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A time comes in every aircraft’s service life for a little TLC. Whether paint and interior- flight-deck gear or powerplants- maintenance and upkeep become issues by the simple use of business aircraft as they are designed to be used.

Dave Higdon   |   1st August 2004
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Dave Higdon Dave Higdon

Dave Higdon writes about aviation from his base in Wichita Kansas. During three decades in...
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Maintenance management key to keeping your airplane out of AOG territory.

A time comes in every aircraft’s service life for a little TLC. Whether paint and interior- flight-deck gear or powerplants- maintenance and upkeep become issues by the simple use of business aircraft as they are designed to be used.

Sure- issues with the paint-and-upholstery stuff seldom result in an aircraft sitting out a mission due to safety-of-flight concerns. Avionics problems can often be deferred until an aircraft completes a mission thanks to the high degree of redundancy on most business jet flight decks. Engines- though- represent another matter altogether. Assuming the secure structural integrity of the airframe- little threatens the day-to-day use of a corporate aircraft more than an engine problem.

While today’s business jets all employ at least two powerplants- beginning any mission requires the good health and full function of both. No one launches on one. Even the existence of doubts about one powerplant typically at least delays a trip’s start – or- if already en route- causes diversion to a suitable field.

Keeping a modern turbofan engine ready to fly involves keeping up with a plethora of information and work: routine maintenance- mandatory inspection intervals- recommended overhaul times- on-condition maintenance intervals- airworthiness directives and factory service bulletins.

Relatively speaking- few business aircraft owners even understand the basics of piloting their business tool- let alone the intricacies of first-stage fans- linear compressors- combustion chambers- igniters and fuel nozzles- starter/generators- inverters and electronic fuel-control systems – systems integral to today’s modern jet powerplants.

So- how is the typical non-tech owner expected to navigate the labyrinth of needs where maintaining a healthy powerplant is concerned?

If the aircraft is factory-new- manufacturers’ warranties and support generally are a given- structured to keep the customer happy – and happy means a flight-ready airplane.

For everyone else- though- business jet ownership means selecting and working with maintainers for all of the aircraft- from the radome up front to the nozzles back on the engines.

Furthermore- as an engine matures- as they say- some of those issues become harder to reconcile as maintenance costs and engine value get upside down. At that point there is a premium to place on the expertise needed to even present the available options. So- the best of shops tend to know how to address those issues with the owner or operator so they can make the final judgement on the work needed.

It’s issue enough to boost the business of many an aircraft-management firm hired by owners to oversee the use and upkeep of the company jet or propjet. Regardless- the operator’s best weapon for combating expensive problems remains the knowledge and understanding of the issues in a way only the experts can explain.

Putting aside any expectation that the owner will know 'how the watch works-' understanding what these issues mean can ease the process and improve the operator’s confidence in the aircraft.

For some insights into these issues we tapped some of the expertise of Jace Stone and Tom Rosell at BizJet International- Lufthansa Technik’s highly capable aircraft-service company headquartered in Tulsa- Oklahoma.

Stone serves as vice president and oversees marketing and business development. Rosell handles regional marketing for the Pratt & Whitney Canada JT15D and GE CF34 engine-maintenance services BizJet offers.

The Questions for the times: Open the door to smart decisions
Operators and maintainers alike are working in a dynamic world- with technology advancing faster than aircraft are retired.

As the senior members of the business aircraft fleet continue to age- the focus on powerplant maintenance often becomes the assessment of the engine’s actual value versus the maintenance or overhaul costs. Therefore- it’s important for the operator to work with a service vendor who helps them understand the options available.

'Because a lot of our products are nearing the end of their life cycles – and replacement options are often more costly – the operator typically wants to extend the life of the airplane to its economical limit-' said Stone. 'What these operators look for is a company that can segment itself to offer value with its products- whether labor- parts or a package.'

The 'mature' business jets Stone addressed include the 20-series Learjets- the 20-series Falcons- the Sabrejet 80- the G-II and even the old Lockheed Jetstar. For these senior-citizen business jets- BizJet International offers its 'Legend Program.'

'Our ‘Legend Program’ offers operators discounts on labor and material for airplanes that are in the fourth quarter of their life cycle-' Stone explained. 'The other thing operators want are options. The Legend Program offers options to the operator who may not want to spend the money for an engine overhaul.'

Among the alternatives available- Stone detailed- are exchanges of worn engines for overhauled units- engine leases- or even a partial overhaul. 'These approaches can serve to lower the costs of keeping a business jet in service.'

BizJet International also offers help for operators with financial limitations that could otherwise ground the aircraft. 'We might also leverage the payment in such a way that the operator can spread out the costs-' Stone explained. 'On a $200-000 bill- for example- the operator may have $100-000 to start and we put the rest of the $100-000 on a program tailored to operating hours or the calendar.'

That means the operator pays a fixed amount per flight hour or per month to amortize the balance of the engine overhaul costs. Noted Rosell- 'We work to create a program that keeps the operator’s aircraft working for them.'

Sometimes working for the customer means helping them find a cost-effective alternative that meets a short-term need rather than the lifetime of an aircraft. 'With the rising cost of engine services- a huge part of what we do is to provide serviceable unit options to help keep the customer flying-' said Stone. 'They may not need to keep the airplane going eight- 10 or 12 more years – they may need only three or four years. So we work with them to use serviceable parts that will get them through that need.'

For operators- finding that sort of deal means finding a shop with the experience needed to buy parts- or buy surplus/out-of-service engines- knowing what can be salvaged effectively and how to locate- track and use those parts.

'Giving the customers options and sitting down with them to explain those options- that’s one of our most-important jobs-' said Rosell.

Noted Stone- 'More often than not we can come up with a solution that works and fits their budget.'

One reason why BizJet International remains competitive for operators of older jet aircraft stems from the company’s decades of experience servicing the engines that power those older airframes.

'The (GE) CJ610; CF700 engines are both specialties we’re known for-' Stone said. Those engines power many of the older airframes eligible for the Legends Program- including the Lear and Falcon 20 series aircraft.

That experience goes beyond the engines to the entire airframe and avionics systems they employ – making the company something of a multi-talented operation. 'In fact- another facet of our business we offer customers is one-stop shopping-' Stone explained- 'for paint- interior- avionics - everything they need. We do that for the convenience of the customer and we’re very competitive with smaller specialty shops.'

Indeed- finding a vendor capable of handling all needs is another way operators can keep their older aircraft serving economically. For example- BizJet International’s expertise in the Learjet 20 series led the company to partner with another firm to develop an RVSM solution for the oldest Lears. 'We did that-' explained Stone- 'to keep this [Learjet 20] product line alive.'

So far the package has generated orders for more than 50 aircraft- with more than 30 already flying – and with more ready to sign up.

Growing somewhere:
Some worry that the depth of this expertise may shrink within the business aviation community- driving down competition and expenses up. 'But even as things change- the market should stay fairly competitive-' Rosell opined.

'I believe there will be some continued consolidation- largely because of the cost of getting into and maintaining the business and the difficulty in getting OEM authorization-' added Stone. 'So- some of the smaller outlets will go away.'

At the same time- the capabilities of the stronger shops should continue to make the market more competitive- as evidenced by BizJet International’s recent entry into the market servicing the Rolls-Royce Spey and Tay.

'We’ve entered the business as an authorized service center-' noted Stone- 'and we spent a significant amount of money to qualify. We built a new test cell to accommodate those engines and now we have come into an extremely competitive market.'

Previously- only two providers offered the full-line of factory maintenance on the Spey and Tay. 'Now that we make a third competitor- customers are enjoying the fruits-' Stone observed. 'Prices on a mid-life or overhaul today are 30 percent below where they were before.'

Along with the new competition come new price pressures – and sometimes BizJet executives decide to take a pass on a job. 'Sometimes the bid we’re up against means we have to walk away-' Rosell said- 'but not if we can compete without losing money.'

Meanwhile- watch for BizJet to expand its offerings thanks to the new test cell with the ability to handle engines ranging up to 50-000 pounds of thrust. That means the cell can also handle the GE CF34 used on Canadair Regional Jets and Bombardier Challengers – in fact- the shop is already bringing in hot-section work. The cell can also handle Honeywell TFE731-20/40/60/5 and the Pratt & Whitney Canada PW300 and PW500 series engines.

'When the engines run and shake the floor-' Stone said- 'it’s the sound of progress.'

To PMA or not to PMA:
The answer isn’t always up to the shop. In today’s cost-sensitive times- sometimes brand name is not the most cost-effective option – a reality that’s spawned a growing market for components made under FAA Parts Manufacturing Approval- or PMA. While not a big issue at BizJet- it is an avenue the company exploits where it can.

'Because of our agreements with the OEMs we represent- we’re not in a position to use a lot of PMA parts-' noted Stone. 'For the Honeywell and Pratt engines we service as an authorized service center- we are not allowed contractually- to employ PMA parts. We may see some headway down the road for more latitude to use PMA parts- though.'

'There has been tremendous progress made in the quality of PMA parts in the past several years and we would gladly use them where allowed.'

Of course- where there is a rule- there is generally an exception. In the case of PMA parts use at BizJet- the exceptions are among their specialties: the GE CJ610 and CF700 powerplants.

Lufthansa Technik – the parent of BizJet – also owns a PMA parts maker in Florida- Heico – and Heico makes a quality combustion liner for the CJ610 and CF700 engines. 'We sell them like hotcakes-' Stone stressed. 'It’s all we sell because it is of a superior quality and a better value.'

Nevertheless- at the end of the day- to PMA or not to PMA is always the customer’s call.

'We give the customer the option-' Stone said. 'If they want to save money and we have the authorization- we will always use PMA parts. If they want factory-original- that’s the way we go. The option is important.'

It takes money to make money- according to the old adage- and it takes communications to land the customers that make that money. As the market for engine services has grown more sophisticated- what it takes to find- land and keep customers has also become more challenging.

'That’s been an area of strategic shift for us over the past several years-' Stone noted. 'We’ve had to go outside and to position ourselves with an outside sales force to generate and keep business.'

That means finding qualified- knowledgeable people- schooling them in company practices and values- then locating them out in the field where the customers live. 'It’s very important that we have people out there and in contact with our customers-' Stone said. 'We’ve got a good team.'

The BizJet team members go beyond making calls and pitching business. 'Typically our sales reps are also product line specialists- so they can serve as a resource for our operators on a broad range of issues – performance- parts and maintenance-' explained Stone.

'We’ve also put in place customer service managers who are responsible for the nurturing and care of customers while the aircraft is in-house-' said Rosell.

'They do all the communications- squawk approvals- and track the paperwork from the time the aircraft comes in the door all the way through the invoice and acceptance process-' Stone explained. Some of this work benefits from advances in technologies outside aviation.

Said Rosell- 'As the worlds of communications have expanded- the customer’s ability to contact us has increased and we’ve responded by using those tools to communicate with the customer – whether pictures of engine work- squawk components- etc. We snap digital pictures- put them into an album and mail it to the customers.'

'We haven’t yet progressed to making that available to the customer on a website – but it’s coming-' added Stone. As have most successful companies at this level of aviation- though- BizJet has turned to information technologies to advance pretty much every other aspect of its business.

'We’ve also embraced plenty of other advanced technologies- to track parts- record work- keep time- update logs… it’s helped us in our business but it has cost to do so-' Stone noted.

It was only about three years ago that BizJet finally grew its computer use to the point of needing a full-time person just to manage and maintain it.

Prior to that- the company was in a situation familiar to many a business jet operator – having an idea of what needs to happen and why… but without the experience and ability to make it so. 'We had to hire a full-time IT guy – quite a step for what was a ‘mom-and-pop’ company a few years ago-' Stone observed.

If nothing else- such a step for that former ‘mom-and-pop’ outfit is proof positive that they are serious about their business and keeping customers coming back. 'If it’s not us- it’s another shop they need when time comes to keep that older airplane flying – and the operator on-budget-' Stone added. 'We all need experts for something.'

For more information on BizJet’s services- contact: 3515 North Sheridan Road- Tulsa- Oklahoma 74115-2220; Headquarters: (918) 832-7733; Fax (918) 832-8627; 24-Hour Support: 888/388-4858; www.bizjetinternational.com

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