Finnair’s recent long-haul fleet expansion was signaled by the introduction of new Airbus A350s at the end of 2015. With more of these aircraft set to arrive over the next two years, the airline’s head of engineering, Juha Ojala, tells Inside MRO’s James Pozzi how it prepared technicians for the A350 influx and discusses the carrier’s broader MRO strategy.
What does Finnair look for in an aftermarket partner—be it a parts supplier, logistics or maintenance provider?
Finnair has a wide range of different MRO partners. Depending on criticality for operations and annual spending, we have categorized each supplier, and the management system is defined accordingly. Component support is a good example of a very important link in the whole supply chain, and there we have established deep partnerships with a strong management system. An example is a component support provider, which provides not only component maintenance but with which we work closely to improve technical reliability. At the same time we optimize stock levels and logistical arrangements to ensure steady and quick material flows between stock locations.
Are you able to give us any examples of MRO contracts that you have signed in recent years and why they were the best option for Finnair?
There are three main areas where MRO services have been outsourced: components, engines and base maintenance checks. All these changes have been necessary and good for Finnair. The main reason behind this has been Finnair’s fleet change from MD-11 aircraft to an Airbus widebody fleet together with the MRO market change in Europe. On base maintenance, we had full capabilities for MD-11 heavy maintenance after being the first airline to take the aircraft in 1990. Since then, we have built extensive capabilities to do any maintenance on MD-11s and were able to step into the MRO market.
However, our Airbus fleet started to replace MD-11s in 2005 and there was a lot of MRO capacity available in the market, so there wasn’t a good business case for building up A340 capability. The introduction of the A330 followed, and with a shrinking MD-11 market, the business case for in-house heavy maintenance eroded, as it would have required high critical volumes and big investments. Since then, we have established a good balance between in-house maintenance and outsourced heavy maintenance. We work with CSA Technics on our A320 fleet, and this partnership allows us to extend our planning window and increase flexibility in maintenance planning. This is increasingly important when optimizing fleet utilization to meet passenger demand and seasonal fluctuation, because doing this in-house, we would never have been able to react strongly enough on those demands. Finnair has established a strategic partnership with SR Technics to provide full component support service to the Embraer 190, A320 family and A330/340 fleets. This partnership has given us access to a bigger component pool, and together with SR Technics’ experience we have been able to develop our performance and component reliability. Component support is always also a logistical challenge, and any time spent for transportation is wasted. [Working] with SR Technics, we have developed a component-tracking system using RFID tags to manage and share the information on component movements in real time.
What do you see as the next big challenge for Finnair’s maintenance teams?
We are working hard on productivity improvement; it has improved 10% during the past 18 months, and we have set even greater targets. The next big enabler is digitization of the line-maintenance process. Managing and reporting work progress in real time using smartphones and tablets for mechanics and engineers will provide real-time situational awareness. It is needed in our operations control center (OCC) to optimize real-time flight information. One big challenge is also to get the most out of the great potential that the A350 offers. The maintenance philosophy is further developed to reduce hard time maintenance requirements and putting more effort on predictive maintenance.
Finnair recently introduced the A350 into its fleet. How did the maintenance teams prepare for its arrival in terms of training?
Two years before the first delivery, we reviewed our staff competence level and trained engineers to existing fleets to ensure enough time and resources for A350 training the following year. We also checked the engineers’ licenses to find out what B1/B2 limitations still existed from national license conversions to European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) Part 66 licenses. During that year, we managed to train engineers on our legacy fleet and get the licenses ready for A350 training. Since there were neither Part 147 training organizations approved for the new aircraft type nor real aircraft available, we decided to rely on Airbus’s training group, which organized five full B1/B2 type courses at our facilities in Helsinki. These courses were also used to prepare our own Part 147 training organization for upcoming courses. Before the first A350 delivery, 60 people completed the full-type course. We also organized familiarization courses for office staff and management. Practical training was arranged, first in Toulouse and later also in Helsinki when we had our own aircraft available. Now we are running A350-type courses in-house, so more engineers are being trained.
What technologies have you invested in to support your MRO teams?
The most important and biggest investment has been the change of our maintenance information system (MIS). Before, we used to have an old mainframe computer system and a huge amount of different applications built around it. Now we have run the AMOS system, made by Swiss-AS, for almost four years, and it has really changed our way of working.
There are also many smaller changes with new technologies around the MIS change. For example, we have had a pilot project on an RFID application and are expanding that to various processes. In the future, the greatest impact is expected from our maintenance process transformation and digitization. It is not just new equipment but the whole new way of management. After the transformation, mechanics working on the apron will use their smartphones and tablets to receive real-time information and tasks, which will report back to the maintenance system. So we can present overall production status and build situational awareness wherever needed—in operations control center, maintenance control center and management. Our vision is to have paperless maintenance with great transparency to provide a good view of maintenance production anytime, anywhere.
A “skills gap” is much talked about in the MRO sector. How is Finnair working to bridge this gap by helping develop the next generation of maintenance technicians?
As a result of MRO market restructuring and fleet changes during the last 10 years, we have had limited opportunities to recruit young technicians. However, we have long had close cooperation with various Finnish training organizations and training academies providing hands-on training for Part 66 technician trainees. Beyond participation in basic training, we have been able to agree with labor unions on new, more flexible working-time solutions. Our cooperation with training organizations continues, and we also are continuously evaluating some insourcing possibilities to ease this transformation.
History: Founded in 1923 and among the five oldest airlines in the world, Finnair is headquartered at Helsinki-Vantaa Airport. An airline of firsts, Finnair was the first Western European carrier to fly from Europe to China nonstop in 1988, while also being the inaugural customer for the MD-11 aircraft one year later. Part-owned by the country’s government, which holds a 55% share, the airline operates routes to Europe, North America and Asia.
Fleet: Finnair operates an all-Airbus fleet of 48 aircraft, which comprise 10 A319s, 10 A320s, 11 A321s, eight A330s, five A340s and four A350s. By 2017, it is expected to add seven A350s and an A340 to its fleet, and its overall fleet size is set to reach 57 aircraft by 2018.
In-house facilities: Finnair has two line-maintenance hangars in Helsinki. The larger 28,000-sq.-meter (301,400 sq.-ft.) hangar has capacity to take four A350s and 2-4 narrowbody aircraft at the same time. The other hangar at Helsinki is for line maintenance for narrowbodies and can hold up to six aircraft at once. In addition, Finnair has component-maintenance facilities supporting line maintenance and local operations with shops for services on wheels and brakes, batteries, galley inserts, nitrogen and oxygen systems, cargo containers and emergency equipment. Other capabilities include NDT inspections and sheet metal and composite work. Its Finnair Technical Operations division employs just under 600 staff, with around 400 comprising its line- and component-maintenance teams.
Third-party services: The airline’s technical division offers limited airframe and engineering third-party services, such as providing hangar space and ad hoc line maintenance support for AOG situations. Ojala saysthis is partly because the facilities at Helsinki are mainly set up for Finnair operations, since few other major airlines operate from its Helsinki hub.