Keeping pace: New business models put aircraft maintenance centre stage

Keeping pace: New business models put aircraft maintenance centre stage

James Elliott, Director, MRO Product Line at the Aviation and Defence Business Unit for IFS, explains how airlines and MROs need granular insight into every part of every asset as new maintenance and planning models enter the commercial aviation industry.

Keeping pace: New business models put aircraft maintenance centre stage

Commercial aviation maintenance models have changed drastically over the last 20 years. New industry standards, shorter asset lifespans and a new generation of technologically advanced aircraft have constantly kept operators and maintenance providers on their toes. 

From ABCD to MSG-3

Just 20 years ago, aircraft maintenance was a rigid A, B, C, D check process based on a batch of maintenance tasks executed at specific times in an aircraft’s lifecycle. When an aircraft came in for D checks, there could be over 1,000 maintenance items, meaning a plane could be out of service for six weeks.

Fortunately, the industry then migrated to a more flexible model, MSG-3 - packaging up individual maintenance items in any way an airline wanted. For example, if there was an opportunity to carry out D check maintenance during a C check, this could now be done. Fleet usage was optimised and balanced because maintenance could be managed more fluidly – no tasks were missed and there was no unnecessary duplication.

The ‘phased’ maintenance approach

New generation aircraft – such as the Boeing 787 or the Airbus A350 – have been designed with MSG3 in mind. These aircraft are now maintained with ‘phased’ maintenance programmes with the aim of achieving the shortest possible maintenance turnarounds.

When launching the A350, Airbus aimed for the plane to be maintained under its “usage parameter” concept – based on flight hours, flight cost and other parameters rather than traditional checks – “to ensure optimised utilisation of available resources.” The base check interval of the A350 has extended to 36 months, meaning the average number of base checks over 12 years has halved to just four compared to previous generations of aircraft.

But with fleets expanding and more routes being flown than ever before, this presents a challenge for operators as they are now looking at maintenance windows on an aircraft-by-aircraft basis. For any fleet over 100 aircraft, managing a maintenance plan and schedule for all aircraft becomes a complicated issue.

Shorter visits, more convenient times

Resource constraints, such as hangar availability and number of available technicians, also influences the ability to carry out maintenance. Airlines must also manage known requirements such as seasonal fluctuations – fleet utilisation and air passenger traffic is much higher during holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas.

The question then becomes how do operators move hundreds of aircraft through MRO hangars during these busy spells? Maintenance planning tools must look to align flights, optimising fleets for usage and yields, then individual aircraft going in to hangars for as little time as possible.

Change and opportunity

Alongside this, MRO is currently in a boom period – older fleets are yet to retire, while new aircraft are being delivered at a rapid rate. Oliver Wyman estimates a steady 3.8% CAGR MRO market growth, with 58% of fleets being new-generation aircraft by 2027. 

However, legacy aircraft aren’t as old as they used to be - the lifespan of a narrow-bodied jet used to be 25 years, now it’s closer to 14 years. At MROs and airlines, technicians who are undergoing training to deliver staged maintenance services are the younger generation – millennials for whom using technology in the workplace is a necessity, not an option.

Maintenance is no longer about simply ‘turning wrenches’ - some of those technicians who have been around longer aren’t as interested or as fast at learning new software techniques as the younger generation. Some MROs are responding with new services such as mobile technology and applications – HAECO now have a mobile team that can work anywhere without a hangar.

Commercial aviation mirroring defence market

Historically, maintenance plans and schedules were certificate-based and ultimately the responsibility of an airline to report their practices to the FAA or IATA. This schedule was then translated into the task cards to use for the tools, licenses and parts required for maintenance. The ‘wrench turning’ required in the airline’s plan could be outsourced to an MRO, which would take the task cards and execute according to the airline’s parameters.

Now, OEMs and MROs are transitioning towards new business models to take the whole maintenance aspect away from the airline. In a highly competitive arena, airlines want to concentrate on flying passengers, selling tickets, managing fuel costs and beating competition from international and low-cost airlines.

Commercial aviation is following the defence model of in-service support - contracting out maintenance to OEMs or third-party providers. Outsourcing of line maintenance was one of the top three 2017 MRO trends outlined by Technavio, while Boeing and Airbus have set up their own MRO divisions where they are looking to generate £50bn in annual revenue.

But OEM contracts are taking a while to be introduced as airlines are reluctant to be locked into an expensive in-service support contract. Independent MROs are realising they occupy a competitive position to provide fleet planning and the ‘wrench turning’ associated with meeting that new model.

New approach required: Part by part, task by task

Regardless of the chosen model, the end goal is to reduce aircraft maintenance windows – the number one competitive differentiator between maintenance providers. From a planning perspective, what used to be called ‘out of phase maintenance’ in the days of ABCD is now the industry standard - whole maintenance programmes are planned with individual tasks in mind.

This requires MRO software which recognises and packages individual tasks where they fit best according to scheduling parameters – flight hours, flight cycles etc. Software with a component-based view offers significant advantages by getting part numbers and granular detail into each maintenance programme. That information should then be packaged into the required maintenance format – task by task, component by component. This means as maintenance models and standards continue to shift, the software can easily adapt to keep track of all components.

Adapt to survive

As commercial aviation MRO continues to move forward, those who adapt fast will remain competitive in a consolidating market. But these opportunities cannot be realised without component-centric support, providing the granularity required to react and take advantage of new maintenance models.

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