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Fast forward

In just five years, Lufthansa Technik Sofia has established itself as a key facility in the German MRO’s European maintenance network for the Airbus A320 Family and Boeing 737. Ian Harbison reports from Bulgaria

On 28 October, Lufthansa Technik Sofia will celebrate its fifth anniversary of the first aircraft arriving for overhaul. The facility was established in 2008 at the Vrazhdebna international airport, Bulgaria after an extensive survey of sites in eastern Europe and north Africa and was an 80/20 joint venture between Lufthansa Technik (LHT) and the Bulgarian Aviation Group (BAG). Discussions about the project dated back to late 2005, but it was not until July 2007 that a facility lease agreement was signed between LHT and BAG. The joint venture agreement followed in October 2007 and construction started that December.


The partners invested more than €20 million ($27 million) in the refurbishment of an existing hangar, docking facilities, tooling and working materials, as well as in the training of employees. The hangar was demolished and rebuilt around the original steelwork, with a new floor and a fully insulated roof. The sophisticated ventilation and extraction system that was installed at Lufthansa Technik Budapest, Hungary, was added to allow an aircraft to be painted while work continues in the neighbouring bay. It has also been upgraded, with variable speed fans to match air flow to aircraft size. Separation has been improved with the addition of offices in the centreline of the 6,000m2 two-bay hangar. The roof incorporates windows to increase the amount of natural light, backed up by a powerful lighting system that is useful for painting at night.


The heating system can raise the hangar temperature from -16°C to 24°C, necessary in the Bulgarian winter, and has the added advantage of helping with stripping and painting. Aircraft can be pressurised in the bays and there is an air venting system for the fuel tanks to allow faster access into the tanks after the aircraft arrives. In addition, there is a further 4,600m2 of fully air-conditioned workshops and offices, including composites, sheet metal, panels, nondestructive testing, interiors (galleys and lavatories, as seats are subcontracted out), and flight controls.


Expansion has been rapid, with three new bays being opened last year, making Sofia the largest overhaul facility in Eastern and Central Europe. Once again, an existing hangar was demolished, except for the steelwork, and reconstructed as Bay 4 which opened in January last year. Bay 3 was then built in the space between the old and new buildings and opened in May. Finally, Bay 5 was constructed in just 180 days and opened in October 2012. It stands separate from the rest of the hangars, although is linked by a corridor at the rear of the building.


The new buildings are not as sophisticated as the original hangar, and do not include any painting facilities, with Bay 5 being used for landing gear changes, line maintenance, emergency repairs and special projects. With the additional investment required for the expansion, the shareholding was adjusted to reflect the contribution by the partners, with LHT now having 75.1% and BAG having 24.9%.


All the docking throughout the facility is designed to accommodate both A320 Family and 737 aircraft. In Bay 1 and 2, there is a nose dock, while the tail dock is adjustable for height. In Bay 3 and 4, the tail dock has an upper half that slides on rails to either side of the hangar, while the lower half can be moved across the floor.


Rüdiger Höben-Störmer, Chief Executive Officer, attributes the success of the company to its people. One of the reasons for Sofia’s selection in the first place was the aviation university located in the city, as well as another in nearby Plovdiv, ensuring a good supply of well-qualified candidates. As a new facility, it was able to draw on the best practices and Lean manufacturing knowledge of other LHT facilities, especially Budapest and Shannon, Ireland and with experienced personnel in charge, the workforce was able to reach a very high standard of workmanship very quickly.


Stefan Markov, Line/Project Manager, was one of several local engineers who took the opportunity to return home when the facility opened, also credits previous senior management for their contribution. Ray Kazmierczak, the first Chief Operations Officer of LHT Sofia, brought Lean knowledge from Shannon. He also proved to be an extremely good businessman, who managed to work around the various bureaucratic and political obstacles encountered in setting up the project. Bernd Freckmann, the first Chief Executive Officer, was the driver behind the introduction of many improved processes and operating procedures. Indeed, Sofia has earned a reputation within the LHT network as something of a centre of excellence.


Certainly, it has reduced the turnaround time for a heavy check to 20 days, plus five days for painting if required. This might be because the young staff (the average age is around 30) are still open to accepting change, says Höben-Störmer. They are also a flexible workforce, moving within the facility to where additional labour might be required, but, because of type ratings constraints, the facility needs a mix of Airbus and Boeing aircraft at all times.


He adds that the company pays more than the Bulgarian national average wage, making it an attractive option, but still retains a cost advantage over many other MRO facilities in the region. It also offers jobs involving high technology, unlike other inward investors, who often see the country as a source of cheap, unskilled labour. This has been recognised by a German-Bulgarian Chamber of Industry and Commerce award earlier this year for adding 250 personnel at the facility. Turnover among the 650 staff is less than 4% per annum, yet incentives are still being looked at to help people stay. This includes health insurance, subsidised canteen and airline perks, but could be extended to public transport subsidies when the Metro reaches the airport in 2015. >>

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