Parked Airplanes, Idle Simulators

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When the global lockdown started in March, more than half of the world airline fleet was parked in all kinds of remote locations. Somewhere around 17,000 airliners waiting for better times. And while the planes were parked, many flight simulators were also empty. Jacques Drappier analyses their symbiotic future.

With the gradual opening of national borders, airlines are slowly restarting operations and resuming routes. We have now reached the point that the operational fleet outnumbers the parked fleet, according to consultancy firm Cirium – around 39% parked versus 61% operational.

We will, however, never see all recently operational aircraft back in the sky. A shared view among leading experts is that 3500 to 5000 planes will never leave the desert. For some types, it is a retirement that was already announced but has now advanced a few years because of the reduced demand. For others, such as the A380, it is a shocking retirement after less than 10 years of activity.

For the airlines, it is a balancing act: the reduced demand for years to come, the commitment for new planes they have ordered, fuel prices, heavy maintenance checks due in the next months or years – all variables that can influence the decision to keep or discard a plane, or a whole fleet.

This decision process is a subject to explore in itself. The training community, meanwhile, wants to plan what consequences all this will have on the simulator market.

Some quick calculations: on average, it takes one FFS to service the needs of 35 to 40 narrowbodies, and around one sim for 20 widebody airplanes. Some basic mathematics would suggest 100 to 150 simulators becoming redundant.

Inevitably, things are not that simple. When an operator grounds half of a fleet of 40 planes, they will naturally still keep their associated simulator running. During the last decades, we have seen a trend of concentrating full-flight simulators in large training centres operated by ATOs and providing service to a range of airlines. Even if some of these customers reduce their fleets, that will not necessarily reduce the number of simulators in those centres, maybe only the utilisation.

We also see the rate of early retirement of widebodies is higher than the narrowbodies. This will lead to retraining large numbers of pilots due to reverse seniority. The LCC using the A320 or B737 will be the first to recover, further increasing the use of the single-aisle FFS.

Ultimately, there might well be a higher percentage of widebody simulators becoming obsolete.

Surplus Sims?

It is impossible to predict precisely what is going to happen, but from a few examples one can get an understanding of the dynamics of this part of the industry.

The A380 is one of the most prominent casualties of the crisis. Airbus decided to halt production last year due to a lack of future sales prospects. With the reduced long-haul travel demand, several operators have already announced they will completely abandon the type, like Air France, or partly like Lufthansa. Qantas has decided to park them long term and wait for better times to come in three to five years.

We have 15 simulators around the world for the A380 type. With no new deliveries and an immediate reduction of the world fleet, some simulators are no longer needed. But there is no second-hand market, nor a third-party business to serve. Some A380 sims will be dismantled and maybe parted out for spares for those who keep the plane in their fleet. Possibly elements like motion bases and visuals can be used to retrofit on other types. But in any case, it adds millions to the losses endured by the airlines.

On the other side of the spectrum are the older airplane types, such as the MD80 family or the B737 classics. The planes are 30 years old, as are most of the simulators. They are fully depreciated and have no residual value. Except for a few spares, there is little you can do with these old simulators. Some may go to a school for technicians to work on; some will end up in museums. But to keep them productively operating, perhaps for general public ‘rides’, is far too complicated and costly due to lack of spares and lack of qualified technicians that still know the old software.

Where things get a bit more complicated is the sector of the B737NG and A320 family. CAT magazine’s Simulator Census shows there are 210 B737 NG simulators. Of the 6,500 aircraft active before the crisis, around 1,000 will probably never return. That would mean roughly 30 FFSs too many.

One could think that upgrading an NG simulator to the MAX configuration is a good plan. But Capt. Philip Adrian, CEO of simulator manufacturer MPS (and former Chief Pilot, Regulatory Strategy for Boeing), warns, “The cost of the data package and the extensive rework involved in reconfiguring the main instrument panel would make it probably a poor investment.”

With nearly 300 simulators for the A320 family, and with thousands of new airplanes to be delivered, there might be a market in the upgrade business. As long as the technology of the sim is not too old, say less than 15 years, it is worth considering a rebuild of the device to the latest standards. Upgrading a ‘ceo’ standard to the new ‘neo’ is mainly a software issue, and could be done within an acceptable cost range.

New Simulators?

Both Boeing and Airbus have announced severe cuts in production. A reduction of 40% in airplane production could have a similar decrease in future FFS requirements. The location of the deliveries and the possibility of relocating or upgrading existing FFSs will influence this greatly.

The market for FFS will also come under pressure from the "lower-level" devices, which are becoming more and more capable and can, and will be used for more significant parts of the training curricula.

Mark Dransfield, FRAeS, founding partner of Sim-Ops, notes, “EASA is currently doing the final proof reading of a draft NPA that will fundamentally change the way all types of training devices, both old and new technologies, can be EASA-accredited for recurrent and type-rating training. That may also have a significant impact on the industry FSTD-type training mix in the future.”

Overall the simulator market has always been driven by airplane sales. The simulator manufacturers were riding on the wakes of Toulouse and Seattle. They will now have to rethink their business model quickly, jump in the market of rebuilding and upgrading sims, compete with small manufacturers in the FTD market, and embrace new technology to stay ahead of new entrants.

What your airline uses to train and where you do the training may well become the new driving factors in FSTD production.

Challenging times ahead.

Remember to sign up for our second webinar:  #RestartingTheEngines: ATO of the Future.

Hosted by CAT Magazine and sponsored by CAE, it takes place on August 5th.

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