Aircraft Maintenance Planning
Complete Your Upgrades Successfully
To help operators understand and plan for new technologies and existing mandates, Ken Elliott explores activities that take place during NextGen avionics implementations.
Demand for ADS-B Out compliance by 2020 has created tremendous strain on the existing MRO infrastructure. In addition to supporting the ongoing maintenance requirements of their loyal customers and accommodating clients with aircraft in need of refurbishment, MROs are being requested to provide upgrades that enable access to increasingly sophisticated airspace in the US and Europe.
Overall pressure resulting from ongoing commitments coupled with calendar-based mandates has significant implications for MROs and their customers. Unfortunately, even the best planning cannot eliminate the potential for something going wrong. Just as accidents are commonly a result of multiple missteps, with rarely an outcome based on a single failure in the event chain, the risk exists that a series of misfortunes can jeopardize excellent long-standing relationships between Flight Departments and MROs.
As a rule, employees do not intend to do the wrong thing. With few exceptions, employees go to work each day with the goal of being productive and successful. They want to satisfy their customers as well as keep their jobs, and they desire to leave work with the feeling of accomplishment. So, when things go wrong employees often feel the same frustration as their customers.
The trigger for a bad day often is pressure resulting from tight scheduling and unplanned events creating a dramatic disturbance to the daily routine. Being creatures of habit, pilots and mechanics naturally gravitate to a predictable and repeatable process, always pacing their activity to ensure nothing is overlooked.
Add the exponential increase of a schedule squeezed between now and 2020, and you can expect issues to occur more frequently.
Both MROs and operators need to seek ways to mitigate the possibility of an out-of-control situation. MROs are likely to be short on skilled manpower, creating more daily tasks for each employee. And full hangars are inevitable. But there are management tools at everyone’s disposal.
Develop a Plan
While not easily accomplished, the very first and best thing an operator can do to position the MRO for success is to develop a realistic plan. For example, an operator can schedule their ADS-B Out upgrade months in advance.
Assuming you have already selected your facility, try to schedule the aircraft downtime to match the number of work days the MRO has requested in their proposal. Keep weekend days outside the downtime; you will be glad you did! Do not schedule a trip for at least two days after a shop visit, however painful that may sound.
Have you ever built a house? Remember how it took longer and cost more than you expected? The complexity of an aircraft modification may not be as great, but when you consider all the process steps needed to return the aircraft to an airworthy status, there are many places where a hiccup can occur.
Plan with the MRO what you need to provide. The best customers are those who keep good records, faithfully reflecting the current status of their aircraft.
Share your records openly with the MRO. Spend time with the MRO’s inspection department, making sure they ask specific questions about your aircraft’s status. You will be surprised by what you learn. Discovering certification anomalies the day before MRO departure is not a desirable outcome.
Read all the terms and conditions (T&C) of the proposal that you and the MRO have discussed. There are legal terms that apply to all MRO proposals, and there are the terms specific to your aircraft. While the former T&Cs are crucial for your protection, the latter T&Cs contain the framework of your work scope, providing the limits within which the contract will be conducted. Importantly, the aircraft-specific terms will point to areas where possible issue may arise.
Closely inspect the caveats embedded in the proposal’s language. Observe how there are ‘subject to’ clauses based on your information reflecting the aircraft’s current status. Expect more downtime and cost if the MRO’s engineering instructions pertain to an aircraft structural location that has been previously modified. That potential issue, however, can be minimized if you schedule well in advance and provide appropriate data ahead of your visit.
Communication should start long before your aircraft taxis to the MRO’s ramp. Developing a relationship with the Customer Service Representative and the relevant department leads is essential. A trust needs to be fostered so that communications can be easy and clear.
In aviation, many lead technicians and department heads struggle with telling customers the ‘not so good’ news. It is common for negative information to be couched in favorable terms, unintentionally becoming misinformation. When bad news is being communicated in a comfortable setting, however, sticking to the facts is easier. As the customer, make sure you understand the information and its implications to cost, downtime and any promised features.
Communication is always a two-way affair. Immediately notify the MRO when you learn that your schedule has changed.
There is a reason why the MRO calls, e-mails or messages you. An early response to an MRO outreach could prevent a failure down the road. In aviation, we know that time is crucial. The MRO may need your approval to order a long lead-time part or to engineer a change. Small delays can quickly magnify as each day passes.
Be clear and concise in communications – a quick confirmation to clarify intention is always a smart move.
While phones are efficient, the best communications are those conducted face–to-face. Potential issues often can be avoided if you or your maintenance chief can spend time at the MRO. Most major MROs have customer offices and provide operators unimpeded access to their aircraft. There is nothing better than a discussion right at the scene of activity.
If it is not possible to stay with the aircraft, plan to dialogue frequently and ask for progress pictures, showing specifics that may be difficult to express in writing.
The best customers are those who choose their battles and do not sweat the small stuff. The best MROs are those who listen to their customers, act as a team and, above all, provide some flexibility within the contract and throughout day-to-day activity. It is common for identical situations to play out in vastly different ways, based on how the customer and MRO respond. Almost always, a ‘meet in the middle’ approach succeeds.
Flight Departments and MROs often are under significant pressure for similar reasons. Stress occurs out of a need to meet the schedule, stay within budget and cause no harm to the aircraft. Both MRO and operator need each other, and both need to succeed.
Flexibility and staying focused on the issue in hand is crucial. Whenever possible, try to avoid the winner/loser scenario.
Rarely is it wise to point fingers and focus on who did what, why, how and when. Energy, time and resources are literally wasted when either the customer or the MRO move their attention from a resolution of issues to assigning blame.
As the ADS-B Out deadline draws closer, so the need for understanding and flexibility in schedule, downtime and even cost become ever more important to a job’s success.
Understanding is Essential
MROs come in all shapes, sizes and levels of capability. Some are engine focused and some airframe. Some are only conducting business in avionics, or cabin completions or paint. A few have equal focus in all those areas.
While you may have dealt with an MRO and had a great experience with its engine shop and airframe team, you might have had minimal exposure to the avionics modification team. First, do not confuse avionics modifications with avionics service. The avionics service side is, realistically, a subset of airframe.
Like airframe, they mostly undertake inspections and repairs and typically do not rely on the resources of complex engineering and certification personnel. Avionics service personnel are not likely to face the risks associated with first time integration. Their day-to-day work routine is more predictable.
Avionics mod shops, on the other hand, operate to a very different drumbeat.
They need prints and individually prepared instructions of work. Areas of the aircraft that are rarely accessed will need to be disassembled. A broad spectrum of skillsets, such as composite, sheet metal, paint, trim, detailing, wiring, testing (including flight), engineering and Organization Designated Approval (ODA) level certification, is usually employed.
For ADS-B Out, additional effort is required to complete pitot static, transponder and RVSM recertification, pressurization checks, stress analysis and both ground and flight testing.
The unique challenges and tasks of an aircraft modification require a significant level of understanding and appreciation for all the players involved. To estimate the personnel required for sophisticated avionics work, visualize the size of the team needed for your routine major inspections and then double it.
The mod team includes all the back-shop specialists, often the most difficult skillsets to hire. Clearly there is the need to plan, communicate and maintain a flexible approach when pursuing your ADS-B Out upgrade.
Choosing the MRO for an ADS-B Out upgrade requires deliberation and careful consideration to make the shop visit progress predictably. Planning and executing the plan can be very stressful, especially when dealing with the MRO for the first time.
Everything is about expectations, communicating intentions and maintaining flexibility with understanding when plans change. ADS-B Out 2020 applies to most of those who wish to operate in the US (January 1) and in Europe (June 7).
About two months ago, Duncan Aviation’s ‘live’ ADS-B counter showed 73% of business jets still to be completed, with 885 days to go. Even though shops have capacity now, there is reluctance by operators to schedule for many reasons - some with merit, some without.
The longer operators decide to wait, the more the need for MRO-Customer cooperation. An understanding between all parties is paramount and should be based on:
Knowledge is power, and preparation leads to success. Together, they will assure that Flight Departments achieve their objectives and MROs produce desired results, on time and within budget.