Cargo carrier FedEx Express operates a fleet of hundreds of aircraft across a global network, employs thousands of pilots and maintenance professionals and is responsible for making sure packages arrive safely and on-time. Keeping that fleet operating efficiently and safely, and with the latest avionics, is a mammoth job.
A look at the FedEx Express avionics maintenance operation reflects the overall trends and challenges facing the industry — keeping pace with increasingly sophisticated technologies and maintaining a skilled workforce. These challenges likely will be among topics discussed at this year’s AMC/AEEC annual meetings, April 18-21 in Memphis, Tenn. FedEx Express is host airline of the event, which brings together maintenance and engineering personnel from more than 70 airlines, 200 suppliers and five airframers to discuss and resolve technical solutions for avionics maintenance and standards.
“Avionics” is described by the AMC as “anything with a wire in it,” and FedEx Express avionics maintenance personnel handle countless miles of wires. The largest all-cargo airline’s 4,500 pilots fly 684 aircraft, from large jet transports to turboprops at 375 airports worldwide. The fleet includes Airbus A300-600s, A310-200/300s, Boeing 727-200s, 757-200s, 777Fs, and MD10s, Cessna 208A/B and ATR-72/42 aircaft.
Maintaining this varied fleet requires a broad portfolio of avionics bench capabilities, said FedEx Vice President of Aircraft Engineering and Technical Planning Mark D. Yerger, ranging from simple components, such as a small rudder trim indicator, to sophisticated boxes such as Thales flight control computers on the carrier’s Airbus fleet. FedEx’s test equipment includes the Avitron UnivATE to support the Boeing 727, MD-10 and MD-11 and Airbus electrical power components, and the Ametek aircraft interface test unit (AIU) Test Station to support MD-10 and MD-11 autopilot and flight deck instrumentation.
Where avionics maintenance is conducted is “pretty much a balance” between internal and external sources, said Yerger, and what percentage goes where fluctuates with market availability and system changes.
Internally, for example, the Memphis Avionics Component Shop is a 40,000-square-foot facility where mainly B or intermediate level checks are conducted. It employs about 36 full-time Avionics Maintenance Technicians (AMT) plus support staff. The Memphis Avionics Line operation employs 54 AMTs plus support staff. The instrument shop at the company’s Los Angeles facility, where C checks are conducted, employs about 10 full-time AMTs.
Externally, FedEx Express has relationships with numerous partners around the world performing component maintenance for avionics, as well as airframe, engine and heavy maintenance services.
Five years ago, with a goal of ensuring uniform workflow and quality results, FedEx Express adopted the Kaizen technique, a lean processing philosophy, in its maintenance organization. Kaizen is Japanese for “continuous improvement.”
“We are working smarter, faster and the AMTs are more empowered,” Yerger said. Here, “‘empowered’ means the technicians, the parts organization staff that supports them and engineers meet daily to discuss where to eliminate waste in the maintenance process. The workspace was reorganized by looking at process flow from receiving through dispatch out of the facility. And they have been able to radically improve productivity as well as the quality of the product coming out of the shop.”
As avionics systems and inventory age, it becomes more obvious that every box is making more and more trips to the shop, said Yerger. The Memphis and Los Angeles avionics and instrument shops, for example, average 1,168 units returned to service each month. Determined to better identify failure conditions and prevent them from occurring in aging systems, the FedEx Avionics Bench in 2010 adopted a predictive maintenance process. It replaces the traditional test-fix-test method where the time required to test a line replaceable unit (LRU) might be one hour or eight hours, depending on how far the test procedure progresses before it isolates the failure, Yerger said. A traditional repair may involve finding the failed component, replacing and testing it and returning it to service. The new process tries to identify the precursor condition and repair or improve it before it is returned to service.
For example, the carrier will examine the electronic circuit that degrades over time. As components age, connectors wear and solder joints are subjected to the stresses of their operational environment. Yerger said the aging process can cause “unreliable, intermittent and often repeated failures on the same circuit.”
“The predictive process identifies components that have been degraded with time or are at risk of becoming obsolete. They are then replaced with exact or direct equivalents. Solder joints, for example, are reworked and worn connectors are replaced. This effectively means that the life of the circuit is extended and the reliability improved,” Yerger said.
“Undertaking a proactive analysis and refurbishment of the circuit can provide compelling results and improvements in the circuit performance,” he said.
FedEx, like most carriers around the world, is considering ways to adapt to the avalanche of sophisticated technologies entering the marketplace, particularly with regard to the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) in the United States and Single European Sky ATM Research (SESAR) program in Europe. The transition is likely to be a key topic at the AMC Open Forum.
As NextGen and its requirement for Performance-Based Navigation technologies on aircraft advances, FedEx Express is looking at preparing its pilots and aircraft for Required Navigation Procedures (RNP) approaches. “We have our eyes on the prize and are making sure that we are able to operate in an advanced RNP environment,” Yerger said.
FedEx Express is retrofitting and upgrading equipment on aircraft “as we bring them in” to help position the fleet for RNP capability, Yerger said. The 757s the company is acquiring and converting to freighter service, for example, are being configured for 0.15 nautical mile RNP capability, meaning an aircraft on approach must remain within 0.15 nm to the right or left of center line 95 percent of the time within a containment area. The company is also taking delivery of Boeing 777s that will be RNP-capable.
FedEx Express also has been proactive in the development of new technologies, executives advise. It was an early adopter of computers in the cockpit, according to Yerger, and one of the leaders in advancing both head-up display (HUD) and Enhanced Flight Vision System (EFVS) technologies. The company has equipped a number of its large aircraft with EFVS portrayed through the HUD system to provide flight crews with the best possible situational awareness as well as improve safety of operations, says Yerger.
The company is also uses the Honeywell-developed Runway Advisory and Awareness System (RAAS), which provides pilots with aural and graphical advisories of aircraft position on and near the airport surface. In addition, certain FedEx Express Boeing 777F international flights are operating in a Future Air Navigation System (FANS) environment to take advantage of oceanic datalink services. This includes operations using the terrestrial L888 Western China Route.
Yerger added that FedEx Express is working with industry and government to speed the process of getting moving map technologies better defined and into its aircraft. Most of FedEx’s trunk aircraft are equipped with primarily Class 2 electronic flight bags (EFB).
“As we look at enhanced GPS-based navigation,” said Yerger, “Aircraft will continue to become more sophisticated and more integrated; that is, each piece of avionics or component on the aircraft spends more time communicating with other systems on the aircraft in order to improve reliability and safety.”
As always, safety remains paramount to the carrier. Yerger said FedEx Expresssupports a Safety Management System (SMS) culture and hopes that environment will continue to flourish as the program moves forward. The company is moving from Level 2 SMS to Level 3.
In addition, valuable safety information is now available and downloadable from aircraft “faster than ever before,” Yerger noted. “This gives FedEx’s flight safety organization a much bigger pool of data with which to identify precursors and eliminate safety risks, as well as learn more about how we operate our airplanes,” he said.
“Twenty years ago, such information was not available until it was pulled from the (flight data recorder) after an accident,” Yerger added. “Today, a broader range of information is stored digitally in aircraft flight data acquisition units. And the data from a flight can be downloaded automatically into our system from our MD-11s as the aircraft taxis to the gate.”
Cognizant of the increasing level of sophistication in avionics packages it works with, FedEx Express is taking the necessary steps to make sure its maintenance staff is well prepared and has “the best tools, the best training to address those higher expectations (of safety) and manage very sophisticated pieces of test equipment,” Yerger said.
FedEx Express offers technician training in-house and at various manufacturers, including ATE manufacturers, for specific types of equipment. The company also wants to make certain the best available flow of information is available to technicians around the world — “whether the aircraft is in Memphis, where the company has lots of resources, or in Kuala Lumpur, where there are fewer people and parts to rely on, but where expectations for high performance are the same,” Yerger said.
The carrier works with leading service and technology providers to collect the latest available information from OEMs, previous operators of used aircraft, ATE and component manufacturers and FedEx’s own in-house engineering team. That data is combined and loaded on the company’s technical information management and distribution system, which is accessible to the maintenance workforce.
“Members of this industry — component manufacturers, the airlines and suppliers, OEMs — although bitter competitors at certain levels, have overlapping and very complex relationships,” Yerger said. “And we have got to figure out how to manage those relationships while recognizing that safety is the No. 1 priority across all of our portfolios.”