By Michael Rothe
Reinhard Röhle is happy - as are all 30 or so members of the Aviation Museum Association in Rothenburg. Two weeks ago, they got hold of a very special exhibit at the former military airfield near Niesky: the cockpit of an Airbus A 319. The 74-year-old enthuses that the original part, with its four-meter diameter, is now "the absolute highlight" of the collection, alongside around 20 military aircraft, dozens of engines, rescue equipment and vehicles.
While for the aviation freaks a dream comes true, that of the Elbe Aircraft Works (EFW) in Dresden burst. The cockpit is the last witness to their failed recycling project. On the border with Poland, the plan was to cannibalize end-of-life aircraft, refurbish spare parts and recycle composite materials.
The three-member management team and the shareholders of EFW - ST Engineering in Singapore and Airbus in Taufkirchen near Munich - had long struggled to give the thumbs down to the project, which was launched in 2020. "We started based on project studies in Rothenburg and comprehensively recycled two Airbus aircraft," EFW Managing Director Jordi Boto told Saechsische.de. He added that expectations had not been met. "Aircraft recycling does not offer sufficient potential for an economic commitment. In addition, it is very difficult to position oneself on the market," says Boto.
The project was to become part of a technology campus for green recycling. In view of dwindling resources, Boto's predecessor Andreas Sperl had announced as recently as 2021 that aircraft recycling was "a huge business. After all, around 4,000 short- and medium-haul aircraft would be decommissioned worldwide by 2026. According to the plan, nine wide-body aircraft were to be scrapped each year. But the recycling pioneer had overestimated the second-hand business.
Goal: the first global corporation based in Saxony
The aircraft plants, with a good 2,200 employees from over 30 nations, have plenty to do even without a new mainstay. As one of the largest industrial companies in Saxony they are world leaders in the conversion of Airbus passenger aircraft to freighters. With an order backlog of more than 200 aircraft, they say they are operating at capacity beyond 2027.
Now that the pandemic is over, business with freighters is booming. Airlines are also lining up for passenger aircraft, which is fuelling component production in Saxony. In Dresden and at the subsidiaries Acosa and CCI Assembly in Kodersdorf near Görlitz, lightweight components such as floor panels, side panels, partition walls, cockpit doors, toilets and sleeping berths for crews are manufactured. More than 12,000 aircraft are en route with floor panels from there. Furthermore, in addition to Airbuses, the Dresden-based company also repairs and maintains the German Armed Forces' NH-90 helicopter.
The most important growth driver, however, is the conversion of over 250 passenger aircraft to freighters to date. Last year, a total of 20 converted A 320s, A 321s and A 330s were delivered from Dresden and locations in China, Singapore and the USA. This year, with the help of partners in China and Turkey, the number is to be doubled. To achieve this, EFW is recruiting a good 300 experts - including around 30 Filipinos, with a special mentoring program.
The company is transforming itself from a maintenance and components business on behalf of third parties to an original equipment manufacturer. As such an OEM, it plays the same role as Airbus and Boeing, says boss Boto. All orders went through Dresden accounts. The Spaniard with a German passport succeeded Sperl in 2022 and in his first year as head of the company aimed to double sales to 500 million euros, but missed the target with 385 million. Nevertheless, he is already aiming for the billion mark and has bold dreams.
Repeatedly disappointed hopes in Rothenburg
The Catalan wants to "establish the first headquarters of a world-class company in Saxony. The 54-year-old wants to increase added value, "shake off the competition by no longer supplying components but entire toilet and other systems" - and thus become less dependent on the well-being of the main customer Airbus. In addition, the ex-blue helmet soldier and helicopter pilot senses business with the air force in former Yugoslavia and Angola. Nothing has been decided yet.
Rothenburg's museum association is now looking forward to Saturday. The Airbus cockpit will be inaugurated at 10 a.m., and the museum will be open from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. A grant from the Upper Lusatia-Lower Silesia Cultural Area and a donation from the local savings bank made the purchase possible. The parties involved are not disclosing the purchase price.
The end of the recycling project is not a general rejection of the EFW to the city on the banks of the river Neisse. "We will remain in contact with Rothenburg," promises Managing Director Boto. Hopes had already been repeatedly disappointed there: Cargo airport, Israeli rose cultivation, Chinese electric cars - all air numbers. "The new cancellation is a pity, but not the end of the world," says Uwe Garack, airfield manager and deputy mayor. It is "not the end of the recycling business," he says, adding that there are "loose talks with other interested parties." The town of 5,000 residents is in the process of developing the adjacent 45-acre industrial park, he said. "We're also thinking about autonomous and electric flight," Garack says. Future topics for your own future.