, Asia-Pacific Region.

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