In all my posts in the airworthiness section I try to explain what airworthiness is all about, why it is necessary and how to make sure that the aircraft in your fleet remain airworthy while operating. Naturally, in the 21st century, one just has to use computer software to assist in daily airworthiness tasks. In this post, I try to outline top ten features which, in my opinion, are a must for any airworthiness software to be even considered. Please remember, than once you make your choice it will be very difficult and costly to change it.
The features down below are in no particular order. All of them are just as important, and in my opinion, those are the very basics for airworthiness software developers.
1. Very high level of customization
You may be thinking that since the airworthiness regulations are pretty much the same for everyone, and the airworthiness data supplied by the aircraft manufacturers is also the same then, as a logical consequence, the airworthiness departments of airlines should run in the same way as well. This is simply not true. Not only does the legislator not want us to do it like that (by encouraging airlines to create their own changed to the aircraft maintenance programs based on experience and specific airline operations) but also it is a natural consequence of different airworthiness managers having their own ways of doing things.
Therefore, you should never allow your airworthiness software to define the way you leas your airworthiness departments. Here’s a common dialogue between an auditor and an airworthiness postholder I have seen many times during quality audits performed both internally, by the local authorities and even by international audits, like a MAST Team visit:
Auditor: This form makes no sense. It contains fields you do not require for your operation while lacking some which could potentially safe you from errors.
Manager: Yes, I’m aware of that, but that’s the way our software works.
Auditor: It would be best to add this particular feature to your system.
Manager: I’m afraid this will not be possible, as this is unique to our operation and the software provided won’t do it for us.
A dialogue as above is, in my opinion, not acceptable. Even if you do get by all the audits (which you probably will, as all software is designed with the current regulations in mind) you must keep in mind that airworthiness software is supposed to assist your operation and not constrain you. When choosing your software, make sure that it is highly customizable and that it suits your current and future operations to the greatest extent possible. Also, make sure that your airworthiness software provider is flexible and will help in customizing his / her product to suit your needs.
2. Transferable backup and full data ownership
It is quite obvious that all the data you have stored within your airworthiness software must be backed up on a regular basis and I can’t think of a single software provider who wouldn’t have thought of this. However, there is one very important thing to consider – make sure that the backup can be “read” by commercially available software (like Excel) and is not being made in a proprietary format legible only by the current software you’re using. Why is this important?
First of all, choosing airworthiness software is not a marriage. Sure, you don’t do it every day, but you must be free to change your mind eventually and cannot be held hostage. The data you put into the software is your data and yours only – never let go of it. If you don’t get it right, then switching your airworthiness software from one provider to another will result in the need to enter everything manually by hand assuming you at least have access to printouts. If you don’t … well … you can end up in big trouble.
The second issue is that your airline may eventually want to sell the aircraft you’re operating. Or, if they’re on lease, you will have to return them to the lessor at some point. The future owners don’t have to use the same software you do, and there is really no reason why you should force them to use only printed data. It is really easy to present all data in a table format, so saving it to a well-known and accepted file type is not difficult.
3. Assistance in creating the aircraft template for the software
An aircraft template is basically and empty, digital version of the generic Maintenance Planning Document (MPD) or Maintenance Schedule (MS) for your given aircraft type. This means that all the maintenance tasks, together with their intervals and all other necessary information are already put into the software.
This is common for airworthiness software packages which have been around for a while, have many customers and monitor many different aircraft types. There’s a good chance that the generic MPD has been already entered for your aircraft and all you have to do is change it with respect to the changes which have been applied by your specific operation and which reflect your particular aircraft serial numbers.
This is not to say that you can’t use young, fresh software. If the template isn’t there already, ask the airworthiness software provider to help you in creating one, or just to create one for you. Or, on the contrary – offer that you will do it, but you expect some bonus for the fact that you have been the first one. Maybe a few months payment vacation or some other benefits?
Why is this important? Just because of the timeframe. Entering your entire maintenance program into the software template is a tedious task and your job is to assure airworthy aircraft and not type in data into tables. On top of that, it is prone to errors which, once made, are very difficult to find and correct. And such errors (like switching a task interval from 150 to 1500 hours) may even lead to the worst. So keep the templates in mind.
4. Smart, but not too smart
Airworthiness software is supposed to be “smart” in a certain way. It should warn you of upcoming events and prohibit your from making mistakes as much as possible. At the same time, it should automate the data entry tasks so you don’t have to spend too much time just typing away at your computer or, worse yet, hire someone specifically for this tedious task.
Watch out, however! If the airworthiness software is too automated or offers too limited options of converting its automated features to suit your needs you may run into trouble. Particularly, you need to remember one old saying about software in general: if you feed it crap, you will get crap. In other words, with a lot of automation (like updating the status of all tasks within a work package without actually checking the package) you may end up updating your aircraft status with faulty data. And again, with too much “black box” methodology within your airworthiness software, you may never find out about that mistake until you get audited (good scenario) or something happens (bad scenario).
In other words, please find the balance between making your life as easy as possible while remembering that airworthiness software is just software and some tasks just shouldn’t be outsourced to a computer.
5. The human touch
There are really to types of airworthiness software packages out there for you to consider: those which offer just the software and all human intervention is limited only to the software functionality, but never to the content and those who actually employ airworthiness engineers to take a look at the data you enter and verify that it makes sense, at least to a certain degree.
As much as the latter option is generally more expensive and may also cause some uncertainty (do I really want other to look into my airworthiness data?) I believe that it is a much better solution overall. We’re all human. We make mistakes. In an airworthiness environment, we act under a lot of stress and sometimes it is possible to forget the most obvious and the simplest issues. If we have third party take a look at what is happening to our “virtual” aircraft, they may actually point out things which have slipped away in the heat of the moment.
This feature adds true intelligence to the airworthiness software package and cannot be underestimated. Also, keep in mind that those virtual engineers are looking at many companies, not just at yours. This makes them aware of many ideas which may not have occurred to you and by that, they may be quite helpful.
6. A variety of modules
Airworthiness is just part of the huge operation of running an airline. Apart from airworthiness, aircraft safe-keeping has to do with actual maintenance, logistics of parts and components, and – most importantly – costs. What you do, as an airworthiness manager or engineer, has an impact on operations, aircraft availability, crew rotation and ticket sales. It is always a good idea to assure that the airworthiness software you choose doesn’t have to be just that.
Many software companies offer a large variety of modules, ranging from stock management to maintenance management, and even combining those three with accounting and operations. Even if you don’t need all of that at the moment (or perhaps your airline can’t afford to pay for all that) it is good to know that the possibility exists. One day you may decide to extend your current subscription to include additional functionality.
For that reason it is also important to make sure that the airworthiness software provider’s pricing policy is rigid and fully understandable. Some providers may get the feeling that once you’ve bought one module, you’re stuck with them so they can try to charge you huge amounts for additional modules. Look for proper business people who aim to make money, but also aim to make your user experience the best they can. This kind of business relationship may last even forever.
7. Compatibility with others
Contrary to the situation in point 6 above, your airline may already have specialized software for operations, accounting or your stick of parts prior to the decision of acquiring professional airworthiness software. In this case, it is also crucial for the software you choose to be compatible with the already existing solutions within your structures.
This will probably never bee seamless. However, if you have chosen all your other software correctly, at least the migration of data may be straightforward. In addition, the whole process may require both software providers (the one of the airworthiness software and the other software packages) to cooperate in order to provide a great solution for you. Some companies will do that, others will not. Make your research, ask existing users and make sure that the people you work with really try to get the job done for you.
8. Good interface
For some reason, aviation doesn’t go to well with information technology. I’ve seen plenty of web sites which look just terrible in comparison to their non-aviation counterparts. Unfortunately, the same is often applicable to airworthiness software. The functionality is there, the algorithms work perfectly, but it just doesn’t have the looks.
Why is this important? As usual: time and money. All of us, including all your airworthiness staff, are using computers on a daily basis. By now, everyone is used to the interfaces of Windows 8, Microsoft Office or the iPhone. Those interfaces have developed over time in order to make the user experience as simple and straightforward as possible (OK, OK … marketing plays an important role as well, but still …). People are used to them, they know by heart where to look for options they have never used before.
If the airworthiness software you deploy has a straightforward user interface, complaint with the current “touch and feel” of your commonly used operating system and other software applications, users (your employees) will integrate with the software on the spot. On the other hand, make it “different”, make it text based or complex and you will spend days and weeks, not to mention the thousands of Dollars, on training which will not bring the success you have hoped for.
And, last but not least, it is always nice to work with something good looking and giving you the engineering feel rather than something that may work well, but just doesn’t look like it does.
9. Hardware compliance
You most likely have some hardware already. All your engineers have their workstations or laptops, you have your own servers in place and a network to support them. You also have an internet connection with a specified bandwidth which was sufficient. Until now.
You can choose (again) two ways to go with your airworthiness software. It can either be based completely online, or it can be hosted on your internal servers. With the second option, you can choose whether access will be limited only internally in your company (with respect to your geographical location) or whether you will make it accessible also online for field engineers traveling the world.
In both cases, it is best if you will be able to limit the costs of the infrastructure necessary to support the deployment of your airworthiness software. With the online version it’s quite simple – you need an internet connection with an appropriate bandwidth. Keep in mind, however, that your current usage of the internet will increase a lot as people will be online all day, and they will be uploading and downloading large amounts of data.
If you choose the local version, make sure that your current servers will be able to satisfy the requirements of the airworthiness software. Otherwise, make sure that you know what the requirements are and account for the additional costs of upgrading your current infrastructure. Of course, it is best if the software remains compatible with the current systems you use because, generally, you will not be able to afford to change all your existing software to suit the new airworthiness product (just because everything ran on a Linux server until now, and suddenly you have to deploy a Windows server as well).
10. Digital documents
I have put this last, but to me this is extremely important and could make the shift between a “go” and “no go” for airworthiness software.
All your airworthiness data comes generally from paper documents. Those are entries in your technical log books, work packages from heavy maintenance and other airworthiness records. On top of that, there are all the manuals which you receive from the manufacturer and those which you author yourself. Those can be (and generally are) digital, but they are not integrated with your airworthiness software from scratch.
Make sure that this integration is possible. A paperless airworthiness office is a thing of the future, but it is the best thing that can happen to an airworthiness department. If you’ve been in the business you know how long it can take to dig up that one piece of paper you need so bad during an audit or an aircraft handover.
From a logical point of view, it is quite simple to make airworthiness software which enables you to scan and link paper documents directly to your database entries. Yet quite a bit of software offered out there is lacking this functionality. In a perfect world, your engineers should need access to your airworthiness software and nothing more, as it would contain everything necessary.
What do I mean in particular? Those are simple things such as:
- You can click each record in your aircraft status to see the dirty fingerprint page of the actual accomplishment of a given task
- You can click each task name to see where it comes from (appropriate page of your approved maintenance program) and all the related documents (the appropriate AD, SB or page from the MPD)
- Direct links to the aircraft maintenance manual to assure that for each tasks you can easily click and read the manual to assure you know what maintenance you’re actually planning.
And on top of that it will keep your office clutter free and give your engineers more time. This is crucial, and I strongly believe that modern airworthiness software just cannot exist without the paperless approach.