How Airlines Can Stop Getting Murdered by Maintenance Costs

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The scale of an airline's maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) operations requires significant planning around moving assets, inventory, machine shops, and manpower, often on a round-the-clock schedule. This is particularly true for legacy carriers, i.e., large operators with multiple fleets of aircraft, round-the-clock operations, and international destinations to manage.

Legacy airlines must also contend with complex multidepartmental processes often supported by a mix of limited system capabilities and external workarounds. The level of back-and-forth communication that needs to take place up and down the ladder is enormous at the best of times. And lack of visibility often leads to costly multiplication of efforts, inflated inventory, and operational delays.

So what can an airline do to help itself in this position? Rip and replace? Reform its processes? Restructure the organization? With their scope of management-heavy operations, plenty of discussion needs to take place before an in-depth strategy is put in place for an IT overhaul.

With that caveat in mind, there are two solutions that legacy airlines should consider in order to streamline their maintenance operations and significantly control their costs: project management and workflow.

Maintenance through Augmented Project Management

Airlines are generally challenged by the need to coordinate their maintenance activities visibly  and dynamically across multiple functional units, while at the same time comprehensively tracking the costs of maintenance activities surrounding a specific plane.

A project management solution with native advanced planning and scheduling (APS) capabilities can offer a powerful solution for achieving this objective. This type of solution is often used for large, complex manufacturing projects, but it can also bring enormous value to complex maintenance operations, as within airline settings or even oil platforms.

While a project management solution can possibly replace some legacy systems, that is not its primary function. Some legacy systems such as those that manage asset maintenance history are often specific to the airline industry, thanks to their ability to track very specific criteria such as flight cycles (takeoff-landing) that are attached to certain parts or assets.

Rather, the primary function of project management software is to provide a much needed chart to lead the various functional units, much in the same way the various segments of an orchestra are led by their conductor.

While not fully integrated (as a unified maintenance platform would be), these functional units would have the means to exchange information with a central solution. For example, the solution will not necessarily manage production activities within a machine shop, but it will certainly take input from the stages of the work order associated with the reconditioning of a landing gear.

This solution would help aggregate the visibility of aircraft maintenance by defining a master project for each tail number. All subsequent maintenance activities, whether planned (e.g., A/B/C/D checks) or unplanned (e.g., emergency repairs), can then be associated as a subordinate or child project. You can track the progress of maintenance activities based on the assigned tasks and their associated costs.

However, such a solution truly makes a significant impact when you combine APS capabilities with calendar functions to manage the various resource allocation constraints, such as maintenance bays, equipment, mechanics, parts, etc., within the planning process. It can also allocate resources dynamically and recalculate cascading ripples throughout scheduled operations. Additionally, these solutions allow the design of project templates with preset resources that can be used for recurring activities (such as routine maintenance), and then customized to respond to more specific needs.

These augmented project management solutions assist the planning process by offering multiple aggregated views of activities within key resources (e.g., maintenance bays, staging areas, special equipment) and advising on capacity and availability. They can also identify conflicts within resource allocations, by running both scheduling and critical path analysis. The key is making those views common and available to all in order to provide a unified vision of maintenance activities, which can make planning or emergency corrections meetings far more efficient.

Lastly, this type of solution offers a structure to support demand management for both inventory and required manpower with a validated and dynamic scheduled timeline, while providing a better understanding of resource allocation (as in maintenance infrastructure and equipment), which can help airlines identify possible capacity issues such as overbooking or under-utilization.

Process Management with a Workflow Backbone

I always say that complexity is simple to handle as long as you have only a little of it. Airline maintenance is extremely complex, and must contend with an incredible volume of operations. This can be a losing battle if not guided properly.

While it is possible to rely on existing systems to provide an helping hand in managing established processes, few solutions have the flexibility to restructure their process schemes to adapt to new initiatives or compliance requirements. This often forces reliance on external processes that have been designed around customized code, spreadsheets, or—even worse—paper-based solutions.

Workflow solutions allow you to design your own processes from the ground up, and to set various permission accesses for each process, allowing for proper corporate governance. They also allow you to automate operational processes that are often otherwise difficult to frame. For example, it is not unheard of for a mechanic on the line to make multiple requests for the same part from multiple sources (machine shop, supplier, warehouse location, etc.) in order to get said part more quickly. This is primarily driven by the imperative of servicing the plane rapidly (and also by the lack of visibility into parts availability from the various sources).

With a workflow engine, you would be able to design a part request form that can process such a request driven by best availability (based either on live data or predefined estimated time of arrival [ETA]), and capable of determining if other requests have already been placed for the same part and for the same job number. This would allow significant time savings for multiple departments (e.g., warehousing, production, purchasing) while keeping inventory management costs down.

Workflow engines allow you to control the flow of processes based on operational expectations by letting you configure time cycles within each step of a process. You also have the ability to escalate processes through multistage notifications, ensuring that actions are taken in a timely manner. Additionally, a workflow engine is an excellent tool for helping you identify operational bottlenecks far more quickly, and to take steps for process re-evaluation.

For airlines, compliance and traceability are at a premium due to auditing requirements, and a centralised repository for all external processes is critical. Workflow solutions normally come with extensive activity log capabilities that can track the various stages and changes within a process. Some workflow solutions provide visual representations of the process path, allowing for a an even quicker assessment, along with integrated messaging capabilities to connect you with the current owner of the process step if matters are pressing. With this level of visibility, you can reduce significantly the level of status update communications that would normally take place between isolated process segments.

Lastly, some of these solutions come with document management capabilities such as document imaging and document attachments. However, it may prove beneficial to integrate a more dedicated repository for such documentation, as the volume of documentation within the airline industry is staggering (e.g.. signed quality checks, scanned images) and may prove too demanding for some workflow solutions.

Last Words

By no means are the aforementioned solutions meant to replace a fully dedicated airline MRO solution that offers a more comprehensive and integrated solution set for airlines. I'm simply suggesting that they be considered as alternatives that require less implementation effort than a complete rip-and-replace, while still providing significant planning functionality, cost avoidance, and operational efficiency for your organization.

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