UNCERTAINTY over the political situation in Thailand is apparently not shared by French investors in the aeronautical industry, who have expressed confidence in the Kingdom’s push to become a regional hub for aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO).
European aircraft manufacturer Airbus, which first set up shop in Thailand more than 40 years ago, said the MRO sector offered enormous potential for the country’s aerospace business in the coming years.
France Airbus and national flag carrier Thai Airways International last June launched a joint venture for MRO facilities at U-tapao Airport, in a deal overseen in France by junta chief Prayut Chan-o-cha. Prayut is seeking to extend his tenure as prime minister after next month’s election.
The MRO facility at U-tapao is part of the military government’s Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC) strategy and enjoys strong support from the business community, which has called for its continued rollout after the March 24 election.
“We are looking forward to the future as Thailand has good prospects and potential for [developing] the aeronautical industry, given its strong supply chain based on automobile and electronics industries,” said Sihasak Phuangketkeow, a former Thai ambassador to France in an interview with The Nation. Sihasak helped close the MRO deal last year and is now an adviser to the EEC project.
The MRO will be a key piece of the aeronautics industry in Asean, given that many airlines had bolstered their fleets with new planes in recent years and those aircraft now need maintenance, said Cedric Post, the French Aerospace Industry Association’s deputy director for European and international affairs.
Fast-growing budget airlines such as AirAsia and Vietjet continue to add aircraft, which will require maintenance and even overhauls in the next few years, added Post.
The in-service fleets in the Asia Pacific region will grow in size from 6,900 aircraft to over 20,000 in the next 20 years, according to Airbus.
While other Asean members including Singapore have been in the MRO market for a long time, there is still room for Thailand due to its strong automobile and electronics manufacturing base, said Post.
Singapore is short of land and costly while Thailand’s U-tapao Airport is large enough to serve current operations and expansion, he said.
The U-tapao MRO centre will be one of the most modern and extensive in the region, offering heavy maintenance and line services, said Airbus head of marketing for Asia and North America, Joost van der Heijden.
“We will incorporate the latest digital technologies, specialised repair shops and a maintenance training centre,” he added. “For Airbus, our MoU with THAI is about the opportunity to innovate and to lead the way in the aerospace sector.”
When fully operational, the U-tapao MRO centre is to offer heavy and routine (line) maintenance for all wide-body aircraft types, specialised repair shops including for composite structures, as well as extensive maintenance training courses for technical personnel from Thailand and overseas.
Airbus and THAI are still working on the final details of the deal, while already partnering to address the MRO requirements.
“This will be a major new facility that reflects our confidence in Thailand,” said van der Heijden.
Airbus and Thailand’s Civil Aviation Training Centre (CATC) in January signed an MoU on projects to develop and implement maintenance training and pilot training courses in the country.
The goal is to support the development of the country’s aviation industry by helping to ensure a steady supply of pilots, engineers and mechanics for Thailand’s airlines and MRO centres.
Under the agreement, Airbus and the CATC will deepen their cooperation in training aviation professionals within the country. Airbus has begun working with the CATC on basic maintenance training courses, which could be expanded and also include flight training courses for pilots.
“The main challenge [for the aeronautics industry] is to face the growth and train all required technicians and engineers. Airbus is confident that CATC, with Airbus assistance and cooperation, is able to address this challenge,” said van der Heijden.
The MRO centre is a major step forward for Thailand in the new-growth S-curve industries and its grand Thailand 4.0 strategy, Sihasak said, adding that the country’s next government needed a positive vision of its aerospace industry.
“We need good infrastructure, of course, for the future industry as well as consistent regulations to offer conducive conditions for investment,” he concluded.