Aviation Director Andre Fodor relays his experiences of the roadblocks to implementing Service Bulletins and Airworthiness Directives in the cockpit, with a nod to the NextGen upgrades many airplane operators face in the coming years. What should you expect and plan around?
Cruising at FL450 over Central Africa, I’m amazed at the way technology has changed from twenty years ago when I was a newly-minted commercial pilot stationed there, flying relief missions for the UN. Back then, GPS was considered new technology and we had just obtained portable units that mounted in the windshield and provided navigation accuracy that had, until then, been unimaginable.
Fast-forward into today and as I sit comfortably as the triple IRS and GPS Flight Management System accurately navigates our path. Our FANS 1/A equipped aircraft, using CPDLC transmits our position to ATC, while TCAS and ADS-B provide superb situational awareness.
It’s still a long 11 hours of flying, but the routine is broken up by the occasional text message from family as they wake up at home and are reading the aircraft’s position report on their iPads, or a satellite call from our Director of Maintenance who has been reviewing the automated aircraft maintenance downloads received back in the office.
It’s extraordinary how connected we have become in the cockpit. Yet, such connectivity did not come easily, and making sure that all of the avionics would interface seamlessly was a challenge in itself.
Mandatory Upgrades: Facing the Roadblocks
When we began upgrading the cockpit, our focus was to comply with upcoming airspace requirements in the regions we fly to. For example, operations without ADS-B Out capabilities in Asia will be faced with re-routes, lower assigned altitudes, delays and even denial of access. And CPDLC is needed by those desiring the best routings while flying over the Atlantic.
As we acquired the new technologies for the aircraft, I learned that interfacing equipment causes roadblocks that require cooperation between different suppliers to overcome data handshaking challenges.
Thus, getting your aircraft compliant with new technologies for NextGen, for example, wll take careful consideration and pre-planning. This is not a short-term project!
Cost aside, the roadblocks you will encounter range from technology fitting your aircraft’s avionics suite; parts procurement; downtime and regulatory compliance. Many of these upgrades will require a new Letter of Authorization which in itself may require many months before issuance. Let me elaborate on some of my experiences…
Anticipating some Asia-based operations in one of our large jets, we decided to have ADS-B installed as soon as the relevant Service Bulletin (SB) was published. I called the service center to schedule the upgrade and was intrigued to learn that the first step was to have our serial number included in the SB, which required a fee and research of our aircraft’s systems and wiring by the OEM’s engineering personnel.
The timeline for this initial process alone took four months, owing to a backlog.
My goal had been to minimize downtime, thus I’d planned to apply the ADS-B SB during a scheduled maintenance inspection. Unfortunately, the avionics manufacturer and the aircraft OEM had not worked out an expeditious process for the equipment upgrade. It would take at least 25 days just to get our software upgraded and returned; a delay representing a grounded airplane with an additional 10% loss in its annual dispatch availability, which was unacceptable to us.
Since we were the first aircraft of this model applying this SB, we took the high-ground in trying to help refine the process and bring operational logic to the upgrade. We hoped that these improvements would benefit other operators – but the challenges still remain a reality today.
As someone who participates in various advisory boards, I have discussed the importance of beta testing new SBs to ensure that it will work in practice and that roadblocks are foreseen and avoided both for the OEM and the operator.
In addition, we carefully monitor the issuance of Airworthiness Directives (ADs) and I am committed to having a fully compliant aircraft, giving us the assurance that we are operating at the highest level of safety and keep our airplane’s residual value at its highest.
Experience has taught me not to expect that just because an AD has been published there is a process for its application.
For example, just recently, we discovered the issuance of a FADEC AD for a software upgrade in our engine platform. Our Director of Maintenance tried to arrange the logistics for compliance only to learn that there were no parts or tooling available. We would have to wait at least seven months before they would become available.
I’m not one to complain, but I want to prepare you for challenges as you forge ahead to upgrade your aircraft for NextGen compliance, or more generally.
As a community, we need to identify the road blocks and work out solutions that will reflect on future upgrades and processes. Engineers need our help to identify how solutions fit in the business of flying people.
As pilots and Flight Department Managers, our involvement is important and will benefit the industry for years to come. But we must take responsibility to improve efficiencies that will make maintenance predictable, streamline upgrades, and lower the overall costs.
If we’re successful, we’ll improve global fleet reliability, its longevity, and shore up our industry (users and suppliers) to overcome tough times in this ever more complex business that we call Business Aviation.