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Saturday, February 1, 2003

NTSB Eyeballs Mx Intervals

Safety officials at the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board are not happy with the way airlines and regulators figure out what needs to be maintained on airplanes and when, and they want them to start over.

Included among 51 recommendations made January 8 as a result of its investigation into the January 2000 Alaska Airlines MD-80 crash off California, the safety board called on the FAA to "review all existing maintenance intervals for tasks that could affect critical aircraft components."

The NTSB also wants the FAA to "conduct a systematic industrywide evaluation and issue a report" on how manufacturers and airlines establish and revise maintenance intervals. In the meantime, it wants operators to be required to give the FAA technical data and analysis demonstrating that proposed changes to tasks and intervals pose no hazards.

The safety board says no changes should be permitted unless an FAA principal maintenance inspector and aircraft certification office concur with and approve them in writing.

The Alaska crash was just the latest in a series of accidents in which maintenance procedures were not followed or were changed without considering the impact on the safeguards on which the airplane’s type certificate is based. The incidents date back to at least 1979, when changed engine-removal procedures led to pylon cracking that contributed to the crash of an American Airlines DC-10 in Chicago.

Safety investigators have been troubled since then by accidents and incidents that revealed what they describe as a disregard for the safety procedures by which aircraft are built and supposed to be operated. For instance, an uncontained engine failure on a Delta Air Lines MD-88 in 1996 highlighted shortcomings in non-destructive inspection procedures and the ability of inspectors to find critical flaws. The 1998 crash of a Swissair MD-11 revealed widespread lack of controls over equipment installed on aircraft through the supplemental type certificate process. The January 8 crash of an Air Midwest Raytheon/Beech 1900D in Charlotte, North Carolina may well raise questions about the oversight applied to the maintenance of flight controls.

One advocate for more effective efforts to address maintenance shortcomings, former USAir mechanic John Goglia, already sits on the safety board. A proponent of diligent safety efforts has been nominated to join the NTSB–Richard Healing, former head of the U.S. Navy’s Office of Safety and Survivability. With a public relations-savvy administrator, Marion Blakey, heading the FAA, the scene may be set for initiatives to address maintenance-related safety issues akin to those launched in the 1970s and 1980s to deal with shortcomings in flight operations.

Airbus Rising to the Top

Airbus is expected to deliver more aircraft than Boeing this year, the first time the European consortium will have led the U.S. airframe maker in deliveries since the two began competing for airline orders more than 40 years ago.

For 2002, Airbus delivered 300 aircraft, well short of Boeing’s total of 380. Airbus plans to deliver 300 again this year, but Boeing expects 275 to 285 deliveries.

Airbus isn’t resting on its laurels, either. In late December 2002, the company signed a contract with EasyJet Plc, Europe’s largest no-frills carrier, for 120 Airbus A319s, with options for the airline to take 120 more. The sale was old news. EasyJet had announced the order back in October. But by closing December 30 on the sale, Airbus netted sales of 233 aircraft for 2002. According to Boeing’s figures, it booked 231 sales last year.

The numbers weren’t the only bad news for Boeing. EasyJet today has an all-Boeing 737-700 fleet, and that Chicago-née-Seattle-based manufacturer had won the lion’s share of orders from budget European carriers, most of which fly 737s and 757s. Airbus reportedly banked the EasyJet sale by agreeing to offset the additional costs that carrier incurs by switching to a mixed fleet. EasyJet’s first A319s, powered by CFM International CFM56-5B engines, are slated for delivery in September.

Airbus’s willingness to underwrite mixed-fleet operations could spell trouble for Boeing in North America. Boeing has supplied aircraft to Seattle,Washington-based Alaska Airlines for 50 years. But top officials of Alaska said in December 2002 that they are considering swapping some of their older Boeing 737-200s and MD-80s in an effort to cut costs. Alaska’s parent, Alaska Air Group Inc., made a $10.6-million profit in 2002’s third quarter, but analysts expect it to lose money this year.

Of course, such comments put pressure on Boeing salesmen, who are pitching the purchase of 737-800s and -900s to Alaska. But is Airbus’s subsidy for EasyJet a harbinger?

Alaska is far from Airbus’s only target for new sales in North America. During a visit to Northwestern University in Boeing’s new hometown of Chicago, Airbus’s chief designer for the mammoth A380 told the Reuters news service that United Airlines remains a potential buyer of that aircraft, despite its bankruptcy and huge losses.

The 555-passenger A380 is scheduled to start flight tests in 2005 and enter service the following year. Airbus has 98 orders from nine customers for the A380, including Memphis, Tennessee-based FedEx.

Bidding for Taiwan Engines

Taiwan’s largest commercial airline expects to pick engines for its newly ordered cargo and passenger aircraft by this May.

China Airlines solicited bids in mid-January from Pratt & Whitney, General Electric Co., and Rolls-Royce for engines to power the 10 Boeing 747-400s and 12 Airbus A330s it ordered in December 2002. Its order includes options for six additional A330s. The airline is expected to order about 70 engines in total.

Airline officials had said they planned to simplify China Airlines’s fleet with that latest order for new aircraft. They were believed to have been leaning toward a move to an all-Airbus fleet, which provoked pressure from U.S. officials, including Senator Slade Gorton of Washington.

The split order helps Boeing hold ground in its worldwide battle with Airbus for business. China Airlines plans to use the six new passenger 747-400s and four -400 freighters to replace older Boeing passenger and cargo aircraft. The A330s will replace A300-600s. The Boeing deliveries are to start in July. Airbus expects A330 deliveries to China Airlines to start in 2004 and run through 2007.

Tracking Component Repairs

Many OEMs and third-party maintenance companies offer repair tracking, but only on their Web sites. An operator might have to log onto half a dozen sites to track all its components during the repair process. The Web-based airline parts ordering system onePO aims to simplify that job with a new online component repair tracking service.

"We’re trying to put all repairs in one place," said onePO commercial director Michael Taylor.

An airline’s component manager can log on to onePO’s Repair Manager and submit required information about a component to a selected MRO facility on a repair order form. One required bit of info is the "Quote required in X days" field. This keeps everyone aware of timeliness issues.

After saving the form, the airline ships the component to the vendor. The form is e-mailed to the vendor, notifying it that a unit is on the way. The shipping department can include the waybill number and other shipping information.

The key to getting the most efficient use of Repair Manager is for both the airline and the vendor to use the system religiously. The vendor’s receiving department must update Repair Manager to show that the part has arrived. This starts the clock on the time given by the customer for "Quote required." Once a quote is sent, the customer is notified that it is waiting. If the vendor doesn’t submit a quote by the deadline, onePO sends it e-mail reminders every 24 hours until the quote is sent.

If the customer accepts the quote, the vendor does the repair. Five days before the component is due, onePO e-mails a reminder to the vendor that the due date is near. The vendor can post a revised completion date, but the system will e-mail the customer about the change.

The vendor can notify the customer through Repair Manager that the component has been repaired and shipped. After receiving and accepting the component, the customer marks the order closed on onePO. Records are retained for two months.

Repair Manager stores e-mails for each component in a separate folder, not mixed together in a messy e-mail inbox. It doesn’t get down to nitty-gritty details, such as where in the shop the component is, but it helps keep the vendor and customer aware of status and delivery expectations.

With Repair Manager, "nobody can lie," Taylor said. "If you asked for a quote in five days, the system tracks that. It works for both parties. It introduces a certain level of discipline into what you’re doing."

Three European airlines are using onePO’s Repair Manager. Six others have committed to signing on, Taylor said. Repair Manager will be rolled out to the U.S. and Asia soon, he added. Membership is free for qualifying airlines and vendors. Currently, Repair Manager is just for components, but Taylor said the company plans to add other MRO services. Web: www.onepo.com.

Software Cuts Mx Time

Computer tools have long promised to help improve productivity. But such improvements are hard to measure, and often the return-on-investment benefits are less than clear.

At Goodrich Aviation Technical Services in Everett, Washington, a tool developed by Welcom and a handheld computer from Perceptive Solutions have combined to pare the time to complete a heavy check in several aircraft types, including a 25-percent cut for a Boeing 737, according to Chris LaFrance, Goodrich maintenance supervisor. Welcom’s Open Plan and Welcom Home software lets maintenance personnel manage projects, update them in real time, and monitor how close they are to schedule, said Steve Cook, Welcom’s executive vice president and co-founder.

Screens on the shop floor use "traffic light" signals–green, yellow, red–to indicate project status. Managers can view project-related status reports and receive e-mail updates via handheld computers like RIM’s Blackberry.

Project management is not as simple as buying software and turning on a computer. "Many companies have tried to implement project-management programs and failed," said Cook. "It’s important that companies understand why they are doing this, and the business processes behind it."

Welcom’s software manages projects with critical-path analysis. In a large project, the critical path gets complicated. On a D check, it is not even apparent until inspections are done and all non-routine items noted. "But if you delay that path," Cook said, "you delay the completion date."

Non-routine items can change the critical path constantly. The software is set up to identify the critical path for a job and zoom in on the tasks and processes that could delay it if not completed on time. Once they are identified, the program highlights the human resources, materials, parts, and access points needed to make schedule.

Cook said Welcom is careful to consult with everyone in the organization. "We identify that critical path for everyone from the shop floor to the president," he said. This approach led Goodrich to re-examine its internal processes. Before Open Plan, managers made their own estimates of task durations; now this information comes from the mechanics who do the work.

With all the information collected, the job is ready to start. The critical path must be kept current with what is happening on the shop floor. This is done with Welcom Home, a Web-based tool that lets authorized users update project status from shop-floor terminals.

For quick resolution of non-routine discrepancies, Goodrich is using a Palm operating system-based handheld computer developed by Perceptive Solutions of Norcross, Georgia. Goodrich calls the system hangar operations systems or HOPS. An inspector enters non-routine items into HOPS, which is uploaded wirelessly to the hangar computer system. Mechanics can even use HOPS on a check flight, uploading data once within wireless range of the hangar.

"This has increased our efficiency quite a bit," said LaFrance. Lead mechanics or supervisors review the write-ups, determine corrective action, round up necessary materials, and assign them to mechanics.

Every four hours, the schedule is analyzed for problems and the traffic-light displays are updated. Customers can check their aircraft’s progress via the Web, and Goodrich can provide digital photos of activity on the aircraft.

Perceptive Solutions
Norcross, Georgia
Phone: 770-409-7676
Fax: 770-409-7677
Web: www.perceptive-inc.com

Houston, Texas
Phone: 281-558-0514
Fax: 281-584-7828

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