Widebody Engine MROs Talk About Challenges, Support Programs and Advice to Customers

Widebody Engine MROs Talk About Challenges, Support Programs and Advice to Customers

Widebody aircraft engines are the heavyweights of aerospace propulsion. As such, they require special care and attention to ensure their reliability and peak performance, making widebody engines expensive items to maintain and replace.

To get an inside look at the world of widebody engines and how owners can optimize their shop visits, Aviation Maintenance spoke with top MROs around the world. In this article, they talk about the challenges associated with maintaining these power plants and the ways in which owners can mitigate their servicing and replacement costs. Some of these MROs even provide advice on how to get the most out of widebody engine shop visits.

AAR

AAR maintains and services widebody jet engines in its MRO network performing engine inspections, LRU and line maintenance, repair and overhaul activities. The company is not in te core engine overhaul business as this is the market occupied by many of its customers. Instead, AAR contracts with its network of engine overhaul customer shops to provide complete solutions to this MRO’s commercial and defense clients.

Carl Glover, VP Sales & Marketing Americas, AAR
Carl Glover, VP Sales & Marketing Americas, AAR

“For widebody aircraft we have tailored repair and management solutions on the PW4000 /CF6 -80 (MD11/ B747/ B767) & RB211-535 (B757) engine variants,” said Carl Glover, AAR’s VP Sales & Marketing Americas.“ Under these solutions AAR repairs and overhauls the engine accessories in our component MRO network or those of our OEM channel partners. Our partner engine shops perform the engine maintenance with AAR as the USM (Used Serviceable Material) provider.”

Most MROs including AFI KLM E&M found themselves confronted with challenges such as supply chain shortages/delays and unpredictable customer demand during the pandemic. They took advantage of the situation by streamlining their production and accelerating improvement projects. AFI KLM E&M image.
Most MROs including AFI KLM E&M found themselves confronted with challenges such as supply chain shortages/delays and unpredictable customer demand during the pandemic. They took advantage of the situation by streamlining their production and accelerating improvement projects. AFI KLM E&M image.

AAR has recently diversified into the support and provision of engine modules for customers which are tailored to their specific build specs, reducing TAT (turn-around times) and EHM (engine heavy maintenance) costs. “When it comes to serving the owners of widebody aircraft, “there are some unique challenges in maintaining some of the widebody engines that are currently being operated,” Glover observed. “Recently there have been some key material shortages in the supply chain affecting component availability. This has impacted shop TAT and driven up demand for certain spare engine types for short term leasing support.”

To mitigate this situation that has been exacerbated by the global pandemic, AAR has been consulting its customers to forecast their future needs for specific widebody engine materials and parts. Doing so is helping the company anticipate and remedy possible shortages, using tactics such as pre-provisioning high repair TAT components in a ‘closed pool’ reserve.

Even with these preemptive measures, “issues remain in the component repair space on some key gas path components due to scrap rates and shop capacity considerations as the vendor community balances capacity to cover the ‘post covid recovery curve,” said Glover. “An additional challenge has been the freight charges for whole engine shipments, which have increased globally due to the demand for main deck freight in response to COVID-19 medical support activities and increased demands from e-commerce.”

To help manage the costs of widebody engine maintenance, AAR provides extensive material management and (SLB) sale leaseback solutions to their engine customers. They also offer large scale engine management programs directly to operators and lessors alike, in which AAR’s technical teams manage engine workscopes, material management and repair activities on their behalf.

As well, “we provide our customers whole engine and module exchanges to increase engine availability,” Glover said. “This has seen particular interest from our widebody freight clients who need operational capacity to support fleet demands. In these instances, AAR supplies them with a serviceable engine/modules while purchasing the unserviceable engine asset from the customer and having them repaired.”

“AAR has been focused on the recovery of the industry in support of our customers in our MRO facilities, component shops and engine business,” he concluded. “We work very close with our customers to ensure we have the capacity, inventory or a workable solution that they may need for engine maintenance and overhauls.”

AFI KLM E&M

AFI KLM E&M’s MRO facilities in Amsterdam-Schiphol, Paris-Charles de Gaulle and Paris-Orly overhaul a wide range of engines fitted on Air France’s and KLM’s aircraft, plus Airbus and Boeing aircraft owned by other carriers. “As an Airline-MRO, we believe our intimate knowledge of not only maintaining but also flying these aircraft and engines is the real difference maker in terms of our ability to closely match the maintenance program with the operational needs of the operator,” said Michael Grootenboer, AFI KLM E&M Senior Vice President of Group Engines Products.

Given this varied client base, AFI KLM E&M works on a range widebody engines. They include the GE90-94 and GE90-115 (Boeing 777) in Paris, with the Trent-XWB (Airbus A350) soon to be supported there as well. In Amsterdam, the company services the GEnx-1B (Boeing 787), the CF6-80E (Airbus A330) and the CF6-80C2 (various aircraft such as the 747.)

In addition, AFI KLM E&M’s global network allows the company to offer other services such as widebody engine parts repairs, teardowns and others. “As an example, with our joint venture in Miami with Bonus Tech, we provide teardown solutions for a wide range of engine types, including the PW4000, Grootenboer said. “Through Airfoils Advanced Solutions, our joint venture in Rosult, France we perform High Pressure Combuster airfoil repairs on engines such as the GE90. And both in our engine shop in Amsterdam and at our subsidiary CRMA in Elancourt (just outside Paris), we offer a wide range of parts repairs for our full engine range, including CF6, GEnx, GE90 and GP7200 on parts such as the combustor and the fan mid shaft.”

As with other widebody engine MROs, the pandemic confronted AFI KLM E&M with challenges such as supply chain shortages/delays and unpredictable customer demand. In particular, “the COVID-19 crisis required us to adapt our maintenance operations to the lower operating pace of our parent airlines and customers’ fleets,” said Grootenboer. “So we streamlined our production and accelerated improvement projects we had already launched on the shop floor, as well as customer solutions such as Smart Work Scoping and Remote Table Inspection. We were aided in this by the inherent flexibility of our organization and our highly skilled workforce.”

Now that COVID-19 is waning, AFI KLM E&M is managing the usual issues associated with widebody engine maintenance. “The more EGT-driven nature of widebody engine maintenance programs, when compared to the generally cycle-limit driven programs on narrow body engines, requires a different strategy in monitoring the operational engine and planning its maintenance,” Grootenboer noted. “Here we are greatly aided by our own Prognos for Engines predictive maintenance solution.”

“Furthermore, widebody engines are of course significantly more costly than narrow body engines, while its numbers operating worldwide are generally smaller,” he continued. “This results in a different trade-off when it comes to developing and/or industrializing repairs for the engine’s parts. Our in-house capability for the repair of, for example, combustors and fan mid shafts for GE90 and GEnx gives us a significant cost advantage, while making us less reliant on the (occasionally disrupted) supply chain. Equally importantly, repair and reuse of engine parts lowers not only the cost of ownership, but reduces the consumption of resources and energy for the manufacture of new parts and thereby contributes to the sustainability of the maintenance and operation of aircraft engines.”

The current economic climate has made it more difficult for widebody aircraft operators to pay for repairs and overhauls. In response to this reality, AFI KLM E&M offers a range of payment plans and of comprehensive maintenance solutions to fit the needs and budget of the operators. These apply to items such as providing or sourcing spares, leveraging the range of AFI KLM E&M’s material solutions (new, repaired and used serviceable parts) to optimize shop visit cost, offering smart workscoping to create a custom visit that fits the needs and budget of customers, and working with this MRO’s network of shops, subsidiaries, joint ventures and partners to find a solution that meets customer requirements. This may also include engine teardown services, engine parts trading, greentime solutions and other services.

Now that airlines are more bringing widebodies back into service, Michael Grootenboer has some words of wisdom when it comes to getting their engines ready for service. “With the end of the crisis progressively coming in sight, it is important to launch the dialogue between operator and maintenance provider, to make sure that the planning of upcoming shop visits is aligned and matches the need of the operator for the pick-up in traffic we are all so eagerly looking forward to,” he said. “As an Airline-MRO, we have a strong understanding of the operator’s constraints. Adaptiveness is in our DNA and we can adapt our workscopes and shop visit plans effectively and efficiently in order to save money for the operators and maximize the revenue generating potential of the customer’s fleet.”

GE Aviation Services

GE Aviation’s commercial engines portfolio includes the CF6, GEnx and GE90 widebody engines. Going forward, it will also include the GE9X engine, which was certified by the U.S. FAA in September 2020. The GE9X is currently part of Boeing’s flight test program for its 777X passenger aircraft.

To keep these engines humming, GE Aviation operates overhaul and component repair facilities globally. Widebody engine overhaul facilities are located in Kansas in the U.S., Brazil, Wales, Scotland and Malaysia. Component repair facilities are located in Ohio and Texas (U.S.), Hungary and Singapore. Additionally, GE Aviation has joint ventures and service agreements with partners around the world to overhaul and repair GE engines.

Aileen Barton, marketing director for GE Aviation Services, recommends scheduling needed engine maintenance now while demand for air travel remains slower to help prevent constraints across the aviation industry in coming years as flight departures grow back to 2019 traffic levels. GE Aviation image.
Aileen Barton, marketing director for GE Aviation Services, recommends scheduling needed engine maintenance now while demand for air travel remains slower to help prevent constraints across the aviation industry in coming years as flight departures grow back to 2019 traffic levels. GE Aviation image.

Issues caused by COVID-19 are front-of-mind for this company when asked about maintaining and overhauling widebody engines. “One of the biggest challenges during the pandemic was adapting to meet our customers’ needs virtually when traveling in-person wasn’t possible for engine maintenance training or to provide guidance to airline maintenance technicians on engine inspections,” said Aileen Barton, marketing director for GE Aviation Services. “Before COVID-19, aircraft and jet engine mechanics would travel to one of GE’s or its partners’ training centers for hands-on learning. Due to global travel and social distancing restrictions during the outbreak, more training is being delivered online to where customers are, namely on their laptops and mobile phones.”

This online maintenance training is being provided by GE Aviation’s Customer Technical Education Center (CTEC). As well, GE Aviation’s YouTube channel includes Maintenance Minute video demonstrations. According to Barton, maintenance customers interested in remote and online courses should contact their GE field service engineer or customer support manager.

“A further challenge is keeping global shop capacity and supply chain schedules aligned to meet customer demand throughout the pandemic, during what’s been an unprecedented downturn in the aviation industry,” said Barton. “GE Aviation is taking advantage of this downturn with a renewed focus on Lean principles to help us improve our processes for better customer delivery times, to improve first-time part yield for new and repaired material and to manage more work as the recovery comes.”

Depleted customer cash flow is yet another pandemic problem that is keeping GE Aviation busy. “Widebody engine operators are looking for solutions to preserve cash and maximize flexibility,” Barton noted. “GE Aviation is working with each customer individually to meet their needs.”

For operators of newer widebody engines, the goal is generating more flight hours between maintenance cycles to keep costs down. MTU Maintenance achieves this using ‘intelligent fleet management’ to optimize removals across a defined period, rather than rigid hours-based schedules. MTU image.
For operators of newer widebody engines, the goal is generating more flight hours between maintenance cycles to keep costs down. MTU Maintenance achieves this using ‘intelligent fleet management’ to optimize removals across a defined period, rather than rigid hours-based schedules. MTU image.

These consultations are being done under the umbrella of GE Aviation’s TrueChoice Services, which gives customers options for maintaining aircraft engines based on their specific (and sometimes unique) operating situations. “These options include TrueChoice Overhaul, as well as alternatives to overhauls,” she said. “Additionally, our open and competitive MRO philosophy provides customers more flexibility while still having access to OEM material, whether GE is servicing the engine or another MRO provider is.”

In the same vein, GE Aviation’s ‘TrueChoice Material’ solutions include new, used and repaired material for widebody engine owners. To provide a selection of lower-priced possibilities, GE Aviation buys in-service GE engines and aircraft with GE engines installed. “These acquisitions provide GE Aviation with an inventory of used serviceable engines and engine parts that are sold to customers and third-party MRO providers,” said Barton. “Meanwhile, Used Serviceable Material (USM) and repaired material can offer GE Aviation customers a way to lower their heavy overhaul costs compared to all-new engine parts, while still maintaining OEM quality standards.”

That’s not all. Widebody aircraft owners can also obtain replacement engines from GE Aviation on short-term operating leases that run up to two years. And because GE Aviation builds the engines it services, the company has the capability to custom assemble engines with a specific amount of remaining flight cycles on rotating life-limited parts and thrust levels. “Custom engine builds are reliable, cost-effective and support each customer’s unique operational needs,” Barton said.

Given the apparent ‘Return to Flight’ crunch that is facing many widebody operators as COVID-19 eases, Aileen Barton recommends contacting your widebody maintenance provider now to book appointments, rather than waiting until later and risking delays in receiving service. “Planning is key,” she advised. “Scheduling needed engine maintenance now while demand for air travel remains slower will prevent constraints across the aviation industry in coming years as flight departures grow back to 2019 traffic levels. Customers are encouraged to provide material orders and schedule shop visits earlier to be more prepared for the recovery.”

MTU Maintenance

Independent MRO MTU Maintenance services General Electric’s CF6-80C2 and GE90-110/115B widebody engines (with full disassembly, assembly and test capabilities) at its facilities in Hannover, Germany and Vancouver, Canada. The Hannover site handles both CF6-80C2 and GE90-110/115B engines, while the Vancouver facility focuses on CF6-80C2s exclusively. As well, as part of GE’s OEM network, MTU Maintenance maintains the turbine center frames (TCF) for the GEnx and the low-pressure turbine (LPT) of the GP7000. The company will be introducing TCF MRO capabilities for the GE9X engine in the near future.

According to Fabien Schoen, director of Programs for MTU Maintenance, there are a number of challenges associated with servicing widebody engines economically. “Generally speaking, these are cost-intensive engines for operators,” he said. “As such, MTU Maintenance offers a wide range of services designed to reduce MRO spend by the absolute maximum across the lifecycle.”

A case in point: For operators of newer widebody engines, the goal is generating more flight hours between maintenance cycles to keep costs down. MTU Maintenance achieves this using ‘intelligent fleet management’ to optimize removals across a defined period, rather than rigid hours-based schedules. “This approach is complemented by predictive maintenance, based on engine trend monitoring, on-site services and spare engine support,” said Schoen. “Once an engine comes into the shop, our customized workscoping, high-tech EASA-FAA approved repairs and our engineering expertise help lower overall costs. We call this program ‘PERFORMPlus’.”

Over time, engines age and the costs associated with servicing them increase. To mitigate this financial sting, MTU Maintenance provides ‘smart strategies for mature engines’. In this vein, “our fully independent solutions include ‘smart repairs’ and tailored workscopes to suit operators’ remaining flight periods as well as material salvation and intelligent teardowns,” Schoen said. “Furthermore, these services can be combined with alternatives to MRO such as leasing in of green-time engines or exchanging engines for the remaining period until phase-out. This service solution goes by the name ‘SAVEPlus’.” As well, MTU Maintenance supports a full range of maintenance contract types including Time and Material and Fly-by-Hour. Customers can also lease replacement engines through the company’s leasing arm MTU Maintenance Lease Services B.V. in Amsterdam, as needed.”

The pandemic affected this MRO as it did everyone else in the aviation industry. “Our CF6 MRO business remained strong throughout the pandemic, due in large part to the continued operations of cargo airlines,” said Schoen. “Generally speaking though for passenger aircraft, narrowbodies have been reactivated first in areas seeing some recovery in air travel. Widebodies have been slow to recover so far and we expect this trend to continue.”

In the context of the COVID-19 cash crunch, MTU Maintenance is predicting a continued trend away from traditional planning with fixed maintenance intervals to more individually-tailored solutions. “Some airlines are concentrating on short-term savings with cash preservation as the main objective, while others are focussing on long-term planning,” Schoen told Aviation Maintenance. “MRO providers must flexibly meet both these goals to provide the best solution for customers in today’s market.”

As for Fabian Schoen’s advice to widebody engine operators wanting to optimize shop visits in the current travel slowdown? He suggests that they discuss their fleet’s requirements with MTU Maintenance to get a maintenance and payment package that works best for them.

“With the tools and measures I have already described, we are able to generate individual and optimized solutions for the specific needs and challenges of our customers,” said Schoen. “We believe it may take a while for the widebody fleet to come back to the pre-covid utilization levels and we can offer tailor-made cost-efficient engine fleet management solutions (e.g., ‘eat-the-fleet’) to minimize cost during such unfortunate periods.”

StandardAero

StandardAero provides maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) services for a range of aircraft engines. In the widebody category, they service the Rolls-Royce RB211-535 engine (used in Boeing 757s) at StandardAero’s facility in San Antonio, TX, USA.

Material management is one critical factor in delivering responsive turn-around times (TATs) according to Max Allen, vice president of Commercial Programs RB211 for StandardAero. Shown above is an RB211-535 compressor. StandardAero image.
Material management is one critical factor in delivering responsive turn-around times (TATs) according to Max Allen, vice president of Commercial Programs RB211 for StandardAero. Shown above is an RB211-535 compressor. StandardAero image.

When it comes to getting engines in and out of the shop quickly, “material management is one of the critical factors in delivering responsive turn-around times (TATs) for major repair events,” said Max Allen, Vice President of Commercial Programs RB211 for StandardAero Airlines & Fleets division. “This includes timely new production parts delivery, comprehensive in-house component repair capabilities, and – where appropriate – the utilization of used serviceable material.”

If the parts aren’t available, it doesn’t matter how well trained the company’s technicians are or how advanced a facility’s MRO management software is. Delays will occur.

Achieving an efficient production line for engine repairs is also key to providing timely engine service. “If the line is not appropriately laid out, or not correctly sized, it can delay the overall MRO process, raising TAT times and costs,” Allen said. “Likewise, if an MRO is forced to ship engines to a distant test cell for testing, unnecessary delays can be introduced into the overall process.”

To ensure timely service, StandardAero’s RB211 production line in San Antonio – which is located in the former U.S. Air Force San Antonio Air Logistics Center – was purpose-built from scratch to meet the specific requirements of the RB211 powerplant. This includes having access to an on-site engine test complex with multiple high-thrust test cells to verify performance after repairs

Beyond disrupting the parts supply chain, COVID-19 has added its own twist to RB211-535 maintenance for StandardAero. “On the one hand, the trend of 757s being retired from passenger service has continued and, in the case of a number of operators, accelerated as part of cost reduction efforts in the wake of the pandemic,” said Allen. “On the other hand, the 757’s popularity in the cargo market has continued to grow, as confirmed by the large number of freighter conversions undertaken in 2020 (and the large number scheduled for 2021).”

The 757’s growing role as a freighter is offsetting its retirement from passenger service, and motivating StandardAero to ramp-up its RB211-535 throughput. (The company is in its fourth year as Rolls-Royce’s maintenance service partner on the product.) In fact, given the 757’s strength in the cargo market, StandardAero expects the RB211-535 to provide a steady stream of work for its San Antonio facility for decades to come.

When it comes to paying for RB211-535 repairs, StandardAero offers plans to support both ‘program’ and ‘time and material’ (T&M) customers.

“Program customers are those operators who are enrolled on Rolls-Royce’s TotalCare long-term service agreement,” said Allen. “StandardAero supports these customers as Rolls-Royce’s end-of-life engine maintenance service partner under a partnership signed in 2018.”

While program customers account for the majority of StandardAero’s RB211 throughput, the company does support T&M customers with the same full scope of MRO services. “The majority of our customers already have their own financing solutions in place, but StandardAero is able to assist with lining up third-party financing providers where necessary,” he said.

So, what steps should widebody aircraft operators be taking to get the most from their shop visits? “Probably the best advice that we always give is for operators to plan ahead as far as possible,” Allen replied. “Shop visit slots are booked up months (and, occasionally, years) ahead of schedule, and it is therefore not always possible to accommodate the demands of a customer with critical short-turnaround requirements, regardless of the workscope.”

“As the industry continues to recover after the pandemic, the demand for shop visits has only increased,” he added. “Over the past year a number of maintenance events were deferred for the sake of cost avoidance. Now these engines are starting to be sent for induction as activity resumes and airlines’ cash position improves. As such, engine slots are now in even greater demand, and it will therefore require operators to plan as far ahead as possible when reserving induction slots.”

Restoring Stored Aircraft to Service

Restoring Stored Aircraft to Service

Rising like a phoenix out of the ashes — or out of the dust of the dessert — parked aircraft are being returned to service as vaccinations begin working, the pandemic recedes, and the pace of travel steps up. Returning stored aircraft to service is a complex and painstaking process.

The apparent waning of COVID-19 is encouraging airlines to resume normal passenger schedules after a year of storing unused aircraft. Unfortunately, bringing these airliners back online isn’t as easy as starting up a parked car. There are many steps that have to be taken to achieve this safely and in line with Original Equipment Manufacturers’ (OEMs) guidelines.

In fact, returning stored aircraft to service is just the last phase in a process that began last year. That is when these airliners were grounded due to COVID-driven route suspensions, border closures, and overall declines in passenger traffic. They then had to be maintained while in storage, during which time issues related to long-term inactivity cropped up. Now that these aircraft are needed once again, further work has to be done ensure that they can resume flying safely and reliably.

To put all of this in context, Aviation Maintenance magazine spoke with OEMs, airlines, and MROs. Here’s what they told us.

Preparing for Storage

Even in normal times, preparing an aircraft for long-term storage requires a fair degree of time and effort. According to the MRO Avia Solutions Group, storing a single widebody aircraft like an Airbus A380 or Boeing 777 takes 4-6 employees working together for a 12-hour shift. The reason aircraft storage is so labor-intensive is due to how much has to done to anticipate and forestall damage from all kinds of hazards. According to Ed Sangricco, American Airlines’ managing director of Tech Ops – Tulsa, “some of the regular tasks for putting aircraft into storage include covering any openings to keeping wildlife and debris out, preserving engines, lubricating flight controls and landing gear, putting up window shades, and implementing ways to minimize moisture in the cabin and on the flight deck.” As well, in-flight entertainment screens and systems have to be covered, and potable water tanks and fuel tanks must be dosed with anti-growth agents for indefinite non-use.

Juozas Lapeika, deputy CEO and head of Base Maintenance at FL Technics. Avia Solutions/FL Technics image.
Juozas Lapeika, deputy CEO and head of Base Maintenance at FL Technics. Avia Solutions/FL Technics image.

Storing aircraft in regular circumstances can be challenging, but at least such storage can be methodically scheduled and resource-planned beforehand. “Long-term groundings, be it in flight-ready conditions or storage, are not unusual in our industry,” noted Claire Kauffmann, Airbus’ head of Scheduled Maintenance Services. “So the tasks that need to be performed during the grounding period and to safely return the aircraft in service are already well known and well documented.”

“What makes the Covid 19 groundings different is their scale, their unexpectedness and the suddenness – often within a few days,” Kauffmann explains. “This was the reason that Airbus offered more flexibility in maintenance recommendations without compromising on safety. We aimed to prevent all potential issues linked to parking and storage taking into account the parking conditions and locations.”

Boeing took the same proactive attitude to supporting airline clients during the unexpected COVID-19 rush to ground aircraft. “We partnered closely with operators to ensure safe and proper storage,” said Boeing spokesperson Rafael Gonzalez. “During this period, Boeing captured Best Practices and performed cross-model collaborations to ensure that the right procedures were applied across the Boeing fleet.”

This kind of support was appreciated by customers such as United Airlines, but more help was required during the ‘Pandemic Mass Grounding’. To make it happen, “United Technical Operations personnel worked with departments across the airline such as engineering, fleet planning, network operations, supply chain and more to help ensure our aircraft were stored in accordance with the manufacturers’ (Boeing, Airbus) specific storage instructions,” said a United spokesperson. “Our teams also evaluated the best storage locations with the majority of our aircraft stored where United has in-house maintenance facilities and appropriate staffing such as our Hubs.”

The aircraft OEMs partnered closely with operators to ensure safe and proper storage. Shown here are some of the British Airways fleet parked due to the pandemic.
The aircraft OEMs partnered closely with operators to ensure safe and proper storage. Shown here are some of the British Airways fleet parked due to the pandemic.

All of this activity occurred while MROs such as Avia Solutions Group subsidiary FL Technics were trying to maintain their regularly scheduled services to customers, albeit on a reduced scale due to COVID-19. “It was quite a challenge to find a balance between heavy maintenance checks that had been contracted throughout the season and the number of short notice storage or parking (available for immediate return to service) requests coming from our customers,” said Juozas Lapeika, the company’s deputy CEO and head of Base Maintenance. “Good preparation was of the utmost importance for smoothly supporting all of these requests at the same time. This is why Avia Solutions Group management dedicated one team of our staff to handle storage and parking requests for aircraft, the performance of periodic checks and eventually Return to Service tasks, which gave us required flexibility and swift reaction time.”

Putting aircraft into storage and bringing them out of storage is labor-intensive. American Airlines image.
Putting aircraft into storage and bringing them out of storage is labor-intensive. American Airlines image.

During the push to ground aircraft, Avia Solutions Group worked closely with airport authorities in Vilnius, Lithuania (where the company is headquartered) to expand the number of storage spaces available to its airline clients. “Even a drone was engaged to give us all a good aerial overview to check if the current stored/parked aircraft arrangement was efficient enough,” Lapeika said.

Maintaining Aircraft During Storage

Grounded aircraft are like farm animals: They need to be cared for on a regular basis to keep them in peak condition. This was particularly true during the Pandemic Mass Grounding, when the uncertainty as to how long these airliners would be stored plus the need to return them to service whenever possible was on top of everybody’s mind.

American Airlines credits upline work with their Network Planning group that ensured they had aircraft that were ready to fly at the right time. American Airlines image.
American Airlines credits upline work with their Network Planning group that ensured they had aircraft that were ready to fly at the right time. American Airlines image.

Again, it was only the vast scale of the Pandemic Mass Parking that was new to the aviation industry, not the storing of aircraft in itself. As such, “as per OEM requirements and accordingly provided Work Orders by responsible CAMO organizations, there is a number of periodic tasks that are mandatory to be performed whenever an aircraft is being parked/stored, based on 7 day, 14 day, 30 day, 60 day, 90 day, 180 day, and one year cycle checks,” said Avia’s Lapeika. “These tasks basically cover visual inspection of certain zones, as well as different components or systems functional tests. Despite the aircraft is parked/stored, it is not being left out and needs continuous maintenance support.”

To be precise, “American’s stored aircraft were kept in ready status, carefully worked on and inspected regularly, to ensure they were prepared to fly safely and reliably when they were once again needed for revenue service,” said American Airlines’ Sangricco. “Storage maintenance tasks include everything from running engines and rotating tires to inspecting baggage holds and coffee makers. Maintaining fuel system integrity and ensuring lubrication requirements are also important items maintained throughout the storage process.”

Under United Airlines’ maintenance plan for its stored aircraft, technicians performed scheduled checks and inspections regularly, with the goal of allowing these aircraft to return to service quickly when the opportunity arose. “This work required combination of United’s Tech Ops professionals as well as FAA-approved essential maintenance providers for assistance where necessary,” said the United Airlines spokesperson. “Technology also played an instrumental role in keeping maintenance on schedule to avoid any delays in getting an aircraft back in the air. So our teams used tools like iPads to electronically access critical information about the processes and procedures required to maintain a stored aircraft. In addition, we developed web-based solutions that illustrated the condition and status of every aircraft scheduled for, or currently in, an approved storage program.”

Issues That Arose During Storage

Even with the most conscientious ongoing maintenance, stored aircraft can experience issues when they sit on the ground for extended periods. This was certainly the case for the Pandemic Mass Parking.

According to Boeing spokesperson Rafael Gonzalez, the OEM saw a number of issues arise during this time, each of which it developed fixes for. For example, extended parking could result in corrosion occurring on vulnerable external areas of the aircraft. To address this, “Boeing provided guidance on increasing inspection and cleaning intervals, and has also approved the use of additional corrosion inhibiting compounds (CICs) for relief and mitigation,” he said.

Meanwhile, high humidity and extreme weather events damaged some Line Replaceable Units (LRUs) on the airlines’ stored aircraft. To keep this from happening again, Boeing provided aircraft maintainers with various humidity reduction methods to preserve LRUs such as APUs, batteries, and soft interiors. “We have also worked closely with our customers and MROs to ensure LRUs are maintained properly in extreme weather conditions – below freezing and over 110F — for each Boeing model,” said Gonzalez.

This concern about climate conditions was also cited by the United Airlines spokesperson. “One of the challenges our teams had to plan for was weather, especially in areas where humidity or inclement weather were more of a threat,” they said. “To overcome this challenge, our teams stayed in constant communication with departments across the world to identify alternative storage locations where aircraft could be quickly moved in the event of an impending major weather event.”

Sitting unused for extended periods of time can also cause Component Degradation in APUs, batteries, and Integrated Drive Generators (IDGs). Boeing addressed this by working closely with its suppliers to publish the latest preservation information provided with respect to these components in this OEM’s Maintenance Manuals.

“We communicate frequently to our customers and MROs via Multi-Operator Messages (MOMs), Fleet Team Digest (FTD) Articles and monthly presentations,” Gonzalez said. “Communicating with the fleet prior to making major changes in our maintenance requirements gives our operators ample time to prepare for additional maintenance, if required.”

Finally, there is another source of bugs that can damage aircraft during extend storage, and that source is, well, bugs.

Avia Solutions' subsidiary FL Technics is assisting clients with numerous scenarios of returning aircraft to service: putting aircraft back online at the airline, getting them ready to fly after they have been sold or sending them for cargo conversions are the most common. Avia Solutions/FL Technics image.
Avia Solutions’ subsidiary FL Technics is assisting clients with numerous scenarios of returning aircraft to service: putting aircraft back online at the airline, getting them ready to fly after they have been sold or sending them for cargo conversions are the most common. Avia Solutions/FL Technics image.

“One of the most frequently heard-of problems during extended time on the ground is a possibility of various bugs finding their way through the pitot-static system covers and settling down inside them,” explained Lapeika. “As you may know the pitot-static system determines aircraft airspeed and altitude. To do this, air enters the pitot tube or static port through calibrated holes during flight, and blocking them would result in erroneous data. Fortunately, there are special procedures meant to overcome such risks, such as the Flushing of the Air Data System task, which are part of our aircraft Return to Service procedure.”

In the same vein, “typical prevention measures during include protection against birds nesting in the engines and keeping insects out of the cabin,” said the Airbus spokesperson. The takeaway: When aircraft sit on the ground for extended periods of time, they have to cope with everything that Nature and Physics can throw at them.

Preparing Aircraft to Return to Service

Returning stored aircraft to service is a complex and painstaking process. The fact that an aircraft has been conscientiously monitored and maintained during storage doesn’t mean that it is ‘good to go’. Any protective measures that were employed have to be reversed (right down to uncovering the in-flight entertainment system screens), and all systems must be checked and ‘run up’ on the ground to verify that the airliner is safe to fly.

“To return an aircraft to service all the necessary maintenance actions must be performed,” said Kauffmann. “To this end, Airbus has been advising its operators via webinars, All-Operator-Telex (AOTs) and other channels that this includes all scheduled maintenance, daily and weekly servicing when needed, and the restoration of any defects which may have arisen during the period of storage or parking.”

“Everything required to bring the aircraft back to operational standards and ensure safe use is essential,” emphasises Kauffmann. This includes calendar and mandatory items, Airworthiness Directives, AOT-specified tasks, shelf-life equipment, and any inspections that were/are due to be done. “Upon release into service, the aircraft must be fully airworthy in every respect,” they told Aviation Maintenance magazine. “In 2020 alone, Airbus held more than 100 technical webinars to support worldwide customers with detailed recommendations on this topic.”

One complicating factor is that ‘return to service’ has different meanings to different clients. “We can now identify three scenarios for passenger aircraft that are getting out of long-term storage,” explained Lapeika. “One scenario is regular return to service to the same operator’s fleet. The second is aircraft returning to service after delivery to new operators. And the third is aircraft returning to service and being sent for cargo conversion. Each of these scenarios comes with different volumes of works and requirements. However, Avia is happy to provide all the required support.”

To add to the challenge, “the request to return an aircraft to service might come on quite short notice, which is a challenge for our production team to combine it with ongoing heavy maintenance projects,” he said.

“However, Avia Solutions Group does understand the importance of quick reaction, which is directly connected with our customer’s business success. Therefore, we are always ready to take an ‘extra mile’ proactive approach and come up with out of the box solutions.”

Going the extra mile to restore aircraft to service expeditiously – which is happening now — has been an American Airlines’ priority since the Pandemic Mass Grounding began. “The upline work we’ve done with our Network Planning and other key Operations teams to orchestrate the aircraft returning to full service, ensured our aircraft were ready to fly at a moment’s notice and that we have the right number of aircraft to fly based on demand,” said Sangricco. “A lot of work went into storing aircraft, but the same goes for getting them back in the air and carrying customers.”

“It takes about 1,000 hours of reactivation work to prepare an aircraft ready for commercial service,” he added. “Any aircraft in long-term storage must also complete a satisfactory Maintenance Verification Flight to confirm the aircraft is ready to return to service.”

Over at United Airlines, “our teams are following the aircraft manufacturer’s prescribed guidance on returning an aircraft to service which includes operational and engine checks, deep cleaning, fluids check, and a full inspection,” the United Airlines spokesperson said. “Returning aircraft to service has been an enormous achievement that represents the incredible professionalism, attention to detail and commitment to safety of not just Tech Ops, but rather the entire operations teams at United.”

One can only hope that the return to service efforts now underway represent the final phase of the Pandemic Mass Grounding, and that passenger travel is on its way to full volume recovery in the days to come.

Unfortunately, some of the stored aircraft may never return to the skies, specifically older airliners that are less fuel-efficient than their younger counterparts and in need of extensive overhauls. In such cases, “the more cost-effective solution for the owner or an operator is to part out these aircraft for valuable components and scrap the remaining items along with the airframe,” said Lapeika.

This being said, the rest of these stored aircraft should return to service soon. They have remained flyable thanks to diligent monitoring and maintenance during the Pandemic Mass Grounding – plus keeping birds and bugs outside of the aircraft where they belong.

Connected to Your Purpose

Connected to Your Purpose

The three most important things on the aircraft for the people who sit in the back of a business jet are said to be the crew, the catering … and the connectivity.

In the COVID-19 era, one thing has become clear: the need for inflight connectivity is more important than ever before. Many business executives today are using their ‘office in the sky’ as a critical asset to manage the demands on their professional and personal lives while adhering to safety and social distancing requirements.

They are using the technology on board the aircraft to conduct virtual meetings during flights, manage their inbox, lead remote workforces, conduct video conference calls, and stay on top of breaking news. Many are also holding in-person meetings on board the aircraft while on the tarmac instead of driving to an office to help ensure personal health and safety.

The production of a motherboard for a Gogo inflight connectivity system. Gogo image.
The production of a motherboard for a Gogo inflight connectivity system. Gogo image.

All that combined highlights the increased importance connectivity plays for today’s business traveller who requires their connectivity provider to deliver ever greater bandwidth with faster speeds and more personal services.

Fewer Flights but Usage is Up

Dave Mellin is the director of communications for Gogo Business Aviation which has been at the forefront of the internet-on-aircraft phenomenon offering both Air to Ground (ATG) and satellite connectivity on the back of its cell tower backbone notes an important aspect: although business aviation traffic is still not at pre-pandemic levels, his business is seeing a double-digit increase in data consumption since the COVID pandemic hit.

“So even though flights are down, data usage is up — it’s a statement about how important connectivity has become,” says Mellin. “It’s one of the big reasons we just announced a new unlimited data and streaming plan — unique in business aviation because it comes with no caveats. For Gogo, data is data.”

Insatiable Demand

Chris Moore is president at Satcom Direct Business Aviation which provides onboard connectivity in addition to a complete flight system via its partnership with satellite partners including Inmarsat supporting JetConnex and SwiftBroadband services and IntelSat which operates the FlexExec Ku-band satellite network for which SD holds Master Distributorship status. He agrees with the near insatiable demand for high-speed connectivity.

“Connectivity and high-speed data have become leading priorities for owners and operators and the connectivity stakeholders are responding by significantly investing in more powerful, more accessible high-speed data for business jets,” he says. “Every year we are moving closer towards emulating on the ground functionality in the air, and that is what customers want and expect. All stakeholders in the supply chain are investing heavily to improve infrastructure, hardware, software, and flexibility of service.”

Moore notes that existing satellite constellations are being updated with the number of LEO, MEO and GEO services growing. This all combines to help deliver more bandwidth for more aircraft. Indeed, the costs associated with outfitting aircraft for high-speed data are gradually reducing as more competition enters the market, with the size of the equipment also reducing.

Chris Moore, President, Satcom Direct Business Aviation
Chris Moore, President, Satcom Direct Business Aviation

Meanwhile, Honeywell’s JetWave system connects to the Inmarsat Jet ConneX Ka-band satellite system through either a tail-mounted antenna on mid-size jets or with a fuselage-mounted antenna for large-size jets. John Peterson, vice president and general manager of Honeywell’s software and services business, reports that the business has witnessed a slowdown in the cabin connectivity and wifi installation in the business aviation market. Even so, there has remained a steady demand in the aftermarket as owners now judge connectivity capability an essential feature of the business aviation proposition. He says the fun social media channels of old have now developed dramatically to become important real-time business networking tools, constantly keeping executive teams informed and effectively managed. “When you consider a HNWI corporate executive is costing the business $10,000 an hour and the aircraft $100,000 an hour,” Peterson says, “the pressure on these executives to keep turning the data in order to keep people and businesses profitable is immense.”

He says the goal of businesses like Honeywell is to help operators keep the balance between cost, speed and the region so an aircraft owner/operator needs to decide to opt for satellite-only or have an additional air to ground ATG component. “These are all things that need to be sorted out, to balance all these scenarios and the algorithm becomes even more complex when you start to trade off within those technologies. It becomes a sophisticated choice for operators to get that balance right. Many are taking advantage of the aircraft being on the ground to book in their installation slots as they understand that the aircraft will only depreciate in value if their second-hand aircraft fails to upgrade,” says Peterson.

Connectivity and high-speed data have become leading priorities for business jet owners and operators, says Chris Moore, president, Satcom Direct.
Connectivity and high-speed data have become leading priorities for business jet owners and operators, says Chris Moore, president, Satcom Direct.

Taking Advantage of the Pandemic

Owners have indeed been taking advantage of the pandemic slowdown. As an aircraft repair station, Flying Colours is deemed an essential service by the authorities in the USA and Canada. This has enabled the business to continue operations throughout the pandemic and to support its customers around the world. Kevin Kliethermes, director of sales at Flying Colours, reports that although some customers have delayed work as those owning aircraft in Europe have been restricted on flying due to the changing travel restrictions, other customers have moved their maintenance schedules forward as regular flying was restricted so they used downtime to undertake maintenance work. “This work regularly includes satcom/connectivity upgrades as we always advise our customers to install systems that will remain current for years to come,” he says.

Connectivity providers have certainly not stopped innovating during the pandemic and are all planning to meet significant anticipated demand. James Person, Viasat’s head of sales and business development in its business and VVIP aviation division reports that just as the demand on the ground continues to increase for higher speeds, usually driven by higher resolution video formats such as 4K and 8K, his business expects that trend for internet data speed requirements to prevail for the foreseeable future.

What is Viasat doing from a technology perspective to prepare for the growing demand for higher speeds? One major area of focus is its advanced satellite technology. With each generation of Viasat satellites, it adds typically an order of magnitude – that is, at least 10x – the amount of capacity per satellite.

“As an example,” Person says, “our first-generation Ka-band satellites that Viasat operates, such as WildBlue-1, have in the order of 10 Gbps (gigabit per second) of total throughput capacity. Our European Ka-band satellite, KA-SAT, has nearly 100 Gbps. ViaSat-2, which launched in 2017 has over 250 Gbps, and each ViaSat-3 satellite, which start launching in 2022, have over 1000 Gbps or a terabit per second each of capacity. And because it’s a Viasat designed shipset, it makes its hardware forward-compatible, so a Viasat Ka-band shipset installed today will be able to take advantage of advances in its ViaSat-3 constellation when it begins launching next year.

This incredible increase in satellite capacity – and in the smarts of the satellite to adjust that capacity to when and where it is needed – will be critical to keep up with that never-ending demand for higher speeds.

Satcom Direct’s Chris Moore believes that as the digitization of business aviation continues, his business will focus on designing and delivering satellite connectivity services built specifically for the needs of the business aviation sector.

“Our SD Plane Simple antenna systems are leading the charge in terms of providing more high-speed data to more aircraft around the world at more affordable rates,” he says. The Plane Simple antenna system series is the first network-integrated terminal designed exclusively for business aviation and aims to bring reliable connectivity to a much broader range of aircraft than ever before. Moore says the simple 2LRU system (the antenna and a single modem) simplifies retrofit installation and so reduces costs, reduces footprint, and provides a seamless transition path to future technology through its agnostic design to keep up with future technology.

He adds that this simplified system results in more reliable faster connectivity, in smaller formats, at competitive price points, all of which is attractive to existing and new customers. Low-cost installation reduces the burden of adding high-speed connectivity and the modular design enables minimally invasive upgrades. The system can also be located in the unpressurised area of the fuselage so freeing up valuable baggage compartment space.

The first Plane Simple Ku-band tail mounted antenna will support Intelsat’s Ku-band FlexExec satellite service and is anticipated to enter into service this year and will launch with flexible service plans aimed to align with how flight departments manage budgets.

As part of the SD eco-system of hardware, software, ground infrastructure and customer support, Moore says the addition of the Plane Simple antennas positions SD as a single source for all business aviation connectivity needs which streamlines the ownership and aircraft maintenance/management experience. “We are excited about the possibilities this brings for owners and operators seeking reliable, cost effective and easy to install high speed data systems,” he says, adding that a second Ka-band tail mounted antenna variant will come to market towards the end of 2022.

On Track for 5G

Gogo’s Dave Mellin meanwhile says his business believes the future of hi speed data is 5G — at least for the foreseeable future. “That’s why we’re building Gogo 5G. Data consumption has increased by 38% year over year on the ground, and the same applies to inflight connectivity, so the need for faster speeds and vastly increased capacity will be necessary, and Gogo 5G will be able to accommodate that increased demand long term.”

He says the business will launch Gogo 5G in 2022 and that the business remains on track for that. “We’ve crossed some significant milestones with testing the 5G belly mounted antennas and we’ve completed our first end-to-end call using the Gogo 5G SIM card so we are feeling optimistic about the progress we’re making. There is a worldwide semiconductor chip shortage, and that has impacted our 5G plans, but that is out of our control and everything else that is in our control, we are executing according to plan.”

When launched Gogo’s ATG system only became operational once the aircraft went above 10,000 ft due to an original design decision based on the Federal Aviation Administration ban on using personal electronic devices below that level. Since that regulation was relaxed, Gogo can now connect at 3,000 ft thanks to its AVANCE software. “What is significant about that,” Mellin says, “is that we were able to make that happen with a software push done over the air. No one had to board the aircraft or have any physical interaction on the aircraft. No down time to implement that change — that’s a massive increase in efficiency and saves operators thousands every time we push new software.”

That lower service altitude is significant for business travellers because it can provide up to 20 minutes additional connectivity time during normal flights and it makes connectivity more feasible for smaller aircraft such as turboprops that fly short hops or at low altitudes for most of the flight.

Mellin reports that one of the biggest benefits with the lower service level has been with the turboprops and some of the aircraft that fly in congested airspace. “One of our customers told us that when he flies into Teterboro — the airport just outside New York City ­— every time they have him drop below 10,000 feet way early, often for periods of 30 minutes or longer before landing, to avoid all the commercial aircraft flying into Newark, JFK or LaGuardia. Whenever that happened, he’d lose connectivity, but now he has that much more time to continue working.”

Future Trends

Viasat’s James Person sees an acceleration of interest and requirements for high-speed connectivity in smaller business and private aircraft. “In the past, perhaps due to limitations on SWaP (size, weight and power) as well as cost of equipment or service, satellite-based high-speed connectivity was an option for large cabin and long-range aircraft only,” he says. “Now with smaller shipsets, such as Viasat’s Ka-band or Ku-band 3-LRU shipsets, super-mid cabin aircraft can now have the same connectivity experience.”

ViaSat is seeing great demand in this category, including among the Embraer Praetor, Bombardier Challenger 300 series, and Gulfstream G280 for the same 20+ Mbps that it had already been delivering to large cabin aircraft. He says COVID flying restrictions served to accelerate this trend as travellers couldn’t fly to other countries/continents and with the increased usage of domestic fractional or charter aircraft usage, demand for internet service aboard increased.

Video Usage Soars

A second trend that continues is the increase in the amount of video that is consumed aboard business and private aircraft. As cellular plans and networks on the ground moved to enable streaming film, sports, and other content, those same mobile users kept their expectations high when going airborne. Again, a COVID trend of video conference calling accelerated this trend of the expectation for video calls while in flight. As a consequence, Viasat lifted the lid on its Ka-band speeds that enabled more users to stream simultaneously on business aircraft and added a new 200 GB monthly plan as well as including its Unlimited Streaming option in its top plans to support this trend of greater video consumption.

Satcom Direct’s Chris Moore commenting on the likely direction that satcoms are headed says the role of connectivity is evolving as it has become more than just a means of staying connected, it has developed into a data management system and he anticipates this will continue to evolve. “Communications is now a given,” he says, “but the optimisation of the data adds value to all parts of the flight operations.” In addition, he notes, the data generated supports capturing a digital history of the aircraft performance from the day the systems are installed. This helps retain asset value through the collection of accurate, validated, real-time data for existing and future owners and helps protect owner investment.

Open Architecture

The SD connectivity eco-system has been developed using open architecture approach which means that customers can plug-in third-party tools that support maintenance tracking, fueling, or flight planning. Data generated by the aircraft platform is shared by the SD eco-system with for example maintenance tracking software or engine manufacturers to support development and pro-actively engage in predictive maintenance management. This all helps reduce the downtime of an aircraft/fleet.

Advancing satcom technology is increasingly being seen as improving the passenger experience, supporting more efficient fleet management, and improving safety which enhances the overall ownership experience. Connectivity is no longer just about communications and transmitting data, it is about collecting aggregating, validating, and delivering data to an extended network of stakeholders via a secure and safe network to improve the aircraft management experience.

Honeywell’s Peterson is in complete agreement: “We at Honeywell constantly feel that pressure to perform and keep everything improving and once the people sitting in the back of the aircraft are satisfied, it then becomes more of a matter of getting the whole aircraft connected. And when we talk about connecting the whole of the aircraft, operators are searching for economies of scale, the exact same sort that scheduled commercial aviation enjoys.

“Honeywell has gone through a whole digitization of the air transport industry and has built a huge ground network with TBs of information being processed every month. We are now bringing that to the business aviation community but to make it work, you have to have a connected aircraft which can communicate key pieces of operational data so that everyone responsible for delivering that aircraft mission is sharing the same information and working in collaboration to provide a seamless service similar to that which supports the commercial air transport.”

“The fact is that in business aviation often, no one is expecting you and there is little infrastructure so Honeywell has created the Forge Community data platform bringing together a whole raft of expert airport related services so support the business aviation owner and operator — it is in this way that business aviation community can start enjoying those economies of scale.”

Peterson adds that Honeywell plans to take this to the next level and will for example be able to support the early arrival from feeding Top of Descent messages with Honeywell acting as the ISP to guarantee high levels of reliability through leveraging its scalable software. “We can stitch together the whole business jet user/operator community,” says Peterson.

The Forge Community will bring supplier services together in one place, allowing the operator to pick and choose. “It is very traditional in its thinking but very advanced in the technology behind it and Honeywell is bringing it all together so operations look seamless, flawless. We also want to bring a lot more scale into it in the future. Our mission is getting the whole aircraft connecting, something that is invisible to the passenger.”

High-Speed for All

Flying Colours’ Kevin Kliethermes also discerns more choice emerging in providers. “For many owners high-speed connectivity is now one of the most important elements of the passenger experience and that demand for more data, more quickly around the globe is something we are finding small to mid-size aircraft owners are also requesting. High speed data was once just a feature available to the large cabin aircraft, not anymore.

“The demand is stimulated by a consistent introduction of more robust systems that are beginning to come to market. Until recently customers could choose from just one or two providers and the size of the aircraft and where it was operating would potentially limit the possibilities, as well as budget costs. Now the situation is changing as high-speed data is being made viable for super and mid-size aircraft. Just recently we installed the Honeywell JetWave Ka-band system onto a Bombardier Challenger 604 which is the first time we have had to fulfill this request. It has always been the preferred choice of the large jets, but we expect to see more requests for high-speed services on these types of aircraft.”

B767 Fuel Leak & Fire: Pre-COVID Lessons for Post-Covid Returns to Service

B767 Fuel Leak & Fire: Pre-COVID Lessons for Post-Covid Returns to Service

Parking an airplane for an extended period of time – like most airlines have done during the COVID-19 Pandemic — introduces uncertainty and risk, especially if the maintenance performed prior to storage and later during return to service (RTS) is not properly executed. The actions taken by each person involved in these maintenance events are critical to ensuring the airworthiness of the airplane. A recent example of this was evident in an FAA emergency airworthiness directive issued last July for inspections of older Boeing 737 aircraft after four engine failures occurred due to a stuck bleed air check valve from corrosion. These airplanes were all parked due to the recent pandemic prior to RTS.

However, these same issues have been well-documented in other accidents and incidents long before COVID-19. Case-in-point: Dynamic Airways flight 405 on October 28, 2015.

The weather in Washington DC was unseasonably warm that day. As I ate lunch outside with some of my colleagues in the FAA Accident Investigation Division, a call came in from the Communication Center. The left wing of an airliner was engulfed in flames on the taxiway at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport (Graphic 1). One person ran behind the still-operating right engine and was blown to the ground, receiving serious injuries. Even though many passengers insanely held onto their carry-on bags as they slowly evacuated a burning airplane, no one was killed. Passengers were streaming down emergency exit slides and spilling onto the tarmac. A relaxing lunch with my co-workers would have to wait for another day.

Immediate Indications of a Problem

It was known early on from media and airport sources that flight 405 –– a Boeing 767-200ER powered by two Pratt & Whitney JT7D-7 engines –– had experienced a massive fuel leak near its left engine about four minutes after it pushed back from Gate E9. The crew was in contact with an FAA air traffic controller (ATC) ground controller at the time of the event, thus triggering an internal FAA “services rendered telecon” — or “SRT” — about an hour after the notification of the accident. Hosting an SRT was standard FAA procedure for high-visibility events so that key ATC managers –– and investigators in our division –– could get briefed on the event and have the opportunity to listen to the raw ATC voice recordings.

The ATC playback in this case revealed that the wide-body jet was taxiing for takeoff for a scheduled charter flight to Caracas, Venezuela when another airplane — taxiing behind flight 405 — radioed that something was wrong: “Hey…out of the left engine. Looks like its leaking…I don’t know if its fuel or what.” The FAA ground controller responded with: “Okay. Dynamic four zero five heavy, did you copy?” The 767 crew replied: “Yes sir, we copy,” and then requested to return to the ramp. Shortly after the controller cleared the leaking jet to return, another voice from an undetermined origin shrieked over the frequency. “Engine’s on fire! Engine’s on fire!”

Graphic 1. The left wing of an airliner was engulfed in flames on the taxiway.
Graphic 1. The left wing of an airliner was engulfed in flames on the taxiway.

After the SRT concluded, I learned that the NTSB was launching a small “go-team” of five investigators from its headquarters offices located just across the street from my office. The team consisted of the investigator-in-charge and four NTSB “Group Chairmen” –– specialists in systems, powerplants, maintenance records, and survival factors. The NTSB also invited investigators and experts from Pratt & Whitney, Boeing, and Dynamic Airways to assist.

Graphic 2. Left wing and flaps that were severely burned from the fuel fire (NTSB Photo).
Graphic 2. Left wing and flaps that were severely burned from the fuel fire (NTSB Photo).

By statute, the FAA did not need an invitation. In its wisdom, Congress granted the FAA the right to participate in all NTSB aviation investigations because FAA regulates the industry, while the NTSB leads independent investigations and only makes recommendations. I launched Eric West –– our most senior air safety investigator –– to be the FAA coordinator for all agency support to the NTSB. Eric was a former charter pilot from Boston who was also a certified mechanic with inspection authorization. He had been an FAA inspector and accident investigator for two decades. Eric was assisted by FAA specialists for each of the NTSB’s four specialty groups who arrived at Ft. Lauderdale from various FAA offices across the country.

Examining the Wreckage for Clues

When Eric and the other investigators arrived at the scene later that day, their cursory look inside the left engine revealed no evidence of an uncontained engine failure or internal damage. Instead, it was clear that a significant fuel leak and subsequent fire occurred in the left engine strut and nacelle during taxi. The lower inboard portions of the left wing, left engine cowling, and left fuselage center section were badly burned (see Graphic 2). A puddle of fuel with tire tracks from the airplane provided more clues (Graphic 3). Fortunately, the captain cut-off the fuel when the fire began to rage, and it was quickly extinguished by airport firefighters before the flames and smoke were able to penetrate the cabin. Given the passengers’ propensity to remain on the burning airplane as they grasped for their backpacks, purses, and other items, Eric was convinced the local authorities would have required a lot of body bags if the cabin would have been compromised with smoke and flames.

Graphic 3. A puddle of fuel with tire tracks from the airplane provided more clues for investigators. NTSB Photo.
Graphic 3. A puddle of fuel with tire tracks from the airplane provided more clues for investigators. NTSB Photo.

During a closer examination of the left engine and strut the following day, investigators noted that a fuel coupling assembly — known as a “Wiggins coupling” — was found separated. Indications of fuel leakage were observed at the flange interface of the fuel supply lines where the coupling had separated, including discoloration from fluid pooling in the strut compartments and streaking down the left engine cowling (see Graphic 4).

Graphic 4. Inboard side of left engine.  Note the streaking marks from fuel spillage, denoted by the white arrows. NTSB Photo.
Graphic 4. Inboard side of left engine. Note the streaking marks from fuel spillage, denoted by the white arrows. NTSB Photo.

What investigators found next was disturbing. No safety lockwire was present on either the body or the nut side of the fuel coupling as required in the Boeing aircraft maintenance manual (AMM), and no broken lockwire was recovered in the surrounding strut compartments. (See Graphics 5 & 6).

Wiggins coupling accident
Wiggins coupling accident

The affected coupling was downstream of the front spar Wiggins fitting which was located in the upper flammable fluid leak zone of the aft upper strut area (graphic 7). The outer couplings (parts 117 & 113 denoted by arrows in graphic 7) are designed to be threaded together, and then lock-wired to prevent the coupling from loosening under vibration.

Graphic 6. Exemplar fuel of the coupling and bonding jumper from the RIGHT engine.  Note that the lockwire and bonding jumper are properly installed.
Graphic 6. Exemplar fuel of the coupling and bonding jumper from the RIGHT engine. Note that the lockwire and bonding jumper are properly installed.

Eric called back to the office to inform me that Dynamic Airways issued a Fleet Campaign Directive after the Wiggins coupling discovery to inspect the remainder of their aircraft to ensure proper installation of the fuel line coupling assemblies. No other instances of improper installation were found.

Graphic 7. Isometric and exploded drawings of the Wiggins coupling from the 767 maintenance manual. The affected coupling was downstream of the front spar Wiggins fitting which was located in the upper flammable fluid leak zone of the aft upper strut area. The outer couplings (parts 117 & 113 denoted by the black arrows) are designed to be threaded together, and then lock-wired to prevent the coupling from loosening under vibration.
Graphic 7. Isometric and exploded drawings of the Wiggins coupling from the 767 maintenance manual. The affected coupling was downstream of the front spar Wiggins fitting which was located in the upper flammable fluid leak zone of the aft upper strut area. The outer couplings (parts 117 & 113 denoted by the black arrows) are designed to be threaded together, and then lock-wired to prevent the coupling from loosening under vibration.

Determining How the Airplane “Lived”

Like performing an autopsy of a deceased person, investigators must determine how an airplane “lived” before it “died” in an accident. In this case, the NTSB maintenance records group pored over thousands of aircraft records. The accident airplane was “born” at Boeing in 1986 — nearly 20 years before the accident. The original owner of the 767 was Kuwait Airlines, but it was then purchased and operated by several more airlines, domestically and internationally, until 2006. At that point, a leasing company purchased the airplane and leased it out. Six years later, the leading company sent the airplane to a maintenance facility in Michigan in August 2012 to have a “4C” Check accomplished. Each C-check must be accomplished at intervals of 18 months, 6,000 hours or 3,000 cycles. It was during this 4C check when the Wiggins coupling would have been addressed. Following the 4C check, the airplane was flown to Goodyear, Arizona on November 12, 2012 to be stored.

Three long years later, on April 15, 2015, the leasing company ferried the airplane back to the same Michigan maintenance shop for a “6C” check and other work in preparation for lease to Dynamic Airways. One of the required maintenance tasks during this time involved a visual inspection of the fuel feed line components, including the Wiggins coupling. The Boeing AMM called for a “Zonal Inspection (General Visual)” of the area at each C-check maintenance interval. Following this maintenance, the airline took possession of the 767 on June 25, 2015, the FAA accomplished a conformity inspection on August 29, 2015, and the airplane was returned to service on September 15, 2015 – six weeks prior to the accident in Ft. Lauderdale.

The NTSB interviewed the mechanics who worked on the airplane during the 2012 and 2015 maintenance periods. All of them seemed qualified and experienced, and none of them recalled specifically working on the accident airplane. Regardless, both personnel who were involved in these two maintenance checks should have caught the missing lockwire.

The Probable Cause and Lessons Learned

The NTSB final report on the accident was released last summer in the midst of the COVID pandemic. The report concluded that the probable cause was the separation of the fuel line Wiggins coupling and subsequent fuel leak “… due to the failure of maintenance personnel to install the required safety lockwire.” In the analysis section of the report, the NTSB said that the missing safety wire “… was the result of an error by the third-party maintenance provider”. The agency also criticized the flight crew for initiating the emergency evacuation while the right engine was still running, and the passengers who decided to evacuate from a flaming airplane only after grabbing their carry-on bags.

The lessons learned from the flight 405 fire are obvious. Operator experience shows that dispatch reliability is higher and maintenance problems are fewer for airplanes flying in regular service as compared to airplanes used sporadically. When the airplane is in service, flight crews monitor airplane systems from the cockpit, and maintenance personnel perform preventative maintenance, regular inspections and repair procedures. When an airplane is parked, maintenance tasks can be missed, the environment can cause problems, and complacency can set it.

Last June, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) published “Guidance for Managing Aircraft Airworthiness for Operations During and Post Pandemic” that provides helpful information for airlines and maintenance facilities with regard to properly returning a stored airplane to service. A few months later, in November 2020, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) published “Return to service of aircraft after storage: Guidelines in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic” in November 2020.

An unprecedented number of aircraft have been parked due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Gradually, as travel restrictions are lifted and as operators prepare to resume passenger flights, these aircraft will need to be returned to service. Due to the high number of aircraft affected by the pandemic, and with limited maintenance resources available to perform the work because of it, organizations should expect to experience difficulties and increased risks. The actions taken by each person involved in returning the airplanes to service are critical to ensuring the airworthiness of the airplane.

Q&A with Dinakara Nagalla, Founder and CEO of EmpowerMX

Q&A with Dinakara Nagalla, Founder and CEO of EmpowerMX

What has EmpowerMX learned during the pandemic?

Our customers are facing some daunting challenges. First, it’s no secret that even prior to the pandemic it was getting increasingly challenging to find enough qualified aircraft maintenance technicians. The staffing reductions that ensued during the downturn gave MROs and airlines a bit of a breather, but the combination of early retirements and layoffs drove a good number of these people to find work in other verticals, or even leave aviation entirely. It is clear now once again that the increasing demand for services are highlighting the dearth of experienced labor necessary to support it. In response, there is an unprecedented level of focus on improving processes and driving efficiencies, and technologies and solutions such as ours can play a critical role in driving those efficiencies.

Next, as carriers began to park the older and less efficient aircraft, they are now being stripped for usable parts, leading to a glut in the market, and MROs have to deal with an entirely new dimension in parts procurement and the supply chain.

And finally, the pandemic has highlighted to many aviation centric companies not only the need for efficiency, but the need for agility, and I think that as they rebuild themselves, this need for increased agility is being kept top of mind.

What challenged your company the most during this unusual time and how did you meet that challenge?

Initially, like many aviation businesses, our initial efforts were focused on supporting our customers and their unique responses to the pandemic, and figuring out how we can exit the crisis better and stronger, and more importantly making sure we have the solutions our customers will inevitably need. By far, the 2nd and 3rd quarters of 2020 was the most challenging period – but as many businesses did, we took advantage in the necessary shift in priorities, and focused all of our energy into product development and enhancement. This investment paid off, and by the end of 2020, we were well positioned to address the resurgence. We began actively reengaging with prospects around the world, and found a receptive audience for our existing solutions, as well as new offerings that are aligned with the market’s increasing focus on digital MRO and initiatives like Electronic Task Cards.

Have you been able to add customers during the pandemic?

We’re humbled by the fact that our customers are the world’s leading airlines and MROs, and we consider each of these organizations as a partner, not just a customer. Accordingly, when the pandemic brought the airline industry nearly to its knees, we focused the majority of our efforts towards helping our customers navigate through the crisis by understanding what they’ll need from us when the recovery begins. As the business environment has started to improve, these customers have not only started to ramp back to pre-pandemic levels (and in some cases above), but they’ve embraced our new solutions and continued to serve as excellent and loyal references for other prospects that are starting to emerge. As a result, we’ve had a very busy first half of 2021 supporting our existing customers increasing usage and newly developed solutions, along with new customers who are adopting our Digital MRO solutions. Today, I know of no other cloud native, mobility first, fully integrated yet modular suite that can help transform any traditional MRO business into a fully digital operation.

How is EmpowerMX responding to its customers’ changing needs?

We have always embraced the concept of “adaptive transformation” in our product design and development, where we build our solutions using a modular concept but with highly integrated components. Customers today find this approach incredibly useful, as they want to test new technologies rapidly and incrementally, without having to rip out and replace legacy systems. We don’t expect customers to transform overnight, and as they adapt to new regulations, consumer expectations, and market conditions, they require new tools that evolve with their needs and are flexible enough to meet their demands and the demands of their business.

What are your goals for the company? Our primary goals are customer focused – to dramatically improve their ROI and bottom line by reducing maintenance costs by 15% to 25% and improving safety, operational, and compliance KPIs. Our vision is to create a next gen “Digital MRO” which doesn’t merely take paper off the shop floor – rather, we want to bring the MRO, their customers and vendors together into a fully integrated, digitally connected service operation with an open data network to create transparency and visibility for all using blockchain and our unique predictive maintenance and forecasting technologies.

What sets EmpowerMX’s offerings apart from others in the market?

We have been in this industry for over two decades now. And were one of, if not the first-to-market with a cloud-based MRO software-as-a-service (SaaS) solution in 2013, while other providers were thinking about the how and why of doing so. EmpowerMX is truly the only cloud-based software platform on the market that can enable a digital MRO today. Our machine learning algorithms, built into the core of our product, powers and administers our digital task card generation, electronic signatures, task applicability and labor hour tracking. Our upcoming new predictive maintenance module integrated into all aspects of product usage is best of breed. We can bring an operator online within 60 days after commencing implementation, and our solution pays for itself within six months. EmpowerMX is truly an ROI driven offering, not just a nice to have.

Give an example of a problem your product solved for a customer.

This is a great question, and when we pause to think about one single problem we solved, we think it is impacting MRO throughput and the resulting financial performance. And that isn’t an isolated problem—it is a series of small successes that waterfall into this massive outcome called throughput, and that too, where quality and safety are non-negotiable. It is about creating a clean process flow from within the aircraft maintenance environment—starting with pre-induction and permeating through final delivery and data analytics support. Heavy maintenance visits typically create thousands of task cards, each with their own independent process needs—from material to labor and tooling just to name a few; Where EmpowerMX becomes the go-to solution is how easily our modules can support all these functions, and clients can choose modules on-the-go, without long upgrade projects.

Please give examples of how EmpowerMX’s products have helped save airlines, MROs or the military money.

We help save money even while one of our modules are being implemented. By way of the many small wins within the process, EmpowerMX has a history of achieving large gains, resulting in airlines and MROs saving time and money. One example is a large regional MRO based in the US. Before implementing EmpowerMX at this facility, the MRO was not profitable. By the time implementation was complete and the processes were standardized throughout the facility, the MRO had a consistent, realized profit margin increase of 10% a year. This was the result, primarily, of On-Time or Early deliveries. Prior to implementation, On-Time delivery based on contracts was consistently below 50%, and sometimes as low as 30%. By the end of the implementation, On-Time delivery was consistently above 95%. In 2017, the facility delivered 367 maintenance events. Only 2 of those maintenance events were late. Not only that, but they were also delivering early. Over 100 days a year were captured that year for additional throughput by early delivery days alone. When you can do more with what you already have, the results become apparent. In this example, there was over a 10% EBIT improvement as well as a substantial increase in revenue. The combination of increased revenue generation as well the major margin improvements lead to a dramatic increase in the bottom line.

How does EmpowerMX help with data analytics/predictive maintenance?

EmpowerMX provides data analytics and predictive maintenance support through a couple of key methods.

Our product promotes standardization without hindering the end users, through task standards and templates. These tools ensure that data is standardized as users are incentivized to provide the right data, or conversely unable to provide incorrect data. This results in standardized inputs and outputs that makes the task of data analytics and predictive patterning much easier for an organization.

The second is data support. EmpowerMX helps with this process by making simple and customizable reports available to product users. By providing access to almost any data point that an organization would need that is standardized through process incentives allows users to estimate maintenance visits more accurately to any relevant need such as: labor by skill, by task type, by billing code, materials demand probability, high risk tasks, task constraints, and more. When you know you have the labor, tooling, and materials required, you are already one step ahead of the competition.

What insights can you share about protecting data and information with regards to cybersecurity/hacking, which is a growing concern in any business sector?

Cyber security and data protection is the number one issue for all of us and our customers using the EmpowerMX cloud. Any cloud organization should first adopt ISO 27001 on information security management along with ISO 27032 offering guidance on cyber security management. It’s important to follow these standards at a minimum and or eventually certify to these standards to mitigate the risk. EmpowerMX not only stays compliant with these standards but also encrypt all our data, secure all our servers behind firewalls, separate our network infrastructure components under different VPN networks, enable dual factor authentication to access our cloud infrastructure, and deploy in-built AI tools for cloud security analysis and auto patching. This is where we are years ahead of other MRO software providers in the cloud.

The supply chain is desperately outdated across the board in both the civilian and military sectors of aviation. Does EmpowerMX have products that can help improve the supply chain?

The pandemic exposed just how vulnerable airline and defense (A&D) supply chains are. Inefficiencies in the Supply Chain causes return to service delays, schedule disruptions, fines, and dissatisfaction with the aircraft operators. This is further exasperated by legacy systems that can’t adapt and scale, bogging down the A&D Supply chain. While the aviation asset repair complexity is on a much different scale, the majority of the systems supporting the MRO industry are built for a traditional desktop model repurposed to work on tablets but are incapable of automating the process across a wide range of participants. EmpowerMX has several solutions exclusively available in the cloud to help solve this problem. For example, EMX Connect is an advanced system that is capable of wiring any legacy system to provide a seamless flow of data to automate the supply chain. This also fulfills the need for predictive analysis and always-aware systems that can minimize delays during the repair process. The EmpowerMX MRO suite—Connect, Shops, and Materials modules will bring airline MRO operators and suppliers closer than they have ever been before, digitizing the entire network of participants, and thus enabling the seamless exchange of data.

Dinakara Nagalla is the founder and CEO of EmpowerMX, the Frisco, Texas based Digital MRO Platform, offering a modular, cloud-based, mobile-first suite of applications for touch-free, data-enabled heavy maintenance, shop floor, and supply chain.

SMS Part 5: The Relationship Between Risk Controls and Your Safety Risk Management System

SMS Part 5: The Relationship Between Risk Controls and Your Safety Risk Management System

In this article we will begin to look at how to use mitigations — or risk controls — to reduce the risk associated with aviation safety hazards.

Last year, Aviation Maintenance Magazine published a series of four articles explaining how to establish and use a safety risk management (SRM) system to identify aviation safety hazards and assess them for risk. The SRM is one of the key elements of a complete Safety Management System (SMS). This article assumes that you have some familiarity with the basic concepts of SMS that were covered in those articles If you do not, then we recommend that you go back and read those four articles (you can find all four on Aviation Maintenance Magazine’s website).

This year, we will guide you through the next steps of implementing an SMS system; and in this month’s article we will focus on basic concepts related to risk controls and how they relate to the work you did in recording your hazards and safety risk analyses.

Part of the SRM process for analyzing hazards — the process that we addressed in the past articles – involved assigning likelihood levels and consequence levels to each identified hazard. These help you to place risks on a likelihood-consequence matrix which in turn helps you to identify which hazards need to have their risk levels reduced. Based on this matrix, there are two ways to reduce the risk associated with a hazard. You can reduce the likelihood that the hazard will occur; or you can reduce the consequence of the hazard in the event it occurs.

These two concepts are not new to aviation. We’ve been using these concepts for years. For example, an air carrier’s required inspection items are items for which a second inspection is necessary for the work is complete. The second inspection provides a second opportunity for an independent inspector to look for flaws. This improves the likelihood that any existing flaws will be caught, which in turn decreases the likelihood that flaws exist in the work performed. This effort reduces the likelihood that the underlying hazard will occur (the hazard(s) for which the inspection was designed). Total risk, in this case, is reduced by reducing likelihood.

Another example can be found in the common practice of having duplicate or back-up systems where the systems are critical. Where there is an effective back-up system, the failure of the primary system will not lead to catastrophic results. This the consequence of a failure is mitigated through the design functions that permit a duplicate or back-up system to operate in the event of a primary system failure.

Note that where a system is critical and it is impractical to have a duplicate or back-up of the system, it is normal to impose life limits that are designed to remove parts that are subject to wear or degradation before they could reasonably fail. This effort to decrease likelihood of failure shows us that elements like practicality can be weighed to allow us to choose from more than one risk control, and we can sometimes choose from controls that improve our management of likelihood, consequence, or both in our efforts to reduce total risk.

Let’s apply these concepts to an example. Imagine a scenario where a repair station performs plating. One of the hazards associated with plating is hydrogen embrittlement. This should be recorded in the repair station’s database of hazards. Naturally, without any risk process controls, the likelihood of hydrogen embrittlement might be high. Hydrogen embrittlement can cause a component to fracture at stresses less than those typically associated with the expected strength of the metal. In other words, the metal is more brittle than expected which can lead to damage in the component. The potential safety consequence of such a hazard might be significant.

There are normal processes associated with common plating operations that are intended to reduce the likelihood of hydrogen embrittlement (such as heat treatment for thermal stress relief). The heat treatment adequately reduces the likelihood of the hydrogen embrittlement hazard, and this reduces the total risk associated with the hazard (typically reducing it to an acceptable level). Thus, heat treatment would be recorded as the risk control associated with the identified hazard of hydrogen embrittlement in your plating process.

Obviously, the risk control is valuable to prevent hydrogen embrittlement, but recording it in your hazard-risk-mitigation database has independent management value. If data shows later hydrogen embrittlement in plated components, this database allows you to focus on the risk controls that were intended to reduce that risk, and to analyze them for flaws.

It also allows you to use your hazard-risk-mitigation database to perform change management. For example, if the repair station deicides to replace the ovens used for heat treatment with new ovens, then the hazard-risk-mitigation database should show where those ovens are being used as hazard mitigations, and to permit the change management reviewers to ensure that the new ovens will be adequate to mitigate each risk for which the old ovens had been identified.

By changing the likelihood level, consequence level, or both, the system can effectively reduce risk posed by hazards. As we will see in future articles, this helps to drive an effective audit schedule as well as becoming an effective and objective change management tool. How do we select process controls that will effectively reduce likelihood, consequence, or both? Read our next article where we will discuss strategies for identifying and selecting risk controls.

Want to learn more? We have been teaching classes in SMS elements, and we have advised aviation companies in multiple sectors on the development of SMS processes and systems. Give us a call or send us an email if we can help you with your SMS questions.

CORROSION PREVENTION AIRCRAFT PARKED DURING COVID-19 NEED MAINTENANCE AS MUCH AS THOSE STILL IN SERVICE

To say that COVID-19 has been bad for the global airline business would be a serious understatement. According to an October 2020 ICAO presentation, the pandemic’s full year (January-December 2020) impact will slash gross passenger operating revenues by up to $96 billion worldwide, and reduce the overall number of seats offered by airlines up to 47 percent.

Above, Zip-Chem has multiple products to prevent or slow corrosion. Below, Mankiewicz's experts say that in the right environment, parking aircraft short term isn't detrimental to their exterior paint. Zip-Chem and Mankiewicz images.
Above, Zip-Chem has multiple products to prevent or slow corrosion. Below, Mankiewicz’s experts say that in the right environment, parking aircraft short term isn’t detrimental to their exterior paint. Zip-Chem and Mankiewicz images.

mankiewicz

“The pandemic has put a huge financial strain on owners and operators, and they are doing what they can to reduce spending,” says Emily Romblad, customer marketing manager with Celeste Industries Corporation. This includes parking aircraft wherever they can. “Literally every carrier in the world has taken the majority of their fleet out of service for an undetermined period of time,” says Chuck Pottier, president of Zip-Chem Products.

Corrosion Doesn’t Spare Parked Aircraft

Parking aircraft to save money is a risky proposition. This because that airframes and their engines are highly complex pieces of technology that need to be regularly maintained, whether they are in daily service or indefinitely parked. In other words, aircraft are not cars. An airliner cannot be left unattended for weeks on the ground and then reentered into service as if no time has elapsed.

This is an inconvenient truth that some airlines are doing their best to ignore. They are so understandably desperate to staunch the financial bleeding that they are grounding aircraft first and leaving any subsequent maintenance issues for a later date, hopefully when COVID-19 has eased and air traffic is on the rise.

Unfortunately, this ‘park them where you can’ approach increases the likelihood of corrosion in airframes and engines alike. This is because “aircraft were being parked wherever they could find room in what might be less than ideal environments which could be hot and humid,” says Jon Jacobson, Av-DEC’s commercial technical sales team manager. ‘Hot and humid’ translates into environmental conditions that speed up corrosion on metal and other aircraft materials.

Fortunately, “since the beginning of the pandemic many operators have repositioned planes to more favorable dry environments,” says a Boeing spokesperson. “This has also improved resource and material availability for cleaning procedures and application of protective coatings.”

The natural environmental process of heating and cooling causes condensation which can result in corrosion. Daubert Cromwell image.
The natural environmental process of heating and cooling causes condensation which can result in corrosion.
Daubert Cromwell image.

This says, aircraft still deteriorate over time in dry storage conditions. They just do so at a slower rate, especially if the cash-strapped airlines that parked them fail to do required maintenance. For instance, “some operators are opting to go longer between cleaning tasks or eliminating the task altogether,” says Romblad. “However, soils that build up on the exterior can actually accelerate corrosion, so it’s important to routinely clean to prevent the buildup of corrosion causing contaminants.”

Mankiewicz has been offering corrosion protection for 17 years in cooperation with the Airbus Group. Mankiewicz image.
Mankiewicz has been offering corrosion protection for 17 years in cooperation with the Airbus Group. Mankiewicz image.

In fact, the long-term parking of aircraft has no negative influence on their exterior paint, says aviation coatings firm Mankiewicz. “UV radiation, humidity and temperature differences are much lower on the ground and therefore cannot harm the protective outer layer,” according to information that the company provided to Aviation Maintenance magazine. “Resulting dirt can simply be washed off and in the worst case the outermost layer, the clear coat, can even be polished.”

Engines At Risk During Parking

Aircraft engines are particularly vulnerable to corrosion when parked for extended periods of time, as is the case for many aircraft during COVID-19. “This new form of ‘medium-term’ parking presents risks,” says Ed Barnes, ExxonMobil’s global chief engineer for Aviation Lubricants. The reason: “Aviation turbine lubricants in commercial aircraft are overwhelmingly ester-based synthetic lubricants,” Barnes says. “These products have a natural affinity for water and absorb water vapor from the atmosphere at every opportunity. Once contaminated with water, turbine lubricants begin to form corrosive acids, which can become quite harmful to engine components over time.”

Daubert Cromwell recommends using their Nox-Rust 1100 VCI Oil in enclosed spaces to ensure they are protected from corrosion. Daubert Cromwell image.
Daubert Cromwell recommends using their Nox-Rust 1100 VCI Oil in enclosed spaces to ensure they are protected from corrosion. Daubert Cromwell image.

Exposure to elevated water contamination over time can also loosen deposits inside the engine’s lubrication system, he noted. This can present issues during test flights, or when the aircraft is returned to service.

Meanwhile, the practice of packing large numbers of parked aircraft into whatever space is available presents “an unusual challenge in itself,” Barnes says. “This crowding means engines cannot be operated or exercised and, consequently, water contamination may accumulate in their lubrication systems. Another challenge is personnel changes and ensuring there are enough people available to manage all this maintenance work.”

Other Vulnerable Areas

Most aircraft systems are vulnerable to corrosion during periods of extended inactivity. Some of the most vulnerable surfaces – beyond those inside aircraft engines – are fuel tanks, fuel and hydraulic lines.

For instance, the cavity of air above the fluid line is called the ‘headspace’. During normal operations the air within the headspace, which may contain moisture is frequently exchanged and exhausted. During idle periods air inside the headspace is not exchanged, and the moist air remains trapped in the headspace.

“Throughout the day the airspace heats and cools,” says Scott Kotvis, Daubert Cromwell’s vice president of Global Business Development. “Each time it cools, moist warm air condenses, creating water droplets that act as a corrosion electrolyte.” Airlines that use products like Daubert Cromwell’s Nox-Rust 1100 VCI Oil in such enclosures are protected from corrosion. But those that don’t may experience headspace corrosion in their aircraft, just by leaving them parked and doing nothing.

The Consequences Are Real

The unexpected consequences of storing aircraft quickly during COVID-19 were highlighted in July 2020, when the FAA released Emergency Airworthiness Directive (EAD) 2020-16-51 for all parked Boeing 737 Classic (CL) and Boeing 737 NextGeneration (NG) aircraft. It applied to the engine bleed air fifth stage check valve on the CFM56 engines that power the 737CL (CFM56-3 series) and the 737NG (CFM56-7 series) on aircraft that were stored for seven or more consecutive days.

“This emergency AD was prompted by four recent reports of single-engine shutdowns due to engine bleed air 5th stage check valves being stuck open,” says FAA EAD 2020-16-51. “Corrosion of the engine bleed air 5th stage check valve internal parts during airplane storage may cause the valve to stick in the open position. If this valve opens normally at takeoff power, it may become stuck in the open position during flight and fail to close when power is reduced at top of descent, resulting in an unrecoverable compressor stall and the inability to restart the engine. Corrosion of these valves on both engines could result in a dual-engine power loss without the ability to restart.”

ACF-50 (Anti-Corrosion Formula) lubricant 'creeps’ into tight seams, lap joints and around rivet heads to displace moisture and corrosive fluids such as orange juice, Coke and salt water. Learchem image.
ACF-50 (Anti-Corrosion Formula) lubricant ‘creeps’ into tight seams, lap joints and around rivet heads to displace moisture and corrosive fluids such as orange juice, Coke and salt water. Learchem image.

In other words, the corrosion on these valves could lead to B737CLs and B737NG’s experiencing dual engine failures in flight – just because they had been parked for seven consecutive days or more!

The life-saving remedy to this problem was simple aircraft maintenance, specifically “inspections of the engine bleed air 5th stage check valve on each engine and replacement of the engine bleed air 5th stage check valve if any inspection is not passed,” says FAA EAD 2020-16-51. The fact that maintenance solved the problem underlines how important preventative maintenance is during COVID-19, both before an aircraft is parked and then while it is sitting on the ground.

Many operators have repositioned planes to more favorable dry environments. Even so, aircraft can still deteriorate over time in dry storage conditions. Zip-Chem image.
Many operators have repositioned planes to more favorable dry environments. Even so, aircraft can still deteriorate over time in dry storage conditions. Zip-Chem image.

Protecting Parked Aircraft Through Preventative Maintenance

If there is a moral to the tale above, it is that aircraft require preventative maintenance prior to being parked, and then while on the ground until they are returned to service.

“Corrosion never sleeps, so if the aircraft is in storage of being flown it still needs to be on a corrosion protection program,” says Mark Pearson. He owns Learchem, which makes the ACF-50 (Anti-Corrosion Formula) lubricant that ‘creeps’ into the tightest seams, lap joints, and around rivet heads to displace moisture and corrosive fluids such as orange juice, Coke, and salt water. “Corrosion is like the insidious COVID 19 virus, except it causes havoc to the airframe, avionics and engines rather than to people,” he says.

Pearson’s point is echoed by Zip-Chem’s Pottier. “Airlines need to assess the condition of every airframe and powerplant that they plan to park for corrosion issues that need to be addressed,” he says. The place to start this assessment is by referring to the specific Aircraft Maintenance Manual (AMM) guidelines developed by the OEM and the operator’s engineering staff “to protect and preserve their aircraft for storage and subsequent return-to-service,” he says. In doing so, “they must be vigilant in the process.”

This approach is endorsed by Boeing. “The AMM Storage procedures (preservation tasks) provide detailed instructions on how to adequately protect the areas of airframe and engines that may be prone to corrosion,” says Boeing spokesperson. “These tasks include cleaning procedures, application of protective coatings and periodic repeat inspections. Boeing guidelines also advise operators to cycle engines on a set schedule which helps maintain the health of the engines and supporting components.”

Zip-Chem recommends assessing the condition of every airframe and powerplant for corrosion issues prior to parking it. Zip-Chem image.
Zip-Chem recommends assessing the condition of every airframe and powerplant for corrosion issues prior to parking it. Zip-Chem image.

Taking Care of Airframes Before and During Storage

When it comes to taking care of airframes before and during storage, Simon Parnell knows what he is talking about. Parnell is aerospace sales manager for ROCOL, which makes aerospace lubricants and corrosion protection products that have been approved by commercial and defense OEMs/operators such as Airbus, Boeing, Rolls Royce and NATO. His company has also given serious consideration to the practice of parking aircraft during the pandemic, and has formulated some sound advice.

ROCOL says any corrosion that is detected during routine inspections of parked aircraft needs to be corrected immediately to stop it from progressing further. Protective compounds should be reapplied as required, like the ones ROCOL makes, shown above. ROCOL images.
ROCOL says any corrosion that is detected during routine inspections of parked aircraft needs to be corrected immediately to stop it from progressing further. Protective compounds should be reapplied as required, like the ones ROCOL makes, shown above. ROCOL images.

Before parking the aircraft, “the exterior should be thoroughly washed, with particular attention paid to wheel wells and landing gear to ensure the complete removal of any contaminants such as runway ice or snow removal compounds, sand and dirt to help prevent any corrosion issues,” says Parnell. “Once the aircraft has been fully cleaned and any corrosion removed or treated, carry out usual lubrication procedures using a general airframe grease or landing gear grease then apply corrosion protection compounds, particularly to unpainted metal parts.”

Once the aircraft has been parked, regular maintenance is a must. “If possible, inspect each aircraft on a seven-day cycle,” Parnell says. “A visual inspection every seven days that includes bodywork and protective coverings will highlight any corrosion damage that needs to be addressed through further cleaning, corrosion removal and the reapplication of corrosion protection compounds.”

That’s not all. A more detailed inspection of the airframe should be done every 14 days, with the inspector paying close attention to wheel wells and landing gear. Any corrosion that is detected needs to be corrected immediately to stop it from progressing further, while protection compounds should be reapplied as required. “Taking these proactive steps now together with a robust inspection routine will go a long way to keeping valuable assets flight fit for when they can be returned to normal service,” says Parnell.

Protecting the Engines

Maintaining aircraft engines is a top priority for ExxonMobil, and something that Ed Barnes has thought seriously about.

“To prevent water contamination and, in turn, the risk of corrosion, there are a few maintenance considerations,” he says. “First, engines on parked aircraft need to be periodically operated – long enough to heat the lubricant and drive-off any accumulated water contamination.”

The actual schedule for these periodic operations can be determined by consulting with engine OEMs, and will vary depending on where the on-wing engines are being stored. “For instance, if an aircraft is parked in a desert location it will take longer for water to accumulate in the engine lubricant because of lower ambient humidity,” says Barnes. “In this case, operating the engine for one hour every two weeks may be enough. However, thousands of aircraft are parked today in non-desert airports all over the world and their engines may require more frequent operation for various reasons.”

Fortunately, there are steps that aircraft maintainers can take to check engine health on their own. Specifically, “we recommend periodically testing the turbine oil for water (ppm) and monitoring the total acid number (TAN), and then comparing these to the levels set by the engine OEM,” Barnes says. “ If the water cannot be eliminated by engine operation, and water ppm or TAN are above engine OEM recommended limits, the operator has a few choices: Find a way to operate the engine more frequently, periodically change the lubricant to remove the water, or move to long-term preservation of the lubricant system by adding an approved preservative chemical to the lubrication system.”

Engine lip skins also need to be inspected and protected on a regular basis. “What some airlines are starting to discover is that water and moisture are getting trapped underneath the cloth cover or plastic wrap that are covering their engines in storage,” says Av-DEC’s Jacobson. “This moisture can start to lead to corrosion on engine lip skins, which can result in expensive and time consuming repairs.” According to Jacobson, there are a few commercially options available for sealing engine lip skins, such as Av-DEC’s SF2470 sealant that provides effective moisture barrier while being easy to remove prior to return-to-service.

Lessons Learned

The impact of parking aircraft quickly during COVID-19 has provided aircraft owners and operators with valuable lessons about the importance of preventative maintenance. A case in point: “The pandemic’s effects on commercial aviation have underscored the vulnerability of turbine oil to water contamination, and the resulting degradation of the lubricant,” says ExxonMobil’s Barnes. “We recommend airlines continue their focus on maintaining the integrity of their turbine oil.”

Other lessons may take a while to make themselves apparent. For instance, “many of the airlines are currently spraying disinfection spray into their cabins between flights, and the potential corrosive effects if any might be seen in few years,” says Av-DEC’s Jacobson. “Also, many of the aircraft that are currently parked due to Covid-19 and the 737MAX grounding will need to be re-inspected before they get put back into service. As these inspections occur new corrosion issues might be discovered on the aircraft.”

The bottom line? “As extended parking or storage has become the norm for airlines during COVID-19, we anticipate that those operators that have implemented a robust maintenance and corrosion protection regime will realize the benefits of lower costs and shorter lead-times to return fleets to flight,” says ROCOL’s Parnell. “Overall, we would like to think that operators will realize the value in using high quality corrosion protection products combined with a robust maintenance regime at all times.”

TECTONIC SHIFT IN FLEET PLANNING & MAINTENANCE

As airlines shrink, there is a silver lining – a vast disposal of older-generation jets, a fleet planning shift and the acceleration of the digital transformation.

“The industry is moving towards more efficient fleets that have larger average seating capacity and lower maintenance costs especially over the short-to-medium hauls,” says Paramaguru ‘Guru’ Prakash speaking for himself, not as Information Technology manager for Boeing Distribution Services. “This will slow MRO spend since the expensive, late-life maintenance declines and intervals between scheduled maintenance lengthen with newer jets.”

Stacey Morrisey, Vice President Engineering & Quality Technical Operations, American Airlines
Stacey Morrisey, Vice President Engineering & Quality Technical Operations, American Airlines

Still, a parked fleet requires maintenance, and, according to American Airlines Vice President Engineering & Quality Technical Operations Stacey Morrisey American Airlines’ 400 parked aircraft required 100,000 man-hours.

Return to Service (RTS) requires a lot of maintenance, Aviation Consultant Bob Mann says. This work now includes MAX 8 RTS given FAA’s re-certification in mid-November.

“RTS is an intensive task,” Mann explains. “It requires a separate set of AMM-specified ground and flight tasks designed to validate system integrity and performance, then an engineering/maintenance flight test back into service. The huge scale of the entire industry’s RTS will probably throw on-condition event codes of types and at scales that have never previously been seen and will test how maintenance and OEM organizations parse and efficiently utilize this data, while maintaining and supporting operational integrity.”

Mann noted different airlines have different solutions.

Single-fleet airlines, like Southwest, reap the benefits of lowest cost and greatest commonality. But, operating a single aircraft can restrict access to markets. It may not be the future for the airline. Southwest image.
Single-fleet airlines, like Southwest, reap the benefits of lowest cost and greatest commonality. But, operating a single aircraft can restrict access to markets. It may not be the future for the airline. Southwest image.

“Southwest, is cycling through its entire fleet to keep them active,” Mann says. “And, for all but long-term ‘pickling’ of fleets, this generally requires periodic engine starts, hydraulic system pressurization, control movement, rolling the aircraft forward several wheel rotations, all to keep seals from deteriorating and wheels and bearings ‘taking a set’ from lack of exercise. Southwest appears to be idling very few aircraft long-term, but to cycle the fleet through a two-to-three-day week, meaning most are idle less than the number of days required to force storage tasks. This approach will pay off when ramping up.”

Delta TechOps, a division of Delta Air Lines, is a full-service aviation MRO provider. The knowledge gained working on other's aircraft and engines brings multiple benefits to the airline, experts say. Delta TechOps image.
Delta TechOps, a division of Delta Air Lines, is a full-service aviation MRO provider. The knowledge gained working on other’s aircraft and engines brings multiple benefits to the airline, experts say. Delta TechOps image.

Changing Strategies

Hitting that reset button not only reduces fleet complexity but changes acquisition strategies from growth to replacement.

“Airlines are optimizing specific fleet types for certain routes,” Teal Group vice president Analysis Richard Aboulafia says. “They are also leveraging their perceived negotiating power in buying planes back and forth between OEMs. For those carriers offering MRO services, like Delta TechOps, it is to gain competence in work provided to other customers. They also may have disparate fleets especially if deals were harder to get out of after mergers.

“It will be interesting to see if the A321neo will allow others to follow a single fleet type given its international range with a family of aircraft,” he continues. “The pandemic is unlikely to change anything because the 737 MAX grounding was more disruptive, having led to doubts of other non-MAX 8 variants. It also created the risk Boeing will offer a new single-aisle type, even a complementary one, in the not-to-distant future, accelerating Southwest’s decision on a second fleet type.”

Yes, fleet simplification streamlines the operation but, “the simplicity of a single fleet type, such as the famous efficiency of Southwest’s Boeing 737 fleet, restricts it from serving markets. It doesn’t allow single-fleet airlines to check every box but the boxes they do check are at lowest cost and greatest commonality, which pays forward to airlines, employees, customers, investors.”

Changing fleet decisions may bring Southwest’s single fleet to an end, according to Aboulafia. In 2019, MAX groundings prompted new Southwest fleet evaluations of the Airbus A220 and the Boeing MAX 7.

“This is a day of reckoning for Southwest,” says Aboulafia. “The MAX is the last 737 family. At some point, when they need new planes for capacity expansion or for fleet modernization, they will need to move on from the 737 to whatever the next generation brings because the MAX 7 might not be their best option for smaller routes. Its larger engines may mean it is not as appealing as previous shrink models. If they conclude that this is the case, and that they still want something in the 100/130-seat class, the A220 would be logical.”

Southwest appears to be idling very few aircraft long-term, instead cycling the fleet through a two-to-three-day week. This approach will pay off when ramping up, some experts say. Soutwest image.
Southwest appears to be idling very few aircraft long-term, instead cycling the fleet through a two-to-three-day week. This approach will pay off when ramping up, some experts say. Soutwest image.

Even so, Southwest has always taken advantage of deals it can make with Boeing on white tails, coloring its fleet decisions in the past.

Immediate Benefits

“This streamlining of the fleet provides a number of benefits to the airline, particularly by removing complexity from the operation,” Morrisey told Aviation Maintenance. “From Technical Operations to Flight and Flight Service, Airports and every team in between, reducing the number of fleets has the benefit of making what we do simpler and more effective.”

Morrisey sees multiple fleet types as a competitive advantage allowing service to different size cities difficult to serve with only a single type.

“This greatly improves the scale of the network and, since we aim to attract more schedule-sensitive passengers, our fleet mix allows us to build more schedule options,” she says. “While it introduces an additional element of complexity, the tradeoff is being able to better serve our customers.”

American's VP Morrisey says multiple fleet types are a competitive advantage allowing service to different size cities and more schedule options. American image.
American’s VP Morrisey says multiple fleet types are a competitive advantage allowing service to different size cities and more schedule options. American image.

American is now down to two mainline flight deck types. “This benefits our operational performance through training efficiency and streamlined maintenance,” she says. “Overall, we try to make things as similar as possible within a specific fleet type including Boeing 737s and Airbus A321s, which gives us the same consistent cabin layout on each fleet, making the aircraft more interchangeable throughout the network and operating day.”

Universal Synaptics CEO Kenneth Anderson III agrees.

“A one size fits all business strategy does not exist,” he says. “Aircraft such as the B737-900 or A220 provide better customer experience. Replacing outdated fleets positively impacts reliability and fuel economy. It is in the best interests of airlines to minimize fleet types to reduce the complexity of managing varying maintenance requirements specifically during a time where a reduction in force has led to those with the most experience taking on different roles or retiring. Fleet trends prior to Covid-19 maximized load factors while reducing fuel and maintenance cost, without compromising customer requirements. Post Covid-19, fleet trends have started to take shape but with applicable factors weighted much differently.”

Shifting Life Cycle

“Covid prompted a shift in maintenance fleet life-cycle view,” Mann says. “The normal view is to manage fleets for greatest returns on lowest investment over their economic lifetime which is normally 20-plus years, consuming green time and staging checks to optimize fleet operational and maintenance line utilization. Suddenly, the view is a quick acid test of fleet viability vs. complexity costs and cash burn during a multi-year demand desert. As a result, some middle-aged fleets are facing early demise, if utilization will be impaired for years to come. This requires a re-set of fleet plan and route assignment as the network recovers. Furthermore, this lessens the viability of acquiring or retaining an aircraft type and configuration unique to route.”

In the current pandemic, companies are pulling many levers to shave costs, according to Prakash. “Beyond standardizing the fleet by optimizing aircraft design that can improve efficiencies, maintenance is leveraging technology with robots performing digital crack inspections on engine parts using advanced sensors rather than humans. Similarly, maintenance is using drones for aircraft inspections that helps reduce the time from up to six hours to between one and two hours. Finally, on-demand 3-D printing has replaced lengthy orders for replacement polymer parts such as screen surrounds and tray latches.”

All this was part of a process predating Covid. In the summer of 2019, American operated nine fleets. As it heads into 2021, the number of mainline fleet types is now four.

American says it is completing a multi-year migration of all of their aircraft into one operating system. American image.
American says it is completing a multi-year migration of all of their aircraft into one operating system. American image.

“This past year we integrated all of our parts into a single system and are now completing a multi-year migration of all of our aircraft into one operating system,” says Morrisey, one of the few women operational VPs in the industry. “Innovation doesn’t stop because of this pandemic. Less fleet complexity means we can focus our efforts on improving our processes that underpin our maintenance machine. With fewer aircraft types, we don’t need to store as many spare parts for younger fleet types.”

Republic now operates a single Embraer fleet which saves money on inventory costs from its pre-bankruptcy multi-certificate, multi-fleet type operation, according to their VP Maintenance Tom Duffy. Republic image.
Republic now operates a single Embraer fleet which saves money on inventory costs from its pre-bankruptcy multi-certificate, multi-fleet type operation, according to their VP Maintenance Tom Duffy. Republic image.

Training also benefits. “One of the great things that we have seen is the evolution of distance learning for our frontline AMTs,” she reported. “It’s been a great option in addition to some in-person training, to more easily accommodate our team members specifically in cities currently under Covid-19 travel restrictions, allowing them to stay current on their fleet qualification requirements no matter where they are. The new distance learning helps us quickly deliver training in new stations to accommodate network changes that fly different fleet types to various cities where a particular fleet did not operate previously.”

Republic Airways Vice President of Maintenance, Tom Duffy
Republic Airways Vice President of Maintenance,
Tom Duffy

Regional Dancers

Regional airlines must perform a “pretty sophisticated dance” when it comes to maintenance, according to Tom Duffy, Republic Airways vice president of Maintenance.

“We only get paid when we fly, so we have to work with our partners who want the minimum amount of heavy maintenance when an aircraft is out of service,” he explained, noting the airline flies for all three major carriers. “They need to be able to schedule the aircraft efficiently throughout the year, so it is always a shuffle to ensure aircraft availability.”

The airline now operates a single Embraer fleet which saves money on inventory costs from its pre-bankruptcy multi-certificate, multi-fleet type operation. It is now down to two heavy maintenance operators and has a lower mechanic training footprint.

Republic owns the vast majority of the 215 aircraft is has under contract today. The regional is responsible for maintenance and reimbursement is baked into its capacity purchase agreement contracts.

Digital Transformation

wPerhaps the biggest benefit to retiring older aircraft is the promise of health monitoring systems on newer aircraft. While normally not good for MROs, it does reveal a path to the future.

“Right now, the hype is bigger than the reality,” says Richard Brown, Naveo Consultancy managing director. “The majority of MRO spend is generated by mature, mid-life aircraft between five and 17 years. MROs are mostly dealing with metal fuselages, pneumatics, hydraulics and electronics but increasingly they will be dealing with composites and advanced avionics and electrical systems which offer far greater prognostic and diagnostic capabilities compared to the mid-life-to-mature aircraft. Those aircraft do not have the sophisticated health monitoring systems of the Dreamliner, the A220 or A350. While a lot of people are excited about the wealth of data available from aircraft, this highly digital fleet is relatively small but growing.”

Duffy’s experience with digital aircraft extends back to 1988 and the Airbus 320. Indeed, when he arrived at Republic, he lobbied for the Embraer EJet because of the digital tools it offered.

“Changes coming from data analysis is not officially endorsed by international regulators on transport category aircraft yet,” he told Aviation Maintenance, noting Republic is part of the ICAO task force working on acceptance. “Airlines and OEMs have been pushing but regulators are still concerned. Still Republic has enough experience with it to know it is the right thing to do. We are already using downloaded data and tools to diagnose and identify faults. We can also receive information during the flight via ACARs. So, combined with our historical knowledge of the aircraft and systems, we can determine how we need to respond.”

Brown pointed to the popularity of the engine and OEM health monitoring solutions and Airbus’s Skywise system, a digital platform designed to increase dispatch reliability and customer satisfaction. Other OEMs and MROs have developed or are developing their own monitoring capabilities including Lufthansa Technik’s Aviatar and Air France KLM E&M’s Prognos.

“These systems are meant to achieve the holy grail of aviation maintenance – taking an unscheduled event and turning it into a scheduled event,” says Brown. “So, if an airline knows an APU is going to fail, they can replace it before it fails. Now, it is fly to fail and then deal with the unplanned disruption. If you can use predictive analytics to look at how the component or engine or system is performing you can predict failure and save the industry billions of dollars in the cost and compensation associated with disrupting passenger flights. The implications on the supply chain is huge because OEMs and parts suppliers make money on spares.”

Two other advances also promise to streamline maintenance.

“OEMs and engine makers are looking at how parts perform in real time and in real life,” Brown explained. “They are looking at whether the performance in a harsh environment like the Middle East means different wear compared to a milder one like, say, Iceland. If they can discern the differences these environments have on aircraft and engines, they can customize maintenance programs to the operator for more cost-effective maintenance. We must re-evaluate the way we think of MRO to the way the operation and aircraft is performing which not only benefits airlines but encourages good behavior.”

Prakash agrees. “Advances like Cloud computing and Internet of Things (IOT) gathers engine health monitoring data quickly and efficiently,” says Prakash. “With the use of smart data analysis, predictive tools and engineering expertise to add additional insight, engine OEMs are helping airlines reduce fuel usage, optimize routes, ensuring the right equipment is in place to service engines more quickly and to maintain the highest levels of availability. Using these advanced tools OEMs can maximize the operational life of engines and help operators become more predictive and less reactive in terms of repairing and replacing their aircraft engines.”

Brown noted real-time monitoring is becoming standard offering the potential for more on-wing, on-aircraft maintenance all designed to keep the aircraft flying, reduce disruption and reduce the amount of time the aircraft is out of service.

Removing complexity from their operation has helped American by making their maintenance operations more efficient and effective. American image.
Removing complexity from their operation has helped American by making their maintenance operations more efficient and effective. American image.

That is exactly what another tool offers. A development from Netherlands Aerospace Laboratory (NLR) uses artificial intelligence operators can schedule a bundle of small maintenance tasks between flights.

“FlexPlan only uses readily available information, namely the Maintenance Planning Document, aircraft maintenance status, aircraft configuration, flight schedule, and a list of maintenance facilities,” wrote NLR Principal Arjan de Jong in an August 2019 post. “FlexPlan is a tool that automatically creates maintenance programs comprising of small packages and a tool that plans these packages optimally between scheduled flights. The result is a comprehensive maintenance program that schedules maintenance around your flight schedule and is sufficiently robust to facilitate last-minute changes if your flight schedule is disrupted. And, since FlexPlan adheres to the task intervals specified by the original equipment manufacturer, you do not face regulatory issues.”

The question is how MROs will be integrated into this brave new world. Brown indicated MROs, need to think about how they plan and deliver maintenance.

“This transformation takes a mindset and skills change,” he says, “because you also must believe what the data is saying is correct. You must trust that removing a part before failure is the right thing to do but as we build expertise this will become easier. But the industry must do a better job of explaining the savings they have achieved on health monitoring. Skeptics need to be reassured it’s all worthwhile. So far, OEMs, MROs and airlines are reluctant to talk about the benefits – to allow airlines to compare the different solutions. The industry also needs to do a better job of promoting the advantages of this technology on the bottom line and in passenger satisfaction.”

Duffy wants to take subjectivity out of maintenance. “So much of maintenance is subjective, making it difficult to identify what is really going on,” he explains. “The question is whether the deterioration that happens during normal operations is affecting how a component is performing.”

He pointed to the four Embraer air data smart probes, saying aircraft mechanics need a less subjective way of determining performance.

“We compared the photos of probes to the data retrieved from the aircraft and can prove that subjective human evaluation can’t be directly related to system performance determined with aircraft recorded data. We are pushing Collins Aerospace to move us to a science-based, performance monitoring system to eliminate this subjectivity. That is a fundamental change we want to get to.”

He also dreams of an aircraft coming into the gate and the captain reporting a problem. “I see a maintenance tech opening a panel and taking a photo with a smartphone,” he says. “Because of Google recognition, we identify the part, it asks whether we want to replace it. If yes, the smartphone works with sourcing the part and, when it’s delivered, the instructions for replacing it is delivered on the smart phone. The entire transaction is logged into the maintenance system digitally and are aircraft records are automatically updated. I know all this exists now so it will happen.”

That would be a brave new world.

Q&A WITH AERO NORWAY CEO GLENFORD MARSTON

Aero Norway has built its reputation as an exclusive CFM56 engine provider, priding themselves on high standards, EGT margins, Competitive turnaround times and long-term client partnerships. The company also says they try to “harness the special characteristics of strength, focus and independence that embody the Norwegian way of life.” We spoke to CEO Glenford Marston to see how this specialist shop is doing amidst the pandemic and what advice he may have to offer others trying to survive this unusual time.

In one year we have seen a dramatic change in the aviation industry. How has this change impacted Aero Norway?

MARSTON:

We have, of course, seen a significant impact upon Aero Norway as a result of the pandemic and have adapted our working practices to support our customers as well as protecting our team. Although we have been busy and have been fortunate that we have kept our skilled workforce intact, we will certainly not be reaching 2019 revenue levels due to the reduced number of shop visits. We have seen more CFM56-3s coming to the shop for induction and are carrying out repairs on CFM56-5Bs and CFM56-7Bs, but fewer engines are coming in for major overhaul.

Aero Norway’s has always been on supporting our customers and as part of this we are undertaking short and hospital workscopes on engines as a bespoke service. More and more engine MROs are gearing up for these short workscopes as demand increases, and even though not our core business model, we are offering these services for existing customers. Another shift we have observed is that customers are sending us engines which we would ordinarily work on in-the-field because of restrictions in flying and quarantines in place. However, we are still carrying out field work for target customers or existing customers requiring additional support.

Aero Norway is seeing more CFM56-3s and are carrying out repairs on CFM56-5Bs and CFM56-7Bs. However, Marston says fewer engines are coming in for major overhaul.
Aero Norway is seeing more CFM56-3s and are carrying out repairs on CFM56-5Bs and CFM56-7Bs. However, Marston says fewer engines are coming in for major overhaul.

What is your view of the outlook for airlines/aviation vis-à-vis the pandemic?

MARSTON:

With fewer people flying, and many aircraft grounded we can expect to see significant reductions in fleet sizes as operators are forced to restructure. I also anticipate increased numbers of Classic freighter engines in the shop as the demand for air cargo continues to rise. This restructuring will affect all MROs as there will be more engines available for teardown or part out. It may also help customers and Aero Norway as we will be able to acquire materials which were difficult to source in 2019. There is potential for 2021 to be to be a good year for that at least.

Has your backlog been impacted?

MARSTON:

Many shop visits which were planned for our customers did not materialise. We had initially forecasted that we would induct 102 engines this year however we reassessed our predictions early on and changed our goal to 87 engines this year. The impact of this has been a visible shift in workscope ratios from heavy engine core performance to hospital visits. We had initially predicted 65-70 percent heavy engine full core performance workscopes for this year but this is becoming a 50/50 split between heavy to light engine workscopes in Qs 3 and 4 of 2020.

What is Aero Norway doing to weather the crisis?

MARSTON:

We are in preparation mode for better times. We had committed to necessary investment in modifications and upgrades and have used this quieter period to carry these out. At Aero Norway we are constantly reassessing, re-evaluating and looking for ways to improve our processes in pursuit of reduced turn-around times. In 2019 we invested in a state-of-the-art high-speed grinder, which was followed by an upgrade to our plasma spraying machine and most recently to our static balancing machine. We are also carrying out numerous small projects around the shop to benefit our customers and this time has given us the opportunity to complete these.

In terms of our team, our skilled workers have modified working patterns to accommodate social distancing measures, and we have followed all the guidelines set by the Norwegian Government with regard to restrictions to visitors in to the shop, and business travel. Our mechanics, engineers and technicians are currently only working four days a week, and some have been redistributed within the facility where there is demand and they have the relevant skills. We are proud to have kept our team intact during this challenging time and have all taken a 20 percent reduction in pay to accommodate the change in workload.

Do you envision more focus on the CFM56-5BS and -7B engines for the future or are you adding new models to your offerings?

MARSTON:

As a CFM56 specialist repair station our intention has been to add the LEAP capability to our offering and we have recently finished all necessary assessments. We have accessed the manuals for the 1a and 1b and have evaluated the levels of workscopes required for the introduction into our shop. In light of the current situation, however, we have decided to put this on hold until Q4 2021 and will not make any more investments until that time.

Our focus has always been to get more 5B and CFM56-7Bs into the shop, and in 2019 63 percent of our inductions were CFM56-5Bs and CFM56-7Bs, with 37 percent CFM56-3s. Our forecast for 2020 was 72 percent CFM56-5BS and CFM56-7Bs, and 28 percent CFM56-3s and we had paved the way to encourage those customers into the shop, however the actual split in inductions between CFM56-5BS/CFM56-7Bs and CFM56-3s has been 52 percent to 48 percent. Although this is not the worst-case scenario by any means, it is certainly not what we had envisaged and planned for. We would of course like to focus more on the CFM56-5Bs and CFM56-7Bs, however supporting our customers remains a priority and we have already agreed to support their CFM56-3 requirements until 2026.

CEO Marston says the company is using this quieter period to carry out modifications and upgrades in preparation for better times.
CEO Marston says the company is using this quieter period to carry out modifications and upgrades in preparation for better times.

How are you helping your clients deal with the challenges brought about by the pandemic?

MARSTON:

One of the biggest issues for our customers at present is cash flow and we are working closely with them to understand their immediate needs. Many are requesting customised workscopes designed to reduce costs or lengthened payment terms that will allow them to carry out necessary works. Our survival is linked to their survival. We have many smaller customers and for them particularly the option of being able to have flexible payment plans is important for their business, and they really appreciate that.

We spoke with Rune Veenstra, chief business officer for Aero Norway, a year ago. He mentioned at that time, the supply chain was struggling to keep up with demand for shop visits. Has that changed now? Is the supply chain better? Has anything been done to improve it? Or is the slower pace of operations the only change?

MARSTON:

There are still some supply chain issues. Although there are many aircraft parked, people are not interested in purchasing material as they are waiting to see how the market will unfurl. There are some parts which are currently more readily available, for example new parts, however most of our customers prefer to have used parts which offer them some cost savings. The only real benefit seen by our logistics team has been more leverage when closing a deal.

When our parts are sent for repair, we maintain an open dialogue with the OEMs and third party workshops as many of them are working at a reduced level with some only operating two days a week. This does affect TATs in terms of the time taken for parts to be returned to us, however we are endeavoring to work closely with the repair teams to ensure that our end customers are not affected.

Aero Norway is known for being flexible and customizing for their clients. Give us some examples of how Aero Norway customizes offerings for their clients.

MARSTON:

Early on in the pandemic we invested in five CFM56-3 engines to support our customers which were introduced to our refurbish and sell programme. Although the CFM56-3 is a legacy product for Aero Norway, we have the skilled technicians to extract the best EGT margins and consequently generate greater efficiencies and economies for our freighter customers. Within our facility we have converted major module build space into four additional repair bays to satisfy the volume of lighter workscopes currently coming into the shop as well as investing in the training, fixtures and tooling to support it.

Currently we are seeing customers sending in three engines, for example, with a view to getting two back to revenue service. One engine would therefore be a donor engine to repair the other two reducing our customers’ costs, as well as giving us the opportunity to also harvest some good materials for ourselves. We have previously done this with CFM56-3s, and continue to do so, but this has now also been extended to CFM56-5BS and CFM56-7Bs. With so many aircraft grounded this is certainly a growing trend and we are carrying out these workscopes for owners, lessors and operators alike.

With every challenge comes opportunity. Where are you seeing opportunity amidst the pandemic? Have there been any bright spots in the crisis?

MARSTON:

We are continually looking for opportunity, and one of the main opportunities for us would, of course, be sourcing good material/parts. At Aero Norway we have an engine programme where we buy assets, rebuild them and recycle them back to the market. We would like to focus more on CFM56-5BS and CFM56-7Bs and are waiting for the price to be right. However we are still not in a position to be able to gauge the price escalation for this year from CFM, to find out how they will support us and whether they will be looking to clear their backlog of material. We have never lost our focus on the -3 and we still have a significant number of -3 customers who we will continue to support. But we did not expect so many CFM56-3s to be entering the shop for large workscopes such as full core performance and LLP replacement. This year CFM56-3s will account for around 50 percent of the engines which will pass through the shop.

Are there any other challenges in the engine MRO marketplace right now (in addition to the pandemic)?

MARSTON:

Every MRO is facing challenges right now as replacement parts are the drivers of cost. We can control the cost of the workscope management, but especially now, all customers are looking for added value. Management of material is the main challenge: how it is moved around, and what support we can get from suppliers and the OEM.

Do you predict there will be pent up demand for engine services when the pandemic ends?

MARSTON:

Engines will always need shop visits, and this cannot be avoided. There will certainly be a pent-up demand, however this will very much depend on the resurgence of air travel. Engine service requirements are driven by usage and currently we are seeing more of the classic freighter engines as air cargo booms. However, we are still actively bidding to secure 5B and 7B engine inductions for the future.

The old saying goes “Hindsight is 20/20.” Knowing what we know now, what would you have changed or done differently two years ago to prepare for the current situation?

MARSTON:

With the benefit of hindsight, I would of course have made some strategic buys and reduced the inventory of materials for engines that will not be entering the shop. For example, purchases we made to support CFM56-5BS and CFM56-7Bs would not have been made, and we would have had more CFM56-3 engines ready to go. This pandemic may create a marketing place where material purchased for use in 2020, will diminish in value; we could then have waited until 2021 to buy the same material at a reduced cost.

How should aviation MRO businesses be preparing for the future?

MARSTON:

Due to the uncertainty surrounding the timescale for recovery, which could be up to four years we need to be more cash conscious going forward. I think the upturn will take some time and I do not expect to get back to 2019 levels in the near term.

ATR = FAST & FLEXIBLE

ATR is working hard to ensure its customers stay flying through COVID-19 and into the future with an interesting series of initiatives

Laurent Caballe, VP Products and Services, says around 60 percent of the ATR 42/72 fleet has remained flying during the pandemic. This is partly a reflection of a customer base that includes many airlines in remote areas and islands, where aircraft are absolutely vital in a crisis like this one, delivering key equipment and personnel where and when needed. It is also a reflection of the feeder role that ATR operations play for some airlines. With long haul services being slashed, there are fewer transfer passengers, so the smaller ATR can replace an Airbus A320/Boeing 737 sized aircraft to maintain important routes into major hubs while reducing operating costs for the airline.

Where airlines have grounded aircraft, the company has been providing engineering advice through Operators Information Messages (OIM), for example, how to avoid corrosion in the propellers during storage. He notes that operators are mainly choosing to park their aircraft. Airworthiness authorities require that they have to fly at the end of three months or they will be put into storage, a more complicated expensive option that also requires more time to get them back into service. The simplest way of avoiding this is by rotating aircraft in and out of the operational fleet.

As many ATR operators also tend to be smaller airlines, the company developed its General Maintenance Agreement (GMA). This has been running for 20 years and has grown to cover over 70 percent of the worldwide fleet (under Power By the Hour terms), with more than 390 aircraft with more than 60 customers. It has also attracted larger airlines as well.

The GMA can be customised to suit the individual needs of airlines, depending on where they are in the world and their specific operating conditions, but the essence of GMA is repair, overhaul, pooling services of Line Replaceable Units (LRUs) and transportation of LRUs to the airline’s facilities. For the first, ATR has a network of repair shops and by consolidating the work from several sources, can negotiate better prices. A faulty part is returned and replacement issued from one of three spares centres – Paris, Singapore and Miami. After repair, it is returned to the pool. The spares centres carry around $350 million in stock and 95% of orders are normally fulfilled in less than two days. Each operator has its own leased pool stock at its main operating base, the components held being based on actual consumption trends to avoid holding seldom used items, but it has access to the main pool as well. ATR says aircraft covered by GMA fly an average of 300 more flight hours per year compared to non-GMA aircraft, which amounts to $1 million of extra revenue over 10 years.

With smaller passenger loads due to the pandemic, the ATR can replace an Airbus A320/Boeing 737 sized aircraft to maintain important routes into major hubs while reducing operating costs for the airline. ATR Image.
With smaller passenger loads due to the pandemic, the ATR can replace an Airbus A320/Boeing 737 sized aircraft to
maintain important routes into major hubs while reducing operating costs for the airline. ATR Image.

Payment is based on monthly flight hours, with a defined minimum level. Given that many operators are currently running a reduced schedule, Caballe says ATR has adjusted payments, as far as possible, in line with actual hours flown to help with reducing costs. Similarly, the monthly rate for stock access has been reduced as well. However, it has also reached out to non-GMA operators by allowing them temporary access to both the repair network (on a time and materials basis) and highly discounted standard exchange spares, helping their cash flow as well.

A further incentive is ‘Spares Day’, when components are offered with attractive price reductions. The first was held recently with a mix of parts including high consumption items. This is another way of ATR being able to assist customers in difficult times.

As GMA provides ATR with a detailed overview of trends in spares consumption and repairs, it has a team dedicated to engineering analysis. This can reveal an issue relating to a particular airline as it stands out from the rest of the worldwide fleet. Solutions can include upgrades, troubleshooting advice, training or specific maintenance procedures.

In recent years, leasing companies have become significant purchasers of ATR aircraft and the company is now offering complementary CAMO services as part of GMA. Leasing companies also want quick transitions between clients and this work often includes modifications. In addition, there is a constant improvement programme as requirements change.

Sixty percent of the ATR 42/72 fleet has remained flying during the pandemic. This is partly a reflection of a customer base that includes many airlines, like cebu pacific air, shown here, that operates in remote areas and islands where these aircraft are absolutely vital. ATR image.
Sixty percent of the ATR 42/72 fleet has remained flying during the pandemic. This is partly a reflection of a customer base that includes many airlines, like cebu pacific air, shown here, that operates in remote areas and islands where these aircraft are absolutely vital.
ATR image.

Caballe says airframers cannot be too dogmatic about what happens to the aircraft. As this is not their core business, the response time can be long and it may also be expensive. Instead, ATR is taking a pragmatic approach, appreciating that there is considerable expertise elsewhere in the industry that can be harnessed.

Last year, the ATR's A-check intervals were extended from 500 hours to 750 hours and the company says it expects to have C-check intervals increase from 5,000 to 8,000 hours. ATR Image
Last year, the ATR’s A-check intervals were extended from 500 hours to 750 hours and the company says it expects to have C-check intervals increase from 5,000 to 8,000 hours. ATR Image

In October, it released two new editions of its Upgrades Catalogues. They offer 120 solutions, such as cabin reconfigurations, inflight entertainment systems, avionics upgrades and passenger to freighter conversions. These can be carried out by ATR Service Bulletin or external Supplemental Type Certificates (STC) and minor modifications. In the last two years, ATR has developed a network of external Design Organisation Approval (DOA) partners: Aero Engineering Services, Akka Technologies, ECM Skyservices, Eirtech Aviation Services, PMV Engineering and Recaero.

A good example of this cooperation came earlier this year when there was an urgent need for light cargo solutions in response to the pandemic. In less than a month, ATR, Akka, PMV and Recaero came up with proposals for quick/temporary cargo conversions that allowed four additional tonnes of payload to be carried for the ATR 42 and 7 tonnes for the ATR 72.

The first solution was simply putting cargo on the seats or inside seat bags, restrained with straps that are either attached to the seats or fixed to the seat tracks. The second, called ‘floor-to-floor nets configuration’ saw removal of the seats and cargo placed on the floor and secured with nets attached to the seat tracks.

Caballe notes that the company has continued to gain GMA contracts during the crisis. One of the most important in recent times, signed in May, was with Finnair. Nordic Regional Airlines (NoRRA) operates a fleet of 12 ATR 72-500s on behalf of Finnair, feeding traffic to the major carrier’s Helsinki hub. On an historical note, Finnair may be a late comer to GMA but it took delivery of its first ATR in 1986, MSN 006.

The significance of this deal, he explains, is that it is for 10 years, which is longer than most, and that it goes much further than usual, tying the OEM closer to the airline. For example, ATR is committed to aircraft reliability and availability improvement, while its engineering department and those at Finnair and NoRRA will be collaborating. The latter will include the monitoring and analysis of in service events with the aim of improving troubleshooting capabilities and developing new maintenance procedures. He adds that careful analysis may lead to items being removed before they fail but this is not really predictive maintenance like the Airbus Skywise program, as the aircraft does not generate enough data.

That careful analysis has also been used to benefit the entire ATR community. Last year, A-check intervals were extended from 500 hours to 750 hours and the next step, expected in 1Q 2021, will see C-check intervals increase from 5,000 to 8,000 hours.

Finally, he says that all these efforts will ensure that airlines operating ATR aircraft will be well placed in a post-Covid future, where regional aviation will have a key role to play in terms of connecting people and economies, stimulating economic recovery and growth.