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A Happy Maintenance Home for Your Aircraft?

Who should perform your aircraft maintenance?

Dave Higdon   |   18th May 2015
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Dave Higdon Dave Higdon

Dave Higdon is a highly respected, NBAA Gold Wing award-winning aviation journalist who has...
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The Boss has a home; flight and cabin crew have homes - even the company airplane has a home-base, notes Dave Higdon. But how do you find a happy maintenance home to keep the airplane in top condition?

Why would any operator try to get by fulfilling their aircraft's maintenance needs on an ad-hoc basis? According to flight crews sampled, the reasons vary from owner's who try to be frugal in all things; owners that change shops on a per maintenance-cost estimate basis - ever shopping for the “best deal”; and shops picked for convenience purposes. “Whoever is available on the boss’ schedule,” one pilot whispered.

These approaches may come at the expense of familiarity, trust and consistency (the things that make people stick with one doctor). To top it all, taking the airplane to a different shop each time may cost the owner more over the long run.

One pilot told us how his aircraft's owner stuck with factory service centers – but only until the factory maintenance deal expired. He then balked at the cost of enrolling in an hourly priced service plan, believing he was smart enough to save money using an “as-needed” approach and awarding the work to whichever shop bid lowest each time.

Flying an airplane maintained per the ‘lowest-bid’ philosophy provides precious little comfort – particularly when something goes wrong. It's the pilot, not the mechanic, who arrives first at the scene of the event, and may have been the person who accepted the aircraft from maintenance and is technically responsible for its airworthiness.

A maintenance home brings stability and regularity to the aircraft's wellbeing, much as a good home helps human development.

Who's in Charge?

The Boss is rarely the best choice for maintenance manager. “First he started missing deadlines for recurrent work – like 100-hour inspections,” a former contract pilot for a Light Jet owner told AvBuyer. “Next, he started losing jobs because his ad hoc approach didn't account for the lead-time of a major shop. So when he needed to show up for a bid conference or to sign papers, he found himself arguing with the A&P that he should have anticipated the owner's need. We never went back there.”

When the owner failed to schedule an inspection far enough ahead to keep the airplane available, he finally listened to his flight crew's input. “We make less when we don't fly,” the pilot said. “So his failures hit us, too. Now the aircraft goes back to its maintenance home. They can't handle everything, but at least we have one place - a single person - who helps us stay ahead of upcoming needs, whether that relates to airframe, avionics or powerplants.”

This pilot and others stressed that the key criteria for shopping for a maintenance home was finding the right match between a shop's expertise and the aircraft and its systems.

When the Fleet Grows…

Perhaps your operation already has a maintenance home for its existing aircraft. Let’s imagine the operation gains an aircraft. Don’t assume that a new aircraft automatically fits at the existing maintenance home…

If a jet operator adds another version of the same make, it may well fit perfectly with the existing maintenance home – but only if the models are related, the engines are of a similar line, and avionics of the same make and type.

On the other hand, if you add a propjet to a jet operation (for example) or vice-versa, you can see why searching for a second home is necessary.

Priority 1: Airframe Knowledge & Experience

Most turbine operators learn from their vendors that maintaining their aircraft takes specialized knowledge and experience; a shop experienced in Pratt & Whitney propjet powerplants still needs knowledge specific to the airframe. Far more than the number of engines differentiates King Airs from TBMs, Pilatus PC-12s, Piper Meridians and P-180 Avantis.

In advising clients, a long-time pilot/A&P turned broker suggested that the airframe is the home to all the other components and systems. “Find a shop experienced in the airframe,” he emphasized.

“Expertise in the other systems can be elsewhere, but the maintenance home should know the make, model, type and its overall needs and peculiarities.”

The shop may not perform hot-section inspections, but you can bet it works with a service provider that does. Ditto for the avionics.

Priority 2: Accommodating

Every aircraft flying should have a ‘last inspection’ note in the airframe and engine logs, a date from which the clock starts running to the next inspection. Finding the desired expertise may come at the expense of adjusting a next inspection if the shop is popular with other owners of the same type.

“We get calls from owner/operators, in particular, who want to bring their airplane here,” said the owner and chief technician of a Midwest shop. “They've heard through the owners' organization that their model is our primary focus.”

But these operators don't always become customers; some hang-up, angered or frustrated that their next inspection is due on a date before the shop's next opening. “When we suggest we could work them in if they don't mind resetting their inspection cycle to a few weeks earlier, some of them become upset,” he revealed.

“‘But it's not due until...’ they tell me.” Time is a finite commodity, however. “We don't ever promise what we can't deliver.”

Priority 3: Depth of Knowledge

While any shop you select should hold the approvals and training appropriate to the aircraft and its systems, there's no rule that says all of those needs have to come through the same maintenance facility. While the home should be trained and approved on the airframe, supplemental homes can be established separately to deal with avionics and powerplant systems.

As mentioned above, many specialty shops exist, many of which already work closely with airframe-oriented shops. As for the shops with the airframe experience, those supplemental homes should be current in training and approvals for the specific avionics and engines.

That said, consider the opportunities inherent in finding a maintenance home that handles all three areas under the appropriate approvals. They'll typically not only have the training and approvals you want, but they'll already be equipped with the tools and testing equipment needed to return those systems to service.

Priority 4: The Best Deal

“Cost obviously has to be a consideration,” our broker conceded. “It just shouldn't be the first concern, or the dominant concern. It goes last on my list.”

If you fail to pick a knowledgeable shop, you risk a) finding required work missed; b) work performed unnecessarily; and/or c) work taking longer than it would have at an experienced shop. These can all add up to a higher bill than a knowledgeable shop would have charged, even with a higher hourly rate.

Maintenance Red Flags

Finally, be sure to watch for some of the warning signs of an unhappy 'maintenance' home. Among those offered by veteran A&P technicians are:

• Failure to properly complete paperwork before returning the aircraft to the operator. (Relating invoices to log entries as proof of compliance with maintenance, service and airworthiness directives should trigger an inquiry by the operator.)
• The operator should have access to the inspection document, work orders, parts receipts and other documentation. Failure to present those and/or include them with the logs should be another sign to look more closely.
• Signs of sloppy work: scratches; mixed-up fasteners; even foreign objects left in the aircraft. All should trigger a deeper examination of the aircraft and work performed.
• Invoices that don't match up with the logs and other paperwork from the shop visit.
• A maintenance shop that declines to fly with you on the acceptance flight. You should require the shop's pilot(s) to perform the shake-down flight – before they present you with the aircraft. Best of all is to have them deliver the airplane and then do your acceptance check.

Any of the above issues should raise an instant warning signal that the shop you’re with isn’t going to be a long-term, happy home for your aircraft’s maintenance needs.

Building Blocks for Your Home-Sweet-(Maintenance)-Home

A) Airframe Knowledge & Experience: This can be checked through the certificates held by the shop (both FAA and factory-training documentation).

B) Accommodating Schedule: Timing is critical to avoid missing deadlines; consider an earlier visit if it helps get you into your preferred shop. From there, you're a long-term customer.

C) Depth of Expertise: Ideally, your maintenance home covers all your needs for the airframe, avionics and powerplants. If that’s not a viable option, find an airframe shop with established arrangements to cover the other needs.

D) Convenience: We'd all like to find the ideal shop covering all the bases right at home, but don't overlook excellent options because they may require taking – and leaving – the aircraft while you return home by another vehicle.

E) Costs: Competitive costs can be determined by shopping around – but remember, the lowest bid may not always deliver the highest quality.

As the sign reads at one of Wichita's more popular General Aviation airports:
- Fast?
- Cheap?
- Good?

Pick Your Preferred Two!


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