DALLAS – In running a multinational airline company, many aspects are often overlooked by the customer but are just as crucial in developing a safe, efficient, and profitable flying aircraft.
One section often forgotten is aircraft maintenance. It is crucial to draft a plan to optimize the time and resources put into play to have every airplane as less time on the ground and most in the air without putting the airworthiness of every part of the airframe at risk.
With the help of Iberia, one of the largest members of the International Airlines Group (IAG), Airways had the chance to visit the maintenance facilities of the airline at Madrid-Barajas Airport (MAD), including their engine shop, testbed, and aircraft hangars, to better understand the processes involving the correct revision and repairment of parts ahead of the busy summer 2023 season.
IAG Worldwide MRO Hubs
International Consolidated Airlines Group (IAG) is one of the largest airline groups, carrying almost 100 million passengers annually. Since 2011, IAG has been the parent company of Aer Lingus (EI), British Airways (BA), Iberia (IB), Vueling (VY), and Fly LEVEL.
Combining all its subsidiaries, IAG owns and operates a large fleet of 635 aircraft as of July 2023. During high-demand periods, it is essential for the group to efficiently distribute the workload of maintaining these hundreds of airplanes through its bases. Because of that, the International Airlines Group runs more than 110 maintenance hubs around the globe.
BA, the largest in the group by fleet, is headquartered at London Heathrow Airport (LHR), and its most significant maintenance checks occur here. Located on the Eastern side, the BA hangars take over 75,000 square meters of area and can host from the smallest Airbus A319 to the largest A380 aircraft.
The UK carrier also runs a facility at Cardiff Airport (CWL), Wales, which opened in 1993. It is responsible for running overhaul checks for its widebody Boeing 777 and 787 Dreamliner planes. On the other hand, the place chosen mainly by British Airways to perform maintenance for its narrow-body Airbus fleet is Madrid’s La Muñoza maintenance center.
Airlines such as Aer Lingus or Vueling mainly direct their checks to different European locations. The Spanish low-cost carrier takes advantage of the large and modern 13,000 square meter hangar in its main base, Barcelona-El Prat Airport (BCN). The Irish airline, though, is the only one that regularly sends its Airbus A330 fleet to Bordeaux (BOD), not an IAG base, for all the checks.
A Closer Look to “La Muñoza”
Iberia Maintenance has recently climbed to the position of one of the most prestigious aviation companies in its field. The entity, famous worldwide, offers regular maintenance to around 100 airlines and makes periodic checks to other airlines of a wide variety like Air Tahiti Nui (TN), Azores Airlines (S4), or FlyNas (XY), spotted inside the La Muñoza facilities in the past.
La Muñoza is the name the Spanish airline has given to the installation where all the checks are made. It comprises seven hangars, office buildings, and a dedicated storage apron covering a surface of two million square meters. In this mega park, Iberia is responsible for running all the necessary checks up to the larger “C Check”, which can take up to 6,000 person-hours.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, La Muñoza had a very significant role for IAG, as it served as one of the most used areas for long-term aircraft storage, as demand was at bottom levels and fleets needed to be grounded. Today, many former aircraft of the IB fleet remain on the apron, including four Airbus A340-600s, which were retired during the pandemic.
In 2023, however, the function of these facilities is completely different, as it handles hundreds of aircraft requiring all types of maintenance every year. It is crucial for the BA Airbus A320 family aircraft reincorporation, as dozens of aircraft remained on the ground for more than three years and needed to be overhauled before returning to service.
Taking a Look at Hangar Six
Hangar Six is the largest and most recognizable hangar of the entire La Muñoza maintenance center. Inaugurated in 1995, this megastructure was, for many years, the largest building in the world without supporting columns inside. It gave it the significant advantage of being an utterly diaphanous space, capable of storing up to ten short-haul aircraft.
Its design is unique among other similar infrastructure, as it features a very identifiable 230-meter arch on the rooftop, which has an aesthetical purpose and is responsible for holding the entire structure of Hangar Six, allowing it to avoid the need to implement interior pillars. Inside it, the most strict and significant maintenance checks are made.
During our visit, the Airways team made a tour inside Hangar Six. It was able to spot aircraft belonging to the IAG family, including one Iberia A330-300, one Iberia Express A320, one Vueling A320, and four British Airways Airbus A320 family aircraft.
The latest airline, BA, is currently the largest user of the facilities, as it is going under a large operation of returning its narrow-body fleet to service ahead of the summer 2023 season.
Apart from IAG aircraft maintenance checks, the Iberia La Muñoza mega park has also signed a long-term contract with Airbus Military to perform as well the necessary maintenance to Airbus A400M and A330MRTT aircraft belonging to all customers, including the German Air Force, Saudi Arabian Air Force, and more other NATO allied air forces, as well as holding one of the largest engine shops in the world.
Europe’s Largest Engine Maintenance Center
Performing line maintenance on aircraft is one of many tasks developed daily inside the Iberia Maintenance Center. The company also operates one of the world’s largest engine shops and testbeds, specializing in the revision of four different models: the CFM56, Rolls Royce RB211, Pratt & Whitney PW1100, and the IAE V2500.
Iberia currently holds the title of the “Centre of Excellence” for the overhaul maintenance of the IAEV2500 engines, of which it currently makes checks for various worldwide airlines, including Qatar Airways (QR) and HK Express (UO). This specific version makes up 50% of the total engines inducted by Iberia every year in Madrid.
Numbers go in favor as well for the CFM56 engine, in all versions powering the long-successful Airbus A320ceo and Boeing 737NG aircraft families, which is placed second, having recently signed another contract with African carrier RwandAir (WB) to check its 737 engines as well.
Unique Engines Highten Demand for Maintenance
Iberia has recently started new services to attend carriers flying aircraft powered by the brand new Pratt & Whitney PW1100 GTF engines, including the Airbus A320neo family, Embraer E2, and Airbus A220 jets.
These engines are used by the Airbus A320neo family fleet in Vueling, adding up to 29 units at the moment of writing. Despite this, Iberia is still not running any maintenance processes for the alternative option, the CFM LEAP-1A, which currently powers the other 53 aircraft of the family in Aer Lingus, British Airways, and Iberia Express.
The last engine maintained in Madrid is the legendary Rolls Royce RB211. Produced between 1969 and 1997, this version powers some of the most iconic aircraft in the industry, including the Boeing 747, 757, and 767 aircraft. Iberia is one of the few companies that still includes this engine in its maintenance catalog, which makes it very requested by airlines worldwide.
Many undisclosed customers, mainly from North America and Europe, have been trusting IB’s maintenance services for this engine type for years. New operators are still joining the family, making La Muñoza a valid candidate for the largest aircraft engine shop in the world.
The Process Behind Revising an Engine
The power plant of any aircraft is the most critical and delicate part of the system, as it contains elements that turn at thousands of revolutions and feature chambers with ignited air to compress and burn air to gain power.
Because of all these violent events inside the engine, it is essential to keep track of all the damage during maintenance. A typical engine overhaul may take months to be completed, and it involves the dismantling, inspection, reparation, and reassembly of all the parts, essentially, from the fans to the internal chambers.
The maintenance of an engine follows a very similar process to the construction of an airplane, with dedicated assembly lines inside the shop with specialized machinery and personnel for every task and reparation to be made to the engine. Once all powerplant sections are dismantled, after more than ten days, all parts are thoroughly cleaned and inspected for damage or fatigue.
At Iberia Maintenance, the inspection of parts is so strict that every blade and fan is scanned with the measurement precision of one-quarter of the thickness of a paper sheet, about 0.0025 centimeters. This ensures that no moving part of the turbine causes friction with the walls, as rotating at those speeds may result in severe damage.
Putting an Engine Back into Service
After all sections of the engine are inspected, and if damages are detected, a team of specialized engineers will work hard and precisely to ensure all cracks are covered and repaired. After that, the engine is mounted again and can finally be sent to the testbed, where its reliability is proven in approximate conditions to the ones of a flying aircraft.
Iberia’s dedicated testbed is one of very few in Europe, which has been built to optimize the maintenance processes and complete the entire service without transporting the engine to a different site.
Finally, having done all the necessary checks, the revised engine can exit the facilities of La Muñoza either mounted on a grounded airplane, inside the cargo hold of a third-party cargo airframe or shipped in any other means of transportation to one of the many airport hubs of the customers of Iberia Maintenance.
The Airways team has also had the opportunity to visit the incredible engine maintenance facilities of Iberia at La Muñoza. If you want to know more about the unique process behind the revision and repairment of an engine, stay tuned for the upcoming video report to be uploaded to our YouTube channel.
Featured image: Adrian Nowakowski/Airways.