ABN’s Lee Hayhurst caught up with Dr Rainer Fink, vice president of power plant maintenance at Saudia Technic at last week’s MRO Middle East trade show to hear about the firm’s vision for growth

An ambitious vision for growth is expected to be a key factor helping Saudia Technic attract and retain the engineering skills it is going to need as aviation in the Kingdom booms.

Saudia Airlines’ MRO division is in the process of building a large new state-of-the-art facility at King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah.

It will provide engine and Auxiliary Power Unit (APU) MRO for the Middle East and Africa region and is expected to be capable of handling 300 engines and 500 APUs a year from 2030.

Currently the facility has the capacity to carry out maintenance on just 10 engines and 25 APUs.

A focus on A320 and Boeing 777 families of aircraft and a preferred supplier deal with Honeywell puts Saudi Technic in a “unique position in the market”, according to vice president of power plant maintenance Dr Rainer Fink.

Speaking to Aviation Business News at last week’s MRO Middle East trade show in Dubai, Fink said the only barrier to growth is not demand but access to a skilled engineering workforce.

He said Saudia Technic is placing a focus on retention of existing staff by presenting them with a vision that they can buy into and develop alongside the company. Today, the firm employs 320 mechanics and says it is proud of the fact that 80% are Saudis.

“If you are part of the growth from the first moment on, you will be personally involved. If you are a qualified mechanic now, then eventually you will be heading the group and be a manager,” said Fink.

He added that the firm is hiring from within the region, not because it is offering double the pay to its competitors, but because “people want to be part of this journey”.

However, with plenty of young recruits available in the Kingdon, Saudia Technic is having to look to bringing in expats with more mid-career experience.

“The new generation of engines are very sophisticated compared to 30 years ago and engines have become much more efficient. Those two things together mean they are much more complicated and more finesse is needed because clearance is much tighter than it used to be.

“This requires a much more detailed skill set and the engineers we recruit have to understand that. So that’s why we’re bringing in experienced expats and putting young Saudi engineers underneath them.”

A key area Saudia Technik is determined to be seen as a leader in is the application of new technologies, like robotics for automated inspections and the use of digital twins to generate the data to measure all aspects of aircraft performance and track degradation.

This is seen as particularly important in the Middle East where the abrasive sandy atmosphere can reduce the lifespan of a typical engine by up to half as blades are worn down and superheated sand turns into glass and blocks cooling holes.

An innovation centre working in partnership with the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) will focus on developing a better understanding about the impact of operating aircraft in the region.

“We’ll bring post grads from different fields in the university together with guys in the shop to solve problems in a structured way. That’s our clear mission. We have to start somewhere and it’s exciting, we have the freedom to do those things,” said Fink.

Saudia Arabia’s Vision 2030 national development goals reflect similar initiatives in neighbouring countries to modernise and diversify their economies and significantly open up to international tourism with 100 million annual visits targeted.

Growth in the Saudi aviation sector to around 600 aircraft to facilitate this is expected to keep Saudia Technik busy in terms of engine maintenance but it will have spare capacity for APUs to offer its services to external customer.

Fink said the investment in Jeddah reflects how buoyant the Middle East aviation sector is as passenger numbers continue to grow following the Covid pandemic, but he adds there is a spirit of ‘coopetition’ among MROs in the region.

“Growth is happening in the Middle East, there is so much demand out there we are not really competing, everyone is pretty much full. We are looking to establish an aftermarket network, trying to complement each other, not necessarily introducing facilities for the same engine types.”

A new large testing cell able to handle modern powerful engines with up to 150,000 pounds of thrust and is in the final stages of completion at the new Jeddah ‘MRO village’ will be used by Abu Dhabi-based Sanad Aerotech.