Commercial

New Airline Business Models Put Aircraft Maintenance Center Stage

By James Elliott | December 1, 2017

Norwegian Airlines Boeing 737 Max. Photo courtesy of Boeing

Commercial aviation maintenance models have changed drastically over the past 20 years. New industry standards, shorter asset lifespans and a new generation of technologically advanced aircraft have constantly kept operators and maintenance providers on their toes. James Elliott, director of MRO product line at the Aviation and Defense Business Unit for IFS, explained how airlines and MROs need granular insight into every part of every asset as new maintenance and planning models enter the commercial aviation industry.

From ABCD to MSG-3

Just 20 years ago, aircraft maintenance was a rigid A, B, C, D-check process based on a batch of maintenance tasks executed at specific times in an aircraft’s lifecycle. When an aircraft came in for D check, there could be more than 1,000 maintenance items, meaning a plane could be out of service for six weeks.

Fortunately, the industry migrated to a more flexible model, MSG-3 — packaging up individual maintenance items in any way an airline wanted. For example, if there was an opportunity to carry out D check maintenance during a C check, this could now be done. Fleet usage was optimized and balanced because maintenance could be managed more fluidly — no tasks were missed and there was no unnecessary duplication.

The ‘Phased’ Maintenance Approach

New-generation aircraft — such as the Boeing 787 or the Airbus A350 — have been designed with MSG-3 in mind. These aircraft are now maintained with "phased" maintenance programs with the aim of achieving the shortest possible maintenance turnarounds.

When launched the A350, Airbus aimed for the plane to be maintained under its “usage parameter” concept — based on flight hours, flight cost and other parameters rather than traditional checks — “to ensure optimized utilization of available resources.” The base check interval of the A350 has extended to 36 months, meaning the average number of base checks over 12 years has halved to just four compared to previous generations of aircraft.

But with fleets expanding and more routes being flown than ever before, this presents a challenge for operators as they are now looking at maintenance windows on an aircraft-by-aircraft basis. For any fleet more than 100 aircraft, managing a maintenance plan and schedule for all aircraft becomes a complicated issue.

Shorter Visits, More Convenient Times

Resource constraints, such as hangar availability and number of available technicians, also influences the ability to carry out maintenance. Airlines must also manage known requirements such as seasonal fluctuations — fleet utilization and air passenger traffic is much higher during holidays such as Christmas.

The question then becomes how do operators move hundreds of aircraft through MRO hangars during these busy spells? Maintenance planning tools must look to align flights, optimizing fleets for usage and yields, then individual aircraft going in to hangars for as little time as possible.

Change and Opportunity

Alongside this, MRO is currently in a boom period — older fleets are yet to retire, while new aircraft are being delivered at a rapid rate. Oliver Wyman estimates a steady 3.8% CAGR MRO market growth, with 58% of fleets being new-generation aircraft by 2027.

However, legacy aircraft aren’t as old as they used to be. The lifespan of a narrow-bodied jet used to be 25 years, now it’s closer to 14 years. At MROs and airlines, technicians who are undergoing training to deliver staged maintenance services are the younger generation — millennials for whom using technology in the workplace is a necessity, not an option.

Maintenance is no longer about simply "turning wrenches." Some of those technicians who have been around longer aren’t as interested or as fast at learning new software techniques as the younger generation. Some MROs are responding with new services such as mobile technology and applications. HAECO now has a mobile team that can work anywhere without a hangar.

New Approach Required: Part by Part, Task by Task

Regardless of the chosen model, the end goal is to reduce aircraft maintenance windows, the No. 1 competitive differentiator between maintenance providers. From a planning perspective, what used to be called "out-of-phase maintenance" in the days of A-B-C-D is now the industry standard. Whole maintenance programs are planned with individual tasks in mind.

This requires MRO software that recognizes and packages individual tasks where they fit best according to scheduling parameters (flight hours, flight cycles, etc.). Software with a component-based view offers significant advantages by getting part numbers and granular detail into each maintenance program. That information should then be packaged into the required maintenance format — task by task, component by component. This means as maintenance models and standards continue to shift, the software can easily adapt to keep track of all components.

Adapt to Survive

As commercial aviation MRO continues to move forward, those who adapt fast will remain competitive in a consolidating market. But these opportunities cannot be realized without component-centric support, providing the granularity required to react and take advantage of new maintenance models.

James Elliott is the director of MRO product line at the Aviation and Defense Business Unit for IFS.

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