Upcoming Jet Maintenance? Avoid These Red Flags...

At a time of high demand on MRO shop resources, what are some of the red flags aircraft owners should look out for when choosing a center to complete upcoming maintenance work? Chris Kjelgaard asks the experts…

Chris Kjelgaard  |  23rd November 2022
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Chris Kjelgaard
Chris Kjelgaard

Chris Kjelgaard has been an aviation journalist for more than 40 years and has written on multiple topics...

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Private jet in a deserted hangar

MRO shop resources are very thinly stretched in today’s environment, due to soaring maintenance demand from aircraft owners. Therefore, owners who have upcoming maintenance work requirements need to be aware of the potential red flags and aircraft-specific factors that, if not considered when contracting MRO work, could prove to be expensive mistakes.

Not surprisingly, the larger, more powerful, and more sophisticated your aircraft is in terms of design and performance capabilities, the more complex the task of selecting the right MRO provider(s) becomes, both for scheduled maintenance events and other MRO requirements.

Tom Mitchell, a highly experienced MRO professional and Executive Vice President of Business Aviation technical advisory firm Essex Aviation, says, says older, piston-powered private aircraft require entirely different maintenance skillsets and resources than modern turbine-powered business aircraft, many of which have fly-by-wire electronic flight controls.

Luckily for the owners of older piston aircraft, those models have been produced over the years in such numbers, and (generally) feature sufficient design commonality that it is relatively easy to find competent MRO providers for them, Mitchell explains. But the MRO landscape for larger turbine-powered aircraft is rather different.

The FAA regulations applying to turbine aircraft are far different from those regulating piston aircraft, with many turbine-powered business aircraft types needing model-specific MRO training, tools, and equipment. This narrows the number of qualified MRO shops that owners should consider when selecting the right maintenance provider for their aircraft.

Whereas older piston aircraft predominantly require visual inspection, the inspection and repair of modern turbine aircraft requires a substantial amount of functional testing alongside visual inspections, Mitchell notes.

Functional testing requires a great deal of technical knowledge, and the specific functional tests required for a given turbine aircraft model are often unique to that type. As a result, the functional testing required by different aircraft types varies widely.

Of necessity, these considerations are very important for owners when evaluating the maintenance requirements for their aircraft and deciding which MRO provider best fits the requirements of both the aircraft and the owner (in terms of capability, pricing, convenience, scheduling, and reliability).

Overwhelming Demand

In today’s frenetic Business Aviation MRO environment, affected by the highly stimulating effect the pandemic has had on the used aircraft market, these considerations are even more important than they would be in more normal times.

According to Sean Lynch, Program Coordinator for Engine Assurance Program, all Business Aviation engine MRO facilities today are almost overwhelmed in terms of MRO demand. “The market has never had demand like this,” he observes.

“Aircraft that would normally have been parted out or parked are being utilized, and there is a 15-20% increase in aircraft utilization overall. There are no [spare] parts available — manufacturers basically were barely keeping up with demand before all of this,” he shares.

Jeremy Cox, an aircraft technical inspector and certified appraiser and Principal of aircraft valuation firm JetValues-Jeremy LLC, characterizes today’s BizAv MRO market as being in a state of “extreme demand and lack of supply”.

In such a market, he says, each aircraft owner faces the risk of being unable to induct their aircraft at the particular MRO facility they wish to use — even if the owner routinely uses that facility for the aircraft’s scheduled maintenance.

In such cases, owners can be tempted to go “off-brand” and contract maintenance work with MRO facilities they don’t normally use, and about whose track records regarding on-time job completion and job quality they might not know a great deal.

Going off-brand can create distinct risks for owners, warns Cox. But in searching for any MRO provider which can perform the work as soon as possible, owners need to be aware of potential red flags which could prove very expensive for them.

In making such MRO-provider selection decisions, Mitchell suggests, owners of modern business aircraft should consider five highly important commercial and technical factors.

Depending on the owner’s individual circumstances and the aircraft’s particular requirements, any one of these five factors could act as a red flag indicating that a given MRO shop might not be a suitable choice for handling the maintenance of the aircraft and/or its engines.

Five Factors to Consider in Choosing an MRO Provider

According to Mitchell, the five commercial and technical factors every owner should always consider in deciding who should provide the MRO for its aircraft are:

1. Warranties and Maintenance Programs

If the aircraft is still under the manufacturer’s warranty, or if its engines and/or avionics are enrolled in a specific maintenance program, the warranty or maintenance program might stipulate that the MRO must be OEM-authorized to process warranty claims or perform program-funded services on behalf of the maintenance program provider.

2. The MRO Facility’s Operating Specifications

Before scheduling maintenance with a given provider, the aircraft owner should always find out what capabilities and approvals the facility’s FAA Repair Station Operations Specifications (Ops Specs) list. 

If the Ops Specs list includes a given aircraft model or engine model by category, the MRO is obligated to demonstrate technical knowledge and have the resources necessary at least to be able to perform limited services for that aircraft and engine, and those services will be defined in the facility’s Ops Specs.

If the MRO facility’s Ops Specs do not list or include a specific model or type of aircraft, the MRO provider as an organization cannot sign-off in the aircraft’s logbook to verify and certify the work performed.

In such cases logbook entries will require a private individual to use his or her A&P Mechanic’s license or Inspector’s Authorization (IA) to sign off on the work.

While this practice may meet FAA regulations, the aircraft owner might consider it unduly risky not to have the MRO facility’s full stamp of approval for the maintenance work performed.

3. Maintenance Manuals

The MRO facility should always have the maintenance manuals necessary to perform the work on the given aircraft or engine type, and is obligated to possess those manuals if the aircraft is listed.

However, some aircraft OEMs — such as Pilatus — make their aircraft types’ maintenance manuals available only to their approved service centers. So, owners must find out if the MRO shop has current manuals for the aircraft or engine type.

4. Ground Support Equipment

Most MRO facilities typically have enough electrical power carts to support an aircraft during maintenance.

However, equipment such as hydraulic power units and aircraft jacks come in assorted sizes and capabilities that must be suitable for performing certain intended tasks.

For instance, says Mitchell, in performing gear-swing inspections for Cessna Citation Jets, a particular hydraulic mule must be used for the inspection to be performed properly. Depending on the maintenance specifically required for the aircraft, the owner should confirm if the MRO facility has a full complement of the ground support equipment required to perform the necessary inspections and repair tasks.

5. Special Tooling

For more sophisticated aircraft in particular, routine inspection instructions call for certain specific tools or test equipment to accomplish specific tasks.

While the MRO facility can rent the required tools and equipment if needed, the aircraft owner should know what the cost will be to do so, and understand whether the renting and shipping involved will impact the planned downtime for the maintenance or inspection event.

Other Red Flags to Watch For

There are several other red flags aircraft owners should be aware of, too, when choosing an MRO facility. One important one will quickly become obvious to any aircraft owner who — sensibly — decides to visit the MRO facility in person ahead of contracting the work, according to Lynch.

This red flag (which should dissuade the owner from using a facility in many cases), is to see if aircraft are being worked on in the open air outside the MRO facility’s hangars. Lynch and Cox agree that such signs indicate the facility is overbooked in terms of the aircraft and/or engines it has inducted for maintenance.

Not only should most maintenance tasks be conducted indoors, inside a hangar rather than exposing the aircraft’s interior structure and parts to the weather outdoors, but maintenance performed remotely from the hangar presents risks of inaccurate or incomplete job performance or record-keeping.

In such cases, Cox suggests, the aircraft owner has every right to ask the MRO facility why it is not renting examples of the very large tents which are specifically designed to serve as temporary aircraft hangars and are available for hire.

And should the owner decide to use that facility to perform the planned maintenance, they ought to request the facility perform the maintenance indoors — either in its existing hangars or in a temporary, rented one.

If the facility refuses to do so, the owner should ask the MRO provider to send its mobile service team to the hangar the aircraft owner uses so that the work can be performed indoors there, says Cox.

Another, engine MRO-related possible red flag is if the MRO facility chosen to perform the overhaul or scheduled inspection does not have the equipment needed to remove the engines from the aircraft, and subsequently re-hang them once the maintenance work is completed, says Lynch.

In such cases, the MRO facility will have to arrange with the engine OEM — or with a large engine MRO provider such as Duncan Aviation — to remove and re-hang the engines for it. This will add days or weeks, and likely additional cost, to what is required for the MRO provider to complete the engine maintenance work the owner has contracted, Lynch highlights.

The Risks of Going Off-Brand

As highlighted above, in today’s very tight MRO market when an aircraft owner might be told by the MRO facility which usually performs the required MRO on their aircraft that it cannot schedule any new work for the owner within a given time frame (six months, for instance), the owner might be tempted to seek another MRO facility which can agree to perform the required work within the owner’s desired timeframe.

However, going off-brand can create risks for the owner, particularly if the maintenance is to be performed on what Cox calls “a high-pedigree aircraft”.

This includes, for example, an aircraft whose resale value is very high because it has always been maintained by an OEM-approved service center; has a spotless maintenance and operating history; is operated at a relatively low annual utilization, and because any FAA Form 337 repairs it has had have been performed by the OEM under Service Bulletins, rather than by an off-brand repair station under supplemental type certificates.

The market resale value of such an aircraft and its re-marketability can both be affected by an owner choosing to have MRO, modifications, interior upgrades, and paint work done to the aircraft by an off-brand provider, which may not offer the same quality of job that the aircraft’s usual provider offers, according to Cox.

For instance, an inferior exterior repainting job can lead to the aircraft needing to be painted again after a little as a year to three years, whereas a high-quality repaint should last ten years, Cox highlights.

Not only will a low-quality repaint probably burden the owner with the need to have the aircraft repainted again far sooner than should otherwise be required, but a poor paint job is likely also to put off many potential buyers when the owner puts the aircraft up for resale.

Additionally, says Cox, given that the quality of the stitching work in the aircraft’s interior furnishings is covered by FAR Part 25 and Part 23 airworthiness requirements, an aircraft given a poor-quality interior refurbishment may not even be considered airworthy by the FAA and thus may not even be allowed to fly.

In Summary...

There are several potential red flags for aircraft owners to look out for when seeking an MRO center to undertake maintenance work on their aircraft. The Business Aviation industry offers several exemplary MRO providers, and careful selection on the part of the aircraft owner should ensure a happy outcome for both the owner and provider that will most likely blossom into a long-term relationship.

Having highlighted the red flags in this article, next time, we’ll explore ways for aircraft owners to mitigate MRO risk when planning for upcoming maintenance needs.

More information from:
Engine Assurance Program: www.eap.aero
Essex Aviation: https://essexaviation.com
JetValues-Jeremy: www.jetvaluesjeremy.com

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