While a majority of aircraft operators find long-lasting happiness with their MRO shop, occasionally things may go wrong. Dave Higdon reviews some of the main reasons given for changing to a different maintenance provider…
Perhaps you questioned whether you were the problem. Or perhaps it just felt like it was time to make a clean break. Making a break-up decision can feel as difficult in professional relationships as it is in personal ones. Deciding to move on from a long-term maintenance provider is no different, and unlikely to be a decision taken lightly.
Though many operators enjoy productive, happy and loyal relationships with their MRO provider, what are some common problems that push operators to make a break-up decision? How do they know when it's time to find a new shop to meet their MRO needs?
We spoke with maintenance technicians, maintenance supervisors and business aircraft operators to develop a short-list of five tell-tale signs the time was right for some to move on.
1. They Just Don't Listen...or Talk
We've all done it: Someone tells us something and seconds later it's gone. Imagine a scenario where, as the aircraft’s due to return to service the shop supervisor has no recollection of a request or a work order resulting in the airplane needing more downtime while the shop catches up on the work before it returns to service.
That time could add up to days or even weeks, and in the interim you now require replacement lift, or at the least to reschedule an important trip. As an isolated event such inattention may be overlooked in an otherwise-reliable working relationship. As a repeat phenomenon, it becomes unacceptable.
The expense, inconvenience and embarrassment of being forced to reschedule trips and meetings, lodging and meal arrangements for another date reflects badly on the operator. Telling associates that “the shop let us down” works only once before associates may begin questioning their relationship with you.
Maintenance providers, technicians and managers told us they expect clients to call and inform them of any shortcomings, failures or problems with returning an aircraft to service.
“Summarily dropping us doesn't give us an opportunity to reconcile the problem, to learn why it occurred, and provide corrective measures,” one large-shop manager explained.
“We want to get it right with the client, even when it costs us. Then if they want to change, so be it. At least by that point we can say we fixed what we caused and send them off with a functional aircraft.”
Nevertheless, one operator we spoke with emphasized their expectation that such issues be communicated at every turn and not sprung on them the day the airplane is due to return to service.
The bottom line is key to all types of successful relationship: communication. When that begins to break down on either side, there’s a real danger the relationship will too.
2. They Didn’t Update the Maintenance Records Properly
“Airworthiness” covers a lot of territory, most of it consisting of hardware maintained to FAA standards and the rest is paperwork (proof of work performed that keeps the aircraft airworthy). So inaccurate paperwork – or worse, no paperwork – renders an otherwise perfectly airworthy aircraft illegal to fly.
The complexity of the aircraft and its systems drive the depth and detail of maintenance records commanded by that aircraft. Airframe logs, powerplant logs – they're virtually universal. But moving into the more-complex Part 23 turbine-powered aircraft and beyond into Part 25 transport-category hardware, the systems and their complexities tend to grow.
Keeping the aircraft and all its associated systems functional and physically airworthy can occupy a lot of time for a technician. Assuring the paperwork is done to prove that airworthy status is even more involved giving rise to numerous companies and software packages designed to help with both the awareness of needed work and the records to prove the work was done.
Ultimately, it's not the shop but the operator the FAA holds responsible for an aircraft's airworthiness. So a maintenance shop's failure to cover the basics of the work and the paperwork places the operator in an untenable spot, often resulting in the operator replacing the maintenance provider.
3. They Missed a Required-Maintenance or AD Date...
When a maintenance shop takes on a new client one of the first things the new lead maintenance technician will do is to review the maintenance records against a list of ADs for that make and model of aircraft. Ongoing they should take care to continue to monitor for new ADs.
An aircraft lacking work required by a maintenance directive or AD is no longer airworthy; it is illegal to fly without special permission and a ferry permit.
Unless the aircraft operator flies with the aircraft's maintenance records, they’re at low risk of the failure to comply with maintenance directives or ADs being discovered on a trip. But should a ramp check grow into something more the operator could conceivably be sanctioned on every flight flown since missing the deadline for the work to be completed.
The operator's recourse will start with a visit to their attorney and the manager of the maintenance shop.
4. Lack of Dependability
“The airplane will be ready. Maybe next week, maybe later – we can't say.” If that’s the type of language you’re hearing too frequently, then it may be time to change shops.
For the operator’s part it’s important to understand that there are always variables beyond the maintenance shop’s control; sometimes parts aren't available when needed, or paperwork gets stuck at the Flight Standards District Office (FSDO). But when there’s no discernably good reason - when it's just poor schedule management - after a while an operator can find themselves longing for the comfort reliability.
The shop may be simply understaffed, or the shop's supervisor could be a poor time manager, or is trying to keep too many balls in the air at once. It can be difficult to move to a new maintenance provider when you’ve had a long relationship with the shop.
But...when it's your job to keep the company aircraft viable and available, the failures of your maintenance contractor quickly reflect on you when the aircraft can't be flown for the boss when you promised without good reason.
5. When the Airplane is Moving on...
We live in a dynamic world in which change is a very prominent constant. Sometimes companies move and, through no fault of their own, the existing maintenance provider no longer works for the operator.
“It's one thing if the airplane moves to an airport 20, 30, even 50 miles from its maintenance provider,” a Mid-Atlantic maintenance shop owner explained. “Most people would prefer to handle the little bit of extra travel over ditching a maintenance shop with people familiar with their airplane and their flying habits; people they know and trust.
“Move the airplane far enough to need to ferry it, and maybe there’s a case to move the maintenance home, too.”
Before you Move
Every maintenance supervisor and technician we spoke to counseled that no operator should terminate their existing relationship with a maintenance shop before they’ve found a replacement.
“You absolutely need to know where you're going for that next annual inspection, 100-hour check or other routine work before it's time to pass the aircraft on to that new maintenance provider,” explained the line-maintenance supervisor of a large Midwest FBO with a significant number of corporate and owner-flown jet clients.
And if viable, it's only fair to give the shop notice, if for no other reason than to give it time to assemble all the maintenance records for your aircraft so those files leave when you do.