Bridgestone takes off with the mainland boom
WHEN Iain Valentine watches a plane land and sees the puff of smoke as its wheels touch the runway, it brings a smile to his face. The chances are it means business sooner or later for the Bridgestone aircraft tyre retread and wheel overhaul factory whichhe runs in Tai Po, Hong Kong.
And, as the aviation industry in the region, and particularly China, booms, so does the tyre trade.
Back in 1986 when a joint venture was set up between the Hong Kong Aircraft Engineering Company (HAECO) and Thompsons, of Britain, the retread facility was dealing with 22 tyres a day. Today, with Bridgestone having taken over the Thompsons interest, thefigure averaged 85 a day and can reach as high as 130, said general manager, Mr Valentine.
The wheels of industry, however, have to turn fast in the relatively small Tai Po plant, which employs 90 people. China's aviation boom and space restrictions demand that the giant tyres only touch down for a fraction of the time other factories take in Europe or the US.
Last year Bridgestone handled 22,000 tyres at Tai Po. The average turn-around time was between 10 and 14 days. This can be as long as three months in Europe, said Mr Valentine.
''A quick turnaround time also means an airline saves on inventory,'' he added.
The retreading of aircraft tyres may not belong to the glamour end of the industry, but lives depend on it.
Once a new tyre is fitted on a 747, it will average 180 landings before it needs retreading. A tyre will have between six and eight retreads in its lifetime.
One of the reasons for the high number of tyres rolling into Tai Po is the growth of the industry in China. All 36 airlines on the mainland use Bridgestone for their retreading.
''They come to us by air, rail and sea,'' said Mr Valentine. ''About 30 per cent of our total production is for China.'' It is because of this that the company is now considering opening a second plant in China, probably at the site of the new HAECO-fronted maintenance facility, Taikoo (Xiamen) Aircraft Engineering Co (TAECO).
HAECO has a 41 per cent stake in the project with Cathay Pacific Airways, Singapore Airlines and Japan Air Lines, holding 10 per cent each. China interests hold the remaining stake.
''A second plant in China will give us greater flexibility,'' said Mr Valentine.
Bridgestone is the only company in the Asia/Pacific region, outside Japan, which specialises in retreads. Because of this it has around 50 per cent of the total market in the region. Thailand-based Goodyear and Goodrich in Malaysia, which also produce new tyres, share the rest of the market.
''Tyre technology between the manufacturers is so close that it is service which seals the contract these days,'' said Mr Valentine.
And tyre technology, like everything else on today's modern aircraft is very hi-tech indeed. Tyres are getting faster and lighter as aircraft are getting bigger and heavier.
There are strict guidelines laid down by organisations like the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), in Britain, and the Federal Aviation Administration, in the United States, governing the condition of tyres.
Every tyre entering the Bridgestone plant is X-rayed. Any failing to meet specifications are rejected and the airline informed.
SAAB Aircraft Asia/Pacific chief, Martin Craigs, spoke on his favourite theme at the Asian Aerospace show in Singapore last week.
He wanted more governments in Asia to adopt ''open skies'' policies which would, he said, make commuter air travel possible and ''get millions of people moving''.
He said bilateral agreements were bad for business, restricted people's freedom and were damaging economic growth among Asian countries.
Mr Craigs said that with 200 million people living within a 500-mile radius of Hong Kong, the potential in China and the rest of the region is immense.
Asia is obsessed with mega-modes of transport such as the jumbo and potentially the super jumbo, he said.
But there was room for the smaller commuter aircraft to be a huge success with businessmen around the region. Taiwan had proved this, he said. While there were no commuter routes six years ago, now the one between Taipei and Kaohsiung is one of the busiest anywhere with six airlines competing and planes taking off every 15 minutes.
At the air show Mr Craigs signed a lease for a second Saab 340 airliner for the Malaysian airline Nusantara Sakti. It will fly freight and courier packages between Kuala Lumpur and East Malaysia. The signing was symbolic, he said. He wanted to see more small airliners licensed to cope with rising demand.