The squadron keeping Emirates flying high

Emirates Airline's elite rapid response engineers work all over the world to keep the carrier's huge fleet operational, an undertaking that has led to major investment in state-of-the-art facilities across the globe.

The staff at Emirates Airline's engineering department are well versed in changing aircraft engines in adverse conditions, but on the tarmac of Brisbane Airport in the pouring rain last month they were pushed to their limits.

It was about midnight by the time the crew had finished assembling the 7.5 tonne GE90 engine they had brought over on an Emirates SkyCargo flight from Dubai the night before. The power plant was so large it had to be split into two sections to fit into the hold of the Boeing 777 freighter. But on that February night the members of Emirates's rapid response team prevailed, as they had done in temperatures of minus 20°C in Moscow the month before, and got the plane on its way back to Dubai.

"Just 12 hours after they had begun, the engine was fitted and ready to fly," said Christopher Welham, the manager of base operational maintenance and recovery at Emirates. "It was absolutely remarkable." With 146 wide-bodied aircraft in operation, Emirates has reached a critical mass. It is the seventh-largest airline by international passenger traffic and the largest airline when measured by scheduled passenger kilometres, a key industry indicator, trailing only the collective might of carrier alliances such as Star, SkyTeam and OneWorld.

Keeping such a large number of planes in the air is a huge task. Every 12 days, on average, Emirates sends members of its rapid response team to repair or replace parts on its fleet wherever in the world it flies. These needs have led to major investments in engineering in Dubai as well, with its maintenance facility thought to be the world's largest for an airline, trailing only those operated by the manufacturers Boeing and Airbus.

In a series of hangars next to Terminal 2 at Dubai International Airport, there are some Dh2.4bn (US$653.4 million) worth of spare parts, not including engines, stored in a labyrinth of 10-metre high mobile stacks. "It has been a rapid growth and, with the variation in the fleet that Emirates operates, every day is a challenge," said Iain Lachlan, the divisional senior vice president of the airline's aircraft maintenance and engineering department. This has led Emirates to develop 35 engineering stations around the world. As Mr Lachlan said: "Our aircraft are probably away more often than they are in Dubai."

Unlike other Gulf-based long-haul airlines, Emirates chose a go-it-alone maintenance strategy, building an in-house team rather than outsourcing to private firms. Its engineering department, now 3,400 strong and expected to grow by another 500 this year, can perform any variety of aircraft repair, including the most detailed "C" checks that can take weeks and involve taking elements of the plane apart and putting them back together. The carrier's Dubai centre has massive scales to weigh the largest planes, and a new multimillion-dollar paint facility is scheduled to open this year.

In 2005, Emirates had already outgrown its three-bay maintenance hangar at Dubai airport. Almost two years later it opened its current workshop, a seven-hangar facility that cost Dh1.3bn. The place is so big it will be able to accommodate the A380-900, a proposed stretch version of the superjumbo that has not been built yet. Building for the future is a large part of Emirates's planning. Since it opened its new engineering centre three years ago Emirates has grown its fleet by 50 aircraft, and will bring in more planes, with the aim of winning new business between Asia, Europe, the Middle East and the Americas.

Its engine testing centre, located 40km from the airport in the desert, is one of the most advanced in the world and is able to test jets producing up to 150,000 pounds of thrust. Such engines are still only in engineers' blueprints: the most powerful jet to date, the GE90, can produce 127,900 pounds of thrust. The engineering team performs daily, weekly and monthly checks on each plane. Every 10 years, aircraft must undergo the most in-depth check, an "8C", which consists of stripping down virtually the entire plane and rebuilding it.

Emirates's latest batch of A380s, which joined its fleet from late 2008, are due for their first major "C" checks this summer, which will put each out of circulation for 20 days. Aircraft have now become so sophisticated they are basically flying computers, with crew and ground stations constantly receiving feedback on the "health" of the plane. When certain items fall outside a narrow band of parameters, such as an engine's exhaust gas temperature, the engineering staff must respond quickly.

Emirates has in many cases shared its equipment and skills with its neighbours. It is the only operator in Dubai and the Northern Emirates that owns "aviation airbags", which are inflated under aircraft to lift them up for towing. The airbags were used when Emirates helped recover a 747 freighter which overshot the runway in Sharjah earlier this year, which resulted in its front wheel gear collapsing, and they were deployed when two aircraft in Ras al Khaimah were left stranded in mud following winter storms in January.

Although many of its Dubai facilities are operating at capacity, Mr Lachlan said the airline always looked to make use of any spare facilities. This is the case in Male, the capital of the Maldives, where Mr Lachlan said Emirates held one of the few repair capabilities on the island, putting its facilities in high demand. It is in Dubai, however, that the airline has its closest ties with aircraft manufacturers. With billions of dollars' worth of equipment from Boeing, Airbus and the makers of everything from aircraft landing gear to avionics systems, Emirates's control centre is a crowded place. Some 60 staff from manufacturers are based there to troubleshoot.

After making such massive investments in these companies, Emirates makes full use of their skills, Mr Lachlan said. "We are very demanding, and we don't apologise for that."