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Bold steps needed for Singapore's aviation sector to keep flying high

Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia all want a share of the pie. Singapore cannot compete on cost, so it must find new ways to be better and faster.

Many travellers complain that snaking security and immigration queues, and an ever-changing list of prohibited items, have squeezed the joy out of flying. Yet, the desire to travel is insatiable.

The numbers say it all. In 20 years, the global fleet of commercial planes could double to more than 40,000.

During this period, four in 10 new aircraft have been promised to Asian airlines and other customers in this region. This suggests there is going to be a huge demand for aviation services in the Asia-Pacific.

Singapore, with a strong lead over its neighbours in the aviation race, is well placed to cash in on the growth. But it is a long way to the finish line and its rivals will not give up without a fight.

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Thailand has unveiled a development plan up to 2031, to give its aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) industry and aerospace manufacturing sectors a push. Among the initiatives: A US$5.7 billion (S$7.9 billion) upgrade of a Vietnam War-era airport to turn it into an MRO facility.

Vietnam has signed agreements with European planemaker Airbus to promote its own aerospace industry.

In Indonesia, six state-owned enterprises in the aerospace industry have joined hands to form a new company called the Indonesian Service Hub, with a vision to establish and position the country as a regional leader in the MRO market.

Jewel, Changi Airport's new lifestyle and retail hub which will open in early 2019, will feature Singapore's largest indoor garden, sky nets, slides and mazes on top of dining and retail outlets.
Jewel, Changi Airport's new lifestyle and retail hub which will open in early 2019, will feature Singapore's largest indoor garden, sky nets, slides and mazes on top of dining and retail outlets. PHOTO: JEWEL CHANGI AIRPORT

Less than an hour south by ferry, Batam is quickly becoming a centre for aerospace activities, with low-cost carrier Lion Air setting up facilities on the Indonesian resort island. Garuda Maintenance Facility AeroAsia, a subsidiary of national carrier Garuda, has also announced plans to develop an aircraft maintenance and repair facility in Batam, with partners from Japan and the Netherlands. The project will cost an estimated US$41 million.

Up north, there are grand ambitions to turn Johor's Senai Airport into an aviation hub, with aerospace and logistics facilities.

Outside South-east Asia, China is a growing threat.

Singapore must watch the developments in the region closely, even if the threat is not imminent. And while the competition will get tougher, industry players here should also look out for opportunities to benefit from growth in the neighbouring countries.

WAY AHEAD OF RIVALS

Singapore's aviation sector is easily 15 years to 20 years ahead of the regional competition, analysts concur, with the range of expertise and services available here going far beyond just the MRO sector, which Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia are trying to build up.

It is a total package that the Republic offers, which includes good air links, top-of-the-class aircraft maintenance and repair facilities with global certification, training centres, research and development initiatives and banking and finance services.

Backing the aviation ecosystem is a stable political environment and a Government that pushes for the highest standards in intellectual property rights. This ensures the integrity of new developments and work processes.

Singapore is home to one of the best airports in the world and, despite its current financial woes, one of the best airlines as well. Together, Changi Airport and Singapore Airlines have kept the Singapore air hub flying high for many years.

There is also a sizeable aircraft leasing business here, with Singapore-based BOC Aviation playing a key role. With a fleet of close to 500 aircraft (five times the size of SIA's current fleet) owned, managed and on order, the firm has at least 73 airline clients in 34 countries. When it comes to aircraft repair and maintenance, Singapore boasts nose-to-tail aircraft repair and maintenance capabilities that are unmatched in the region.

There are more than 125 aerospace companies based here, including big local names like ST Aerospace and SIA Engineering, as well as global players like aircraft engine makers Rolls-Royce and Pratt and Whitney. The industry employs almost 20,000 people and has an annual output of more than $8 billion.

Singapore accounts for a quarter of Asia's MRO market and about 10 per cent of the global business - a share that has been consistently growing over the past few years, said analyst Nishant Dey Purkayastha of industry consultancy Frost & Sullivan Asia-Pacific.

Here, customers can access a wide array of nose-to-tail solutions, which means they can get all their work done in one place instead of having to move to three or four different locations. This, coupled with the extensive air connectivity that Changi Airport provides, keeps customers coming, he said.

The business has grown despite higher labour and other charges here, compared with many other countries in the region. While cost is an important consideration for business, Singapore's efficiency and quality can and have made up for the difference, Mr Purkayastha said.

For example, if a firm in Singapore can service and return an aircraft in 30 days, compared with, say, 50 days if the same work is done elsewhere, it would make sense for an airline to get the job done here, if the shorter work period translates into extra days that the plane can be flown commercially to generate profits.

Apart from commercial aviation activities, Singapore is also growing its aviation training arm, with the recent developments in the sector including a joint SIA-Airbus pilot training facility at Seletar Aerospace Park.

The Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore, through the Singapore Aviation Academy, also runs four specialised schools - School of Aviation Management, School of Aviation Safety and Security, School of Air Traffic Services and School of Airport Emergency Services - that have trained about 110,000 participants from 200 countries and territories in the last six decades.

THE NEXT LAP

Singapore must be bold and go beyond what it has already developed to stay ahead.

Jewel, Changi Airport's new lifestyle and retail hub which opens in early 2019, is one example of how Singapore is pushing the limits to test new boundaries. Not only will it offer aviation services like early check-in for travellers and the usual dining and retail outlets, Jewel will also feature sky nets, four different slides and two mazes - play features not seen at other airports.

In other words, when rivals try to imitate or catch up, Singapore raises the bar further to leave them trailing. Experts suggest it must continue doing this across the aviation sector to stay ahead of the chasing pack.

Mr William See, a deputy director at Temasek Polytechnic's School of Engineering, said: "We cannot control the external strategic environment, but we can leverage on a system that Singapore has built up over time - well-trained workforce, good logistics, infrastructure and connectivity, political stability and protection of intellectual property - to do things better and better."

A big plus for the Republic: the lack of regulatory hurdles and delays associated with most developing countries, which makes Singapore an attractive place for businesses to thrive in, said Mr Purkayastha. For example, infrastructure and red tape are still major concerns in many countries in the region and, in the case of Thailand, political instability is also an issue.

Going forward, Singapore will also have to raise the bar for research and development, and innovation, to maintain its edge. Technologies such as big data analytics, additive manufacturing and automation will play a major role in the aviation sector. There is already much interest in emerging areas such as predictive maintenance, aircraft health monitoring and the usage of drones and robots in MRO. Singapore could play a major role in this development.

The industry, through partnerships with learning institutes and government agencies, must also continue to focus on developing skilled manpower as systems and processes become more complex.

More partnerships with industry players in growing markets like Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia will also give Singapore firms a share of the business outside. This could include work in the MRO sector or in airport operations. The transfer of knowledge and expertise need not be at Singapore's expense, said Mr Ramanathan Mohandas, head of the diploma programme in aviation management at Republic Polytechnic. "Singapore has built a sterling reputation for itself in the aviation sector. By sharing best practices, we can grow the local industry and contribute to regional growth which will benefit every one," he said.

Singapore's premier status in the aviation industry is under attack, though it will take some years for opponents to gather enough fire power to be a real threat. The Government and industry players here must use this time to take stock of what Singapore has and what more it must do to retain its edge.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 19, 2017, with the headline 'Bold steps needed for S'pore's aviation sector to keep flying high'. Print Edition | Subscribe