In this concluding part of our Aircraft Upgrade Priorities series, Ken Elliott discusses the specific priorities, return on investment, timing and other considerations of the options available...
With the onrush of the ADS-B Out 2020 compliance-tsunami, there is hardly time in the day for avionic departments and independent shops to consider and include other aircraft improvements. But for a significant number of operators, maximizing use of the downtime is crucial to overall cost savings in their maintenance. Others take the attitude of doing what they have to and nothing more.
It is precisely that variability in Flight Department expectations that makes it difficult for shops to plan and predict what will happen between now and 2020.
Depending upon where you operate, the 2020 compliance date for ADS-B can vary (with the US being January 1 and Europe being June 7). In some cases, customers are inclined to deliberate and then add work either later in the proposal process (or even while an aircraft is in-house), extending downtime and impacting the broader maintenance facility schedule.
In fact, it is best to view aircraft maintenance holistically and not in isolation. There are several drivers that set the priorities for service and upgrade. Chart A features a series of aircraft blocks with a suggestion of their priority (the order of significance is suggested from top left to bottom right).
For operators, setting priority is an individual and varied process, because of their different needs. Chart A should, however, set a framework to establish your priorities. The blocks can be edited with actual proposed activity and moved around to provide clarity to what can be a complex and difficult task.
In turn, each block may be further broken out. With cabin refurbishment for example, operators can choose between cleaning up an interior or replacing it, while considering many options in between.
Once an operator has the blocks prioritized, including any breakouts, it is time to look at connections between the blocks. An excellent example is between Avionics and Cabin, where access required for avionics, could mean cost savings and a ‘proceed’ decision on an optional cabin refurbishment.
If the avionics is mandated or required to meet your operation needs, and it is necessary to gain cabin access, then the connection between the blocks will be stronger, providing a powerful business case for the optional item.
Priorities are impacted by your schedule, the Maintenance Repair Organization’s (MRO) schedule, downtime and of course price. At a minimum you should plan on a downtime overage and also for price. For all sorts of good reasons even the best shops run over on jobs (though in most cases by no more than an extra day for every week of scheduled downtime).
Another good rule-of-thumb is to budget more time whenever access is required. Shops can take longer than estimated to remove and re-install the cosmetic and functional interiors of aircraft. This is because many interiors are different (even for the same aircraft model) and mechanics are trained to be careful not to damage or soil anything.
Customers typically do not divulge their foresight to budget more time (and money), and that makes sense. If the owner sees the aircraft return a day or two earlier than advised it certainly makes the Flight Department look efficient.
Of course, shops can never assume customers have planned for additional time (and cost).
With the pressure of ADS-B and FANS upgrades underway it is wise to anticipate some delay in your schedule. A problem suddenly encountered on another aircraft in the hangar could indirectly affect the manpower and logistics applied to your upgrade.
Essentially, customers need to create flexibility in their schedule, and whenever possible arrange for a customer office and be around during the work. Creating a fuss, however justified, never serves its intended purpose in the long-term. It is wiser to plan for issues.
Costs can only be accurate if adequate planning and proposal preparation has been completed. Several factors that can occur during aircraft modifications may influence final costs. Chart B outlines some of these and includes examples.
One way to mitigate cost surprises is to ensure the repair or installation facility is provided easy access to all your aircraft records and not just those you think they may need. Invite the shop to send a sales or customer service representative to inspect the aircraft and review all records in your own hangar, extending that invitation months ahead of the scheduled downtime.
The shop may elect to send an engineer or technician and for a complex project, cover the cost, because they can save so much wasted time by thorough and efficient research on the front end.
Also, by choosing to babysit the aircraft during the work you will be readily available to answer questions and help resolve issues, saving the facility hours or days of intense and unnecessary effort.
Beyond ADS-B and FANS there are several potentially useful upgrades to consider, but certifying them can be an arduous process.
- Older airframes typically will be modified, and apart from minor alterations will require Supplemental Type Certificate (STC) involvement;
- Newer aircraft will be under the watchful eye of the OEM and upgraded by factory bulletins or package upgrades, where multiple changes are accomplished within the same work scope.
A good example of the latter is the Gulfstream G550 Certification Foxtrot Upgrade as an Aircraft Service Change (ASC) that includes various navigation capability improvements. This rolls FANS, WAAS-LPV as well as paperless charts and maps into a one downtime event of the aircraft at a Gulfstream-owned service center.
If providing the equipage certification path is internationally-recognized through what are known as ‘familiarization programs’, the modification of an aircraft should not be an issue for resale.
If retrofitting a used aircraft, check with the MRO to ensure all certification material is adequate for other civil aviation authorities. The aircraft may be certifiable for release in the country where the work is completed, but for other reasons not be approved to enter a new country register for not meeting local compliance requirements.
What Does the Future Hold?
The current round of necessary and desirable upgrades includes those that are often discussed, such as ADS-B Out, FANS, Performance Based Navigation, cabin systems and satellite communications.
On the horizon however, and migrating into new airframes, are extensions of these existing technologies including 4G broadband via air-to-ground (ATG), Ka-band via satellite, space-based ADS-B worldwide via satellite, expanded radar functionality and trajectory time-based 4D navigation.
Also, new combined vision technologies and lightweight glare shield HUDs are proving to be a popular option in smaller jets and turboprops. Within the cabin, improvements are constant while playing catchup with iOS and Android personal applications and features occurring in home and business domains.
As Chart C shows there is plenty to be concerned with today, never mind tomorrow. Used jets and turboprops are constantly chasing the tails of their newer cousins when it comes to technology.
For years industry held back on upgrading the avionics suite of the Bombardier Challenger 604 as the aircraft’s value dropped (reducing the return on investment case). However, as with other platforms this popular and reliable model is here to stay and eventually the avionics suite supplier (Rockwell Collins) decided to include its Proline Fusion as an upgrade option.
This lag demonstrates just how difficult it must be for owners to know what to do with their aircraft as they wait for industry to decide on options to be made available. For OEMs it is the same as it is for owners – it’s all about return on investment and the business case to invest in an upgrade program.
As we move to more scalable technologies improvements will be intuitive. They will be software (not hardware) based, or at the most will involve the replacement of an easy to replace plug in module. Meanwhile, be patient, plan with extra time and cost, and always consider the resaleability of the aircraft.
Imagine your aircraft next to an identical twin on the resale lot and then consider its preferability to others as you select possible product improvements. A buyer’s decision can hinge on one small feature being available on one aircraft and not on another…