I have two shot glasses, courtesy of Honeywell, dating from my previous trips to the Avionics Maintenance Conference (AMC) — Phoenix in 1996 and Anchorage in 1997. After a sojourn of nearly a decade from the aviation industry, I was pleased to return to the conference this year to find the candid give and take between airlines and suppliers very much alive.
There is nothing better (or worse) than a jury of your peers and customers. Holding forth at microphones positioned around a conference hall configured with airline representatives in the center and vendors on either side, companies explained, defended, even apologized for deficient maintenance manuals, delayed deliveries or faulty parts. The 233 discussion topics ranged from the substantial — for example, how to standardize and digitize the hundreds of service bulletins airlines receive each year — to the relatively minor. "Why is Honeywell giving an e-mail address of somebody who has no intention to answer questions?" KLM huffed.
"The value continues to be the face-to-face communication that goes on, in particular the way the suppliers truly learn what the marketplace expects and needs from them," said Martin Story of Delta Air Lines, who serves on the AMC Steering Committee. "That candid discussion is one of the strengths of AMC."
It was also a surprise to find that the conference, organized by the ARINC Industry Activities division and supported by this magazine, is challenged in signing airlines to membership agreements just as the industry is recovering from the dark days of 2001. The introduction of new airframes, new onboard technologies supporting air traffic management and broadband communications, and the prospect of retrofitting thousands of legacy aircraft with the latest capabilities would seem to reinforce the need for an ongoing maintenance dialogue.
This year, AMC adopted the business model of a self-sustaining membership organization. But as of the April conference, only 19 airlines had signed membership agreements, while 25 continued to provide shorter-term financial support under existing service agreements. Twenty-four of the world’s 50 largest airlines, "including some airlines here today," provide no financial support, Ray Glennon, vice president of ARINC Industry Activities, told the conference.
Story described this year’s well-attended conference as bittersweet. "No. 1, the number of participants in the meeting itself demonstrates that the individual participants value what the forum gives them. We had a very respectable number of airlines in attendance," he said. "But on the other hand, there were only 19 that actually signed up, and then another bunch of airlines that have paid although they haven’t signed up. So that’s the bitter part of it — that the financial people haven’t executed the contracts with ARINC. That means the maintenance people who see the value (in AMC) haven’t done our job of going back to the purse-string holders in our airlines and building the business case."
Part of the challenge facing the conference involves changing industry dynamics such as the rise of airline maintenance, repair and overhaul organizations that compete against avionics vendors for aftermarket support.
With both parties present, "the economical schematic isn’t possible," complained one European avionics vendor, who said he preferred exposure to airline operations personnel. The steering group is sensitive to those concerns. "We’re always looking at the best way to enhance and maintain the value of AMC. If that means looking at a different target audience, we wouldn’t be opposed to that," Story said. "As the suppliers have chosen to be in two businesses — one selling avionics and one competing with us for maintenance — it puts them in a difficult situation," he acknowledged.
But it would be a shame if cost pressures undermine AMC, which provides an unrivaled forum that ultimately saves airlines money.
Sam Buckwalter, AMC executive secretary, said the call for support issued at this year’s conference produced a "positive commitment" from some non-contributing airlines. "We’ve actually got a few responses back that yes, they’re working to get signed up," Buckwalter said. "The more airlines we get signed up, eventually we could reduce the cost. The more the merrier would be better for everybody."
For Avionics Magazine coverage of the AMC show, click here.