Phil Wardlaw, vice president of engineering and maintenance services, discusses how value-added services are driving the airline’s maintenance strategy as it embraces new technologies and prepares to begin operating the Airbus A350.
What are some of the key elements of Virgin Atlantic’s maintenance strategy?
Our key purpose is to be a maintenance and engineering department supporting Virgin Atlantic. While we have done some third-party work in the past, our raison d’etre is to focus on our airline. Within that, providing a value-added service is a critical element in terms of being fleet-leading in our technical reliability. Most of our MRO spending is outsourced at a ratio of around 80% to 20%—with Virgin Atlantic retaining fleet technical oversight and control of our main base line maintenance.
Virgin Atlantic has a number of partnerships globally with MROs, including Delta TechOps, AFI KLM E&M and Lufthansa Technik. What do you look for in a maintenance partner?
The way we source partners is quite similar to how we serve the airline in terms of looking for added value. We have a penchant for longer-term relationships and strategic supply-type arrangements whereby we work with partners looking to provide a wide range of services.
Which technology investments has Virgin prioritized in recent years for its maintenance operation?
Over the past 18 months, we’ve invested substantially in a program called Collective Engineer: We provide tablets to our frontline engineers to give them relevant maintenance data and a flying program overview along with access to some of the supplemental manuals. So far, the program has produced sizable benefits, and we are looking to continue this by putting more supplemental data into the tablets and bringing it to the frontline. Eventually, we will look to see how we can integrate our MRO IT systems into those tablets to further create a fully connected engineer. Full completion of the integration could take another year to 18 months.
How has Virgin Atlantic looked to make its maintenance operations leaner?
We’ve run several programs over the past few years focusing on lean practices. Virgin isn’t a full adopter of lean in its truest sense, but we’ve still drawn on lean practices such as total productive maintenance and 5S. These practices have been rolled out across our hangars and even on the lines to ensure better operation efficiency.
How effective have apprenticeships been in attracting new technical talent into the company?
We’ve run an engineering apprenticeship for a number of years, although it recently went on a two-year sabbatical. It has now restarted, and we welcomed 10 apprentices in September. Focusing on the younger demographic, I expect this to carry on for a number of years, as there is a great demand for skills across the industry in the UK and abroad. Apprenticeship programs have long proved to be very effective ways of bringing talent into the Virgin Atlantic maintenance and engineering department, and many of our technicians working started out through that route.
What do you foresee as the next big challenge for your maintenance team?
One challenge that isn’t necessarily purely maintenance-based is the use of data. With Virgin Atlantic now operating new-generation aircraft such as the Boeing 787, and from 2019 the Airbus A350, the volume of data those aircraft give to an airline engineering team raises the question of how it can be used to the best effect. It’s about picking through the huge volumes of data and using it in a truly value-added way in terms of operational or safety considerations.
How are your technicians preparing for the influx of Airbus A350-1000s, which are being brought in to eventually replace Virgin Atlantic Airbus A340s and Boeing 747s?
For the A350, we are running an engineering entry-into-service workstream as part of the overall A350 program. Within that, there is training, which we recently finished mapping out for technicians and certifiers. Our approach for the A350 is slightly different to the one we took for the 787 in terms of volumes that will be ready. On the 787, we adopted a more iterative approach prior to and during its entry into service. Lessons were taken from the 787 training, and we will be doing more up-front training for the A350. Much of this will be done in-house, while we’ll also work with Airbus and some other operators on the more practical elements of the training.
What are some future priorities for the engineering and maintenance division of Virgin Atlantic?
Technology will be the key element, and it is important for us to find an effective way of utilizing our current technologies while embracing emerging ones and using data effectively so that we can marry them together to give Virgin Atlantic the best engineering and maintenance department we can provide. This is both a challenge and an opportunity. The opportunity lies in driving the technology agenda forward in terms of the supporting systems along with the aircraft themselves. We want to be more effective in the way we conduct maintenance while ultimately producing a more proactively reliable fleet.
About Virgin Atlantic
Fleet size: Virgin Atlantic operates a mixed fleet of 39 Boeing and Airbus jets, including: the Boeing 747-400 and 787-9 and the Airbus A340-600 and A330-300. Deliveries of the A350-1000 are expected to begin in early 2019 to replace A330s and 747s. The airline also retains an option for six A380s.
Facilities and capabilities: The airline’s primary hangar is located at London Heathrow Airport, where it performs line maintenance services. Virgin Atlantic also conducts line maintenance at London Gatwick Airport and at its Manchester base as well as overseas in Johannesburg, Barbados and at New York John F. Kennedy International Airport.
Partners: All of Virgin Atlantic’s components are serviced by AFI KLM E&M. Some work, such as C checks on its A330 fleet, is conducted by Delta TechOps in Minneapolis. All checks on its A340 aircraft are outsourced to Germany’s Lufthansa Technik, while heavy C check work on the A330 and 747 have been outsourced to Haeco Xiamen in China.