Printed headline: Block and Tackle
In line maintenance, airlines are reevaluating their A check methodologies, and independent vendors are sensing opportunities. At the same time, a new generation of “smart airplanes” has mandated new skill sets for line mechanics.
Total global spending on line services will increase to $19 billion by 2028 from $13 billion this year which is a 3.9% compound annual growth rate (CAGR), according to data generated by New York-based Alton Aviation Consultancy. Jonathan Berger, the firm’s managing director, reports that most airlines still perform line maintenance at their primary-hub airports because it directly affects dispatch reliability. However, more outsourcing continues at those stations where there is not sufficient scale to justify full-time staff. “This is why we are seeing the growth and maturity of quality third-party line maintenance providers,” Berger says.
Dan Allawat, chief operating officer of Miami-headquartered FEAM Maintenance and Engineering, cites three recent trends propelling that growth: the resurgence of air cargo, driven by exploding e-commerce; an increasing number of flights to the U.S. by European long-haul low-cost carriers; and airframe OEM involvement in aftermarket services through programs such as Boeing’s Global Fleet Care, and Airbus’ Flight Hour Services-Tailored Support Package.
“We view them as opportunities to be third-party suppliers,” says Allawat, who points out that the company already is a vendor for both OEM programs. “The OEMs are providing full support of the operation, allowing direct access to OEM expertise and oversight.” He adds that similar arrangements with engine OEMs are likely to evolve.
With 29 locations in the U.S., FEAM has just entered into an agreement with a developer to build a new widebody aircraft maintenance hangar at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, exclusively for Atlas Air’s line service. As Allawat notes, the growing use of air cargo to ship packages has opened a multitude of opportunities for line service providers. Also, within the next few months, the company will add new line maintenance stations at Newark (N.J.) Liberty , Boston Logan and Washington Dulles International airports for its increasingly transatlantic clientele.
“That’s where we see the most potential, as new aircraft such as the Boeing 737 MAX and Airbus 320neo provide European air carriers a cost-effective solution to long-haul travel,” he says.
Robby Bush, vice president and general manager of STS Line Maintenance in Jensen Beach, Florida, says airlines are asking line service providers to perform more tasks in order to have additional days between maintenance events normally done at major hubs. That includes borescope inspections, nondestructive testing and deferred maintenance items that require troubleshooting to determine if repaired parts are needed down the line.
He stresses that with airline schedules so much tighter today there is more pressure on line maintenance technicians because there is very little time to troubleshoot. But the data generated by the new-generation commercial jets will help.
“Putting this technology into the hands of a line maintenance technician means that he will be able to troubleshoot more efficiently in an environment of decreasing ground time. For example, an understanding of the avionics on the new generation of aircraft will be one of the most important skill sets,” says Bush.
Bush also points out that phased A checks will continue to be a popular option since they require less ground time, are not dependent on the resources of a primary maintenance hub and add operational flexibility.
Phased A checks break into small packages all of the items inspected at one time during a full A check. Using figures provided by Alton Aviation Consultancy, and based on narrowbody jets, the typical phased approach is usually done at 10-day intervals and completed overnight in one 6-8-hr. shift. The block A check is typically done every 90 days, but it requires 1.5-2 shifts over 14-18 hr.
While a phased A check is done more frequently, some assert that given shorter hangar times, there is little to no impact on dispatch reliability. But as Berger explains, while phased A checks “looked very good on paper,” airlines began to discover they carried greater operational risks. “With a block A check, all the required inspections are done in one visit, and parts and labor are in place,” he says. “But if something is found that needs repair during a phased A check at an out station, where parts and labor may not be available, it would negatively impact dispatch. That’s why more operators are moving back to block A checks, which has actually improved on-time performance.”
Nevertheless, some airlines continue to use phased A checks. At JetBlue Airways, the decision was made three years ago to transition its 181 A320s from block A to phased A checks, but its 60 Embraer 190s were kept on the block A plan.
Boris Rogoff, the New York-based airline’s director for maintenance planning and technical operations, reports that the decision was predicated on flight utilization differentials between the two fleets. Specifically, the A320, at 11 flight hours/four flight cycles daily, has less hangar time than the E190s, which average eight flight hours/six flight cycles per day. “The main benefit we gained from phased checks was better operational flexibility and reduced man-hours, plus more opportunity to maximize revenue,” he says.
To illustrate, Rogoff explains that an A320 phased A check takes 6 hr. and two or three technicians. The block A check requires six to eight technicians and 10-12 hr. The phased A checks are done weekly and include some checks with greater depth than others.
In that regard, Rogoff cites cargo pit inspections. “We perform separate visits every four months that require in-depth exterior visual inspections, although those are not as long as a classic block A check since all the system checks are removed,” he notes.
Lufthansa Technik’s expanding global line maintenance business also is seeing the choice of A check types largely a matter of fleet composition and operational profile. Ulrich Hollerbach, vice president of maintenance for Europe and Lufthansa Technik Maintenance International CEO, says the focus is more on phased maintenance in the case of short-haul aircraft. “It offers the greatest flexibility when operating point-to-point networks, which is the case for low-cost carriers—the fastest-growing market for line maintenance. For long-haul aircraft, maintenance continues to be carried out in block checks.”
Long-haul low-cost carriers will have a role in the line maintenance market, but not as big as the short-haul low-cost, or long-haul hub carriers, he adds.
Colin Ethier, director of line maintenance at Air Canada in Toronto, explains that the airline uses a “bundled approach” to A checks, in the form of packaged tasks to be carried out during each check. All of those tasks are scheduled for an overnight visit and are designed around specific component or system-inspection intervals. While the intervals vary by aircraft type, Ethier says they generally average two months.
He adds that the line maintenance department has an agreement with the operations staff to allow a specific number of hours per night for an A check. The number of hours are aircraft- and base-dependent. For example, 1,328 labor-hours are allowed at Toronto, which has 53 to 60 aircraft overnight.
Air Canada’s fleet includes the Boeing 787 and 737 MAX, and Ethier says these more technically advanced aircraft require “a different breed” of aircraft maintenance engineer (AME).
“At Air Canada, we taught our AMEs a new skill set and built new training modules to prepare for the 787. It was so successful that we have expanded the program across our 737 MAX operation,” he says.
Notable & Quotable
“The new jets with their new technologies will require new skills from line mechanics and engineers. They will have to deal much more with digitized systems, especially in troubleshooting. In addition, the entire documentation and manuals become mobile, so the documentation process is carried out much faster and directly online at the aircraft. This means line mechanics must be well trained to work with electronic mobile devices. They will become normal tools, like a screwdriver.”
vice president of maintenance for Europe
and CEO of Lufthansa Technik