Charles E. Taylor may not be a household name, but to those in the A&D industry he is known as the father of aviation maintenance. Taylor was the mechanical mastermind behind some of the Wright brothers’ most famous triumphs back in the early 1900s and was a vital contributor to the building and maintaining of some of the brothers’ early engines and airplanes. Of course, back then, there were no such thing as instruction booklets, manuals or handbooks – aircraft maintenance simply came down to trial and error – on the ground or in the air.
Flexibility replacing rigidity
Since then, aircraft maintenance has undergone a complete transformation. MSG3 (Maintenance Steering Group), a document developed by Airlines for America to help increase efficiency and avoid unnecessary maintenance tasks, revolutionized maintenance when it was introduced in the 1960s. With its introduction, gone were the days of set A, B, C, D checks which mandated that batches of maintenance tasks had to be carried out sequentially at specific time periods.
Fast forward to 2018, and next generation aircraft – such as the Boeing 737 MAX 9 or the Airbus A350 – are still being designed with the more flexible MSG3 standard in mind. Maintenance programs are now being ‘phased’ in order to minimize turnaround times – the base check interval of the Airbus A350 has been extended to 36 months, halving the average number of checks required over a 12-year lifecycle.
Turning change into opportunity
There’s no doubt that maintenance has moved on from an activity which simply requires turning wrenches. Airlines now spend more on maintenance than they do on fuel or crew, and the average life span of a narrow-bodied jet has nearly halved from 25 to 14 years.
With new aircraft comes a new generation of maintenance technicians. This younger cohort expect the same level of usability and functionality from technology in the workplace as they do in their personal lives. HAECO, one of the world’s leading independent aircraft engineering and maintenance groups, has responded to this challenge by extending its mobile maintenance capabilities not just to a new era of maintenance workers, but to next-gen aircraft as well.
Unlike most other MROs which have mobile aircraft on ground teams to go and help stranded aircraft, HAECO have a unique solution. The company’s new mobile capability can remotely set up a team to work on new and complex composite materials used on new and advanced aircraft such as the Boeing 787 – tying in mobile expectations and mobile maintenance with a team that can work anywhere, anytime with no hangar required!
But it’s not just the maintenance techniques that have changed – maintenance support models have also undergone a transformation. In the past, maintenance plans and schedules were certificate-based which could be translated into task cards to use for the tools, licenses and parts required for maintenance. The ‘wrench turning’ aspect in the maintenance plan could be outsourced to an MRO, but the responsibility was still on the airline to report their practices to the Federal Aviation Administration or the International Air Transport Association.
Now, as the commercial market continues to grow, airlines want to focus solely on flying passengers, selling tickets, managing fuel costs and beating competition – not maintaining their fleet.
As a result, commercial aviation operators are following in the footsteps of the defense industry – starting to contract out some of their maintenance activities to OEMs or third-party providers. With this approach, OEMs and MROs are transitioning towards new business models to take the whole maintenance aspect away from the airline – pushing risk toward the MRO contractor.
Both Boeing and Airbus have already set up their own MRO divisions with aims to generate $50bn in annual revenue. But OEM contracts are still taking a while to be taken up as airlines are reluctant to be locked into an expensive in-service support contract every time they buy a new asset. Independent MROs are realizing they occupy a competitive position to provide the ‘wrench turning’ associated with meeting the maintenance requirements of that new model.
With more aircraft entering service and maintenance appointments quickly filling up, data collaboration and insight become increasingly important, as fleet planning and maintenance scheduling must be synched with maintenance requirements as well as being available to engineers on the ground.
Modern MRO requires software which recognizes and packages individual tasks where they fit best according to scheduling parameters – be it flight hours, flight cycles or other factors. This is where software with a component-based view offers significant advantages, getting part numbers and granular detail into each and every maintenance program.
The information can then be packaged into the required maintenance format – task by task, component by component. This means whenever maintenance models and standards shift, the software can easily adapt to keep track – whether the maintenance responsibility lies with the OEM or third-party MRO. The future lies with component-centric support. Without it, commercial aviation maintenance providers lack the granularity and flexibility required take advantage of these changing business models.