In the airline industry, the every day activities of fleet maintenance can be divided into two large areas: scheduled maintenance (or major maintenance) and line maintenance.
In scheduled maintenance, personnel management is not as complicated as in line maintenance. Traditionally, scheduled maintenance has a fixed number of days to perform maintenance activities, while line maintenance only has a few hours at night and often a few minutes during the day, because there are flight schedules that have to be respected (which is equal to production) to maintain the aircrafts' airworthiness. This time constraint has created the need for distributing line maintenance personnel in the maintenance base, the airports' main platforms, and the many stations where the airline operates, in order to ensure immediate attention to any issue or any service that has to be performed to an aircraft.
Line maintenance supervisors have to assign jobs to their employees efficiently, however, the combination of several factors complicates matters. First of all, they must verify all the staff's attendance in every shift. Otherwise, the supervisor has to overload the employees that are present with work and assign priorities to the jobs. Employees might be absent due to several reasons, such as training, shift changes, leaves, service commissions, vacations, unjustified absences, etc.
Secondly, the line maintenance supervisor has to solve the issue related to his or her employees' abilities. This refers to the degree of training a technician has, which allows him or her to take care of certain jobs, for example, technicians who are able to work on engines and planes; technicians who are able to work on an aircraft's electronic instruments; technicians in charge of general and technical jobs; and technicians who have multiple skills. Abilities are normally regulated by aeronautical authorities, who issue a license that allows a technician to perform electronic jobs.
Third, experience is extremely important when performing maintenance services and jobs during a restricted time frame. A qualified and experienced technician will execute the jobs in less time, and will be able to make a diagnosis in case a contingency arises that has to be solved. A technician that has no experience will execute the jobs in a longer time. Therefore, a supervisor who works with experienced technicians will be able to create balanced work groups that will execute the jobs flawlessly and in less time, and who will pass on their experience to new employees.
Fourth, the number of employees might not be enough to attend to every job that has to be done. In this case, the supervisor assigns priorities according to the time frame assigned to execute the jobs, postponing or ignoring those that refer to seats, interior lights, carpets, luggage compartments, and other issues that do not involve the aircraft's security or airworthiness. There might be cases where a seat is not functional and the issue will be ignored for several weeks.
All these factors create a complicated situation that is hard to solve. We might think that if until now, maintenance has been performed in such a way that has allowed to solve this problems, we should not try to change the situation or job procedures. It is a well known fact that the aviation industry holds the safety level record and that there are more accidents on highways or at people's homes. However, airlines must struggle every day to reduce their costs, maintain a certain level of customer service, and have more efficient processes, and this creates more pressure on supervisors and engineers who work on line maintenance. Let us talk about the options that software and technology offer to help solve these issues.
Maintenance Personnel Management Systems
I had the chance of researching a system that would help and automate some of the activities that line maintenance supervisors have to perform and I realized that there are many systems that are generic and look more like a payroll and attendance system than a personnel management and automatic job allocation system. Most of the systems I researched had to be customized and developed in order to accommodate our needs, and this represented higher costs for us.
To make things worse, those systems that were already in use at that time (Kronos and PeopleSoft) were not interconnected, and part of the analysts' job was to take information from these systems manually. Also, these systems did not meet our requirements nor were they able to communicate with the main maintenance system, making things more complicated.
In a previous article, I talked about the importance of knowing the process that has to be automated, especially the maintenance process, and the best way to illustrate it is this example, where the information technology (IT) department makes isolated proposals. In other words, they suggest solutions that only cover one part of the problem without considering the whole process.
During my research, I found systems that could adapt better (although not completely) to our needs, so these systems had to be customized and developed. For example, GroundStar, offered by Inform, is a system that can adapt to personnel management and that is developed for airport operation -it has also been customized for hospitals, city systems, and other businesses. There is a similar but less developed solution offered by the former Atraxis. The solution that we were looking for had to have features that were useful for supervisors and had to provide information to managers. Therefore, part of it had to have the features that I will explain shortly.
Maintenance Personnel Management Systems: Features
Once I analyzed the process, I realized that the system had to start working as soon as the technicians recorded their arrival to work at the maintenance base, because it's at this point that it is able to help the supervisor. The following figures will help explain what this type of system has to do.
Figure 1. General idea of the maintenance personnel management system.
Such a system should have the following features:
Ability to communicate with other personnel control systems. Currently, it might seem that these systems duplicate functions, but further on we will see that the situation is different. When the system receives an entry record from the technical staff, it has to compare the employees' information to a database that includes the following fields:
- Technician's name
- Specialty (ability or license)
- Training period
- Vacation period
Ability to identify each technician and specify the next step in the process. Figure 2 illustrates this. The system should not only identify the technician, it has to prove if he is capable of working that day.
This is where we can start to appreciate the differences between a personnel system and a maintenance personnel management system. Later on we will see that this system should also be able to communicate with the main management system in order to allocate tasks.
Figure 2. Staff identification.
When the system identifies the staff and defines that it is capable of working, then it can put the technician's name in a temporary database that contains the names of other technicians that register sequentially a that time. This way, the system can classify them according to their expertise or their abilities.
This is where the interface with the supervisor or the engineer in charge of line maintenance becomes important, because a technician has to be classified according to his or her attributes. This is what we know as the "system's sensibility". This classification is more focused on qualitative features, and can only be evaluated by the supervisors, who will favor certain technicians for specific jobs. One of this attributes is experience.
Generally, experienced technicians should perform the most complex jobs or those jobs that require more intuition for their execution. Even though this is not strictly necessary, some line maintenance supervisors expressed the need to qualify technicians according to some other attribute besides experience.
To keep things simple, I thought that the two most important factors that have to be considered when making a brief sensibility analysis are experience and the ability to work on complex jobs, because the system will suggest the supervisor different ways to create work teams or crews. Thus, the system should have parameters that help it select the best technicians.
Ability to group technicians according to experience, expertise, and preference at the time of executing complex jobs. All this information will allow the system to generate a list of available employees that the supervisor will be able to consult on the screen or on hard copy. Surely, these attributes have to be discussed and agreed upon by all the supervisors involved, before they can be fed to the system, because they'll be the criteria used in the future to create crews or work teams automatically. Figure 3 shows what could be the creation of a profile generated by the system. With these profiles, the system will be able to suggest a work team or crew.
Figure 3. Technical profile created by the maintenance management system.
When the system has the correct amount of profiles for those technicians that are included in the database, it will be able to suggest work teams or crews according to the jobs that have to be executed. It will also be able to suggest one technician or one group, depending on the complexity of the job.
Ability to suggest technicians for specific jobs that have to be executed. This is one of the core elements of the technical personnel management process, because it represents both a challenge for the programming or the interfaces with the main management system and the most useful and helpful factor for the line maintenance supervisor or engineer.
In order to combine the technical profiles available and the present proposals made to the supervisor, the system has to "know" the types of jobs (or the most common and iterative) that have to be performed at a maintenance base or on the platforms.
The information related to the jobs that have to be executed or have been partially executed (known as "continuous jobs"), will have to come from the main maintenance system that is being used. Certainly, in order to have the correct allocation, the system must have all the necessary parameters, which have to be introduced in the system by the line maintenance engineers and supervisors. Figure 4 shows how those parameters will allow the system to select the appropriate personnel.
Once the system has the information and data it needs, it should consider the type of job that has to be executed (complex, routine, or simple), and that has been verified previously by the supervisors. From there, the system will search the database for the profiles that are qualified to execute the job, selecting first those that are available and have the experience and attributes required for the job.
Figure 4. Allocation of technicians to jobs.
The system will also have to verify the number of technicians required for each job, this way, the system will start by assigning the best profiles (which should be a priority) and then those that have less experience. We must clarify that some routine or "simple" jobs do not require technicians that have experience and the skills to perform complex jobs, so the system has to be able to disregard those situations.
Several jobs can be created throughout the shift, leaving technicians available and waiting to be allocated other tasks. The system should prepare the next allocation proposal, which can be accepted, rejected, or modified by the supervisor. Also, the system has to know when and why a technician has left, especially if he or she leaves at the end of the shift, so that it can notify the supervisor if there is not enough technical staff to execute the jobs.
Ability to update the information regarding the number of technicians available in the system at any time. For example, technicians might be unavailable because they are executing another job or their shift has ended. Using a simple logic, the system will know when a technician is available from the information in his or her entry record. Likewise, the system will know which technicians are developing a job and where, all thanks to their allocation information. The system will also know when a technician or a group of technicians finish a job and are "available".
Although the process of allocating and knowing when a technician or group of technicians are available is very helpful for a line maintenance supervisor, we must keep in mind that this type of activity has very short time frames for the execution of jobs, and generally, the most important activity takes place during the first hours of the day, when aircraft come in with a great amount of reports and services that have to be done.
Many times, even when all the employees are available, the amount of reports or jobs is too large to be taken care of. In such cases, the supervisor has to assign priorities to the jobs, and to do so, he or she has to indicate the system which jobs have to be performed. If the system is user-friendly, that is, if it has an interface that allows users to make modifications or changes, assign priorities to the jobs that have to be done, and select the preferred (technical) profiles for a specific job, then it will become a flexible and powerful tool that can provide useful and fast solutions. A solution with these characteristics is ideal for the dynamic aspect of an airline, such as line maintenance.
Ease of use and speed for following processes. A system that is complicated to use and that takes a long time to generate different options is not very useful. However, this depends on the number of technicians recorded in the database and the type of fleet that has to be serviced. In any case, this is a finite universe that can be divided into segments, allowing to speed up the process.
Up to this point, we have talked about the part of the system that takes care of the "day-to-day" maintenance in an airline that can turn into a "minute-to-minute" job because scenarios can change unexpectedly in one day. This process can be similar in other industries or segments, for example, airport staff; staff in shipping companies, who have to load or unload merchandise; maintenance staff in a textile or machinery company, who are part of a production line and have to service very large and expensive equipment; and even staff that does building or facility maintenance. A system like the one described would be very helpful for people who have to spend most of their time monitoring their operations.
This is Part One of a two part series.
Part Two will talk about the planning horizon for a maintenance personnel management system.
About the Author
Juan Francisco Segura is an industrial engineer specialized in processes and automation. He has worked for the Universidad Iberoamericana, in Mexico City, as a computer technology consultant in the area of physics, arranging electronic and computing equipment for their labs. During the last six years, he has worked as a computer professor and in the aviation industry in the area of aircraft maintenance planning, where he participated in the selection of a maintenance planning solution. He was the leader of the bar code for maintenance and the airline's process development and analysis projects.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org