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Firms Cooperate On Inflight Connectivity To Report MRO Issues Faster

Getting the heads-up about maintenance defects while the aircraft is still in the air could reduce delays and potentially save airlines millions of dollars each year.

Broadband provider Gogo and MRO software provider Ultramain have partnered to facilitate use of inflight data to speed up ground maintenance.

The partnership started when T.J. Horsager, Gogo’s product manager, approached Ultramain’s director of flight technologies, Larry Lenamon, in early 2015. Horsager saw synergies between Ultramain’s electronic flight logs (EFL) and Gogo’s infrastructure and connectivity.

“Ultramain is a leader in maintenance electronic tech logs,” Horsager says. “It has a number of airline deployments and is strong with Boeing.” Ultramain’s EFL software resides on flight-bag computers on Boeing 777s and 787s and Airbus A350s. These dedicated systems are a permanent part of the aircraft. Pilots or cabin crew record inflight defects on these systems, and reports are sent to maintenance departments and retained in onboard systems.

But many airlines now give pilots and crew iPads or Microsoft Surface tablets instead of computers. According to one recent survey, 100,000 iPads have been distributed to airline pilots globally.

Mobile devices can support most of the EFL functions that onboard systems can, at a fraction of the cost, and can be upgraded frequently and cheaply. But the flight crew takes the devices with them on landing. Lenamon says that to be effective, EFL data must be sent to the ground and retained onboard.

Gogo provides an onboard computer for retaining EFL data on aircraft and broadband connectivity to transmit data to the ground. Pilots and flight attendants can enter defects into the EFLs on their tablets, and this data can be transmitted first through Gogo’s wireless access points to its onboard server and then to the ground via broadband.

Thus, like paper logbooks, EFL data can “fly with the aircraft,” Lenamon explains. “There’s a master copy of the most current version on the EFL always on the aircraft.” This is essential if the aircraft loses connectivity, for example, at a remote station.

The partners demonstrated a trial version of their systems at the Airline Passenger Experience Association conference in Portland, Oregon, in September 2015. An EFL that stored only cabin-crew defect reports was displayed.

Ultramain is now developing efbTechLogs 2.0, a new generation of EFL for mobile devices that is engineered to run on Gogo hardware and exploit Gogo connectivity. A demonstration version is planned for June. The new EFL will be able to record defects from both the cabin and cockpit crew. The partners plan to have a production version of the system ready by year-end.

Ultramain’s current EFLs, hardwired onto aircraft systems, send reports to the ground via the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS), an old and expensive system designed for voice transmission. Gogo’s broadband connectivity should be much more ample and efficient, Lenamon says. EFL data will be trivial in size compared with the requirements of passenger connectivity that Gogo supports.

The system will send to the ground data on defects discovered in flight, and this will enable maintenance planners to prepare a fix for them well before landings. The onboard EFL also may be connected to aircraft health-monitoring systems, so pilots can detect deviations from normal operations and send these to ground planners as well.

Communication links are two-way; ground workers or maintenance-planning systems will be able to send data, for example about the next scheduled maintenance check, to the onboard EFL.

Lenamon emphasizes that the Ultramain-Gogo tool will work with maintenance software other than Ultramain’s. EFL data will be received and transmitted in an Ultramain ground system that works in Spec 2000, Chapter 17 format. If other systems use this standard format, interchange of EFL data should be seamless and real-time.

What are the bottom-line benefits? Lenamon reckons the inflight heads-up on problems will reduce delays and cancellations and save “five figures per tail, multiple millions for a large airline per year.” He is working on software that will help prospective customers estimate their own costs and benefits.

The partners are eager to get going, approaching their existing customer bases first. Gogo connects 2,300 aircraft today, and Ultramain EFLs are used by nine airlines. Gogo and other broadband connections are growing rapidly. Lenamon says EFLS grew slowly at first, partly because they affected so many airline departments, but are accelerating with deployment of tablets. He expects connected tablets to further spur EFL adoption.

The partners acknowledge that other pairs may try to link up and offer a combined EFL and connection solution. But “implementation is complex,” Lenamon notes. “And we are first to market.” 

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