Line maintenance plays a key role in the airworthiness of aircraft. Unlike base maintenance, which is planned ahead and organized sometimes months in advance, line maintenance must be available at any time and deal with most unforeseen situations. Line maintenance is everything that base maintenance is not. It includes daily and weekly checks, routine tasks such as lubrication and, most importantly, the evaluation and rectification of any defects. In this post, I would like to take a look at the main challenges associated with line maintenance management – both from the perspective of a line maintenance company and an airline.
Line Maintenance Challenges for a Maintenance Provider
Per the definition of line maintenance, the tasks carried out do not need hangar space. They can be (and often must be) performed on the tarmac. Additionally, line maintenance services must be provided at any airport to which an operator flies, including those with very limited facilities. Therefore, any maintenance provider who plans to open various line stations for their customer must take into account the very limited space which they will have available to them. Quite often, a line station is certified only in a specialized van. Typically this is fairly large vehicle, equipped with a set of tools, some basic parts and consumable materials, such as oil and grease. It is important to note, that every line station must be certified, therefore even a van must comply with the Part 145 facility requirements for a maintenance facility.
Another challenge is the access to parts and materials. A line maintenance technician will be faced with all sorts of troubleshooting tasks. Even though a line station is typically only supposed to deal with minor maintenance, such as daily or weekly checks, in fact they are the first point of contact for every defect. Rectifying defects normally requires parts, which typically are not available at a line station (remember that a line station will not have access to any serious storage facilities). For this reason, the line maintenance manager should be pretty good in ordering parts on AOG basis and ensuring that they arrive in the shortest possible time.
Once certified, a line maintenance provider will of course attempt to offer its services to as many airlines as possible. This poses yet another challenge in this business. Every airline will have its own procedures for line maintenance. This will include procedures for completing the technical log book, using the MEL, phone numbers to contact in case of an operational emergency, etc. The personnel working for a line station must be very careful to ensure that the correct procedure is adhered to at all times.
Last but not least, one should mention that line maintenance organizations need to be extremely flexible. They need to support all aircraft for which they signed a maintenance agreement. Those aircraft will often be delayed or new flights will be introduced into the schedule without any consultation with the line station. Of course, the technicians have their duty limits and cannot be working 24/7 each. Therefore, it is crucial to manage the manpower of a line maintenance facility in such a way, that the customers can be always assisted while keeping safety at an adequate level.
Line Maintenance Challenges for Airlines
As much as line maintenance causes many challenges for the respective maintenance providers, it is also not too easy on airlines. If an operator flies only scheduled routes with minimal schedule changes, the problem is less significant. However, all charter airlines as well as smaller operators who change their destinations often, will face some troubles in ensuring continuing and efficient line support.
The main issue is the Part 145 requirement which forces an airline to have an agreement with each maintenance provider, line or base. This makes ad-hoc operations a nightmare. An airline needs to find a line maintenance provide at every airport they fly or may fly to. Apart from the financial agreement, a special maintenance agreement must be signed. To make matters even more difficult, such an agreement should be approved by the appropriate aviation authority.
Many airports don’t have any steady maintenance facilities. They also don’t have steady line provisions for line maintenance. In such case, the airline needs to arrange with a line maintenance provider a mobile line station (like I already mentioned – in a van) which will take care of the aircraft. This forces even more challenges with issues like airport security access passes, permits to drive in the airport, etc.
I already mentioned challenges with respect to providing parts. Those challenges affect both the line station and the airline. Quite often it is the airline’s logistic department which must supply a required part. This means that the people is that department must be available 24/7 and be able to ship any part, regardless of size and value, from anywhere in the world to anywhere else. At the same time, they have to keep in mind things like custom laws and taxes if they don’t want their part to get stuck somewhere in a customs locker.
Line maintenance is sometimes thought of as “easy” or “small” maintenance. Of course, the main tasks carried out by line technicians are basic. However, they need to be able to recognize and deal with even the most complex issues coming from unforeseen aircraft defects. Therefore, no airline operator should take line maintenance provisions lightly, as they are crucial to successful operations.