I am starting the aircraft maintenance management series of articles with a general view on what maintenance management is all about, how it differs from airworthiness management and how the two complement each other to make for safe flight for the airline’s passengers.
What may be confusing for people not directly associated with the airline business is the difference between airworthiness management, on which I am constantly creating a series of articles here, and actual maintenance management. I have already provided a comparison to car maintenance, which you can read about here, and I hope that this will clarify, at least to a certain extent, what the difference is and why you need both to make sure your aircraft remain safely in the air.
Aircraft maintenance management is really management at its finest, as it makes up for an almost independent company within the airline. In fact, many airlines detach their maintenance departments to form separate companies while others never create a maintenance department at all and outsource all the technical work to third parties.
Many companies choose aircraft maintenance as their sole point of business and make a good living out of doing so. But this only points out just how complex aircraft maintenance management really is and what challenges it may (and will) face throughout its operation. It is those challenges which I want to focus on in this article.
Every company is about people, and aircraft maintenance even more so, as most processes are not automated and the actual maintenance work needs to be carried out by humans. You will need to manage your mechanics, your certifying staff, logistics department and engineers. To make matters more exciting, you will generally need to have those people working shifts, as your typical aircraft maintenance company will generally be working 24/7 to ensure the best and quickest service for its customers or internal fleet. So what is the complication?
I believe the hardest management issue is with the staff who actually work on the aircraft. Let’s take a look at a typical example of a C-check (which is a major technical inspection of aircraft after they have flown a certain amount of hours – generally counted in the thousands) performed in the European Union under EASA regulations. Here’s the scope of people you will need to get the job done (at the very least):
- A person with a C license to oversee the entre check (certifying staff)
- A few people with B licenses for airframe work to oversee all appropriate tasks (basically, everything except for avionics and electrical stuff). These people will be working on shifts, so you need quite a few of them, as there will be at least one for each shift (often more) and they need their brake too, once in a while.
- A few people with B licenses for avionics and electrical work. Again, they will be working in shifts, but you may need less of them as there are often less tasks to be accomplished, so certain shifts may not have any avionics certifying staff on duty.
- Mechanics working under the supervision of the B staff – the number of those depends on the aircraft type, the check and the timeframe in which you want the work to be done. But there will be several of those on each shift.
- Specialized staff for some special tasks, such as non-destructive testing (NDT) or structural repairs (like riveting). Those folks will generally come in once or twice during a check, but you still have to account for that, especially because you need to prepare the work area for them.
- Engineers on duty in the case the certifying staff runs into any problems during the check and in situation in which there is damage which needs to be properly reported to the aircraft manufacturer in order to obtain repair instructions.
So, as you can see, there are a lot of people. Not only do you have to make sure that they are all there and doing their work, but you also need to provide them with an appropriate work environment and make sure that they only work as much as they can with their physical abilities. You can’t have tired, sleepy or angry mechanics or certifying staff running around your aircraft, as this is a tragedy waiting to happen.
Always remember – it is the people doing the work. Take good care of them, as this is all you’ve got.
Managing the supply and availability of all the required parts, components, consumables and raw material is an art all on its own. While most maintenance companies will keep a stock of their own, it is impossible, mainly for financial reasons, to have everything that may be required for a given aircraft type. This is especially true during heavy checks, during which you will often need to replace many more parts than it would seem from the check description.
So what is the big deal of buying parts as you go you may ask. Unfortunately, many aircraft parts are not all that freely available on the market. Shopping for aircraft parts requires a great mix of research, economical, negotiation and time management skills. Not only have you to make sure that you get the required part on time, but also it has to be at a reasonable price (your customer is not going to pay outrageous prices for the check just because you weren’t careful enough in your shopping) and with proper airworthiness certificates.
Once the parts are in, they need to be properly handled by your internal warehouse. This means that they have to be inspected upon arrival, tagged in accordance with your system and put away under safe and proper storage conditions. Of course, they will be used eventually, so there also needs to be a smooth process of providing the parts to the staff who will actually install them on the aircraft.
Management of all your tooling and equipment may also become an issue, especially if you’re running a large hangar or have your line stations spread over a vast geographical region.
To start off, your mechanics need their typical aircraft tools, which are generally kept in proper toolboxes. In an aircraft maintenance environment, you need to account for every single tool that is out on the hangar floor, because you can never allow a tool to be left over in an aircraft after maintenance. There have been many situation in which a screwdriver or even a cloth has been sucked into an engine intake during the first run, causing major damage and excessive costs. Not to mention the safety hazard if the tool is left in a different area of the aircraft. Therefore, even in the largest aircraft maintenance facility each screwdriver needs to be listed and checked for. They can never disappear. Also, they cannot be just brought in by someone – you need to know the tools you have.
Then, there is the special equipment, often measuring equipment, which is either universal or specific to a given aircraft type. Those devices need to be checked on a regular basis, especially if they are supposed to measure something. You need to be always confident that the measurements they make are correct. So, all these tools need to be in a controlled system, which allows you to send them to appropriate certification facilities for calibration.
Last, there’s general hangar equipment like ladders, lifts and the like. Those also need to be working properly and cannot be damaged. Remember – there are people using those, and you’re responsible for the well-being of those people.
Managing the workflow
When you start a maintenance check you will generally get an order from your customer or your own airworthiness department (this is where the cooperation between airworthiness and maintenance actually starts). They will provide you with a list of tasks which they want you to accomplish. They may or may not, depending on the deal you have with them, provide you also with a work package, which is a set of cards outlining in broad detail each task which needs to be performed.
Assuming the airworthiness department does not provide such cards (they don’t have to – it’s your responsibility) , you will need to have your engineers create them for the particular check. Once this is ready, you will need to ensure that the cards are divided among your shift leaders in a way that allows for smooth workflow.
One of the worst things that you can have happen to you during a maintenance check is doubling or tripling of maintenance tasks. Here’s an example: all the aircraft flooring has been removed because a task requires steering cables to be inspected. The tasks has been done and the floors have been fitted again. After that, it turn out that you need to check the ribs for corrosion. This means that you have to remove all the floors again.
The example above is very trivial and hopefully doesn’t happen too often, but you certainly get the point. It takes a lot of experience from the C certifying staff to arrange all the work in the most optimum manner to reduce the overall man hours on the check.
The workflow should also account for expected delays in parts and components. Furthermore, if your staff are experienced, they will easily foresee that there will be damage to certain areas of an aircraft which may not be foreseen by the work package. This also should be taken into account and often checked as soon as possible to allow some time for repair instructions to be created by the engineers or the manufacturer.
Managing the legal aspects
As you know well by now, everything in the aviation business is highly regulated. Aircraft maintenance is no different and aircraft maintenance management is all about being in compliance with the applicable laws. Whether your business is run in North America, Europe or anywhere else, you will have a lot a laws to abide by.
In other words, you will have to have a quality department and well trained managers, who know the requirements by heart and know how to comply with them while at the same time assuring maximum economic feasibility of your operation. This is probably the most difficult task from all, and I will get back to it in next posts.