Matilda Chan, general manager for engineering operations, spoke with Leithen Francis about Cathay Pacific Airways’ Airbus A350 entry into service, big data and cost pressures.
Our challenges are no secret. We have a slightly higher cost base, because the cost of land is higher. But we work to offset our higher cost base through greater efficiency in processes.
What is being done in Hong Kong to encourage young people to enter the MRO sector?
In the last 10 years, the local education opportunities have increased several-fold. When I was an engineering graduate [student], there were no aeronautical engineering courses; there were only mechanical and electrical engineering classes. But now we have a few at institutions such as Hong Kong’s Polytechnic University that feature aeronautical engineering.
People for years have had this perception that engineering is for men. I’m not sure what we have to do to get more women interested in engineering. In Hong Kong and the place that I work, there is equal opportunity. I don’t see any problem being a female working in this industry.
Are there any challenges a woman faces in a senior engineering position?
Surprisingly, I am not facing any unique challenges as a woman in a senior management position. In fact, I have been given more opportunity to be in the limelight. When I first joined Cathay Pacific, I joined with four gentlemen. I noticed [as soon as I joined] that everyone in the department could recall my name, but not the others’. I’ve also noticed that when I go to industry forums and events, people tend to recall my name very easily. I suspect my colleagues enjoy chatting with a female.
How do you see the MRO industry evolving, changing?
The airlines’ profit margins have continued to diminish, so they are looking to MRO companies for value, reduction in cost and improvement in turnaround times. The introduction of newer aircraft, such as the Airbus A350 and Boeing 787, is expected to reduce the volume of maintenance work dramatically. This is due to the use of composite materials, so it means MRO will become less labor-intensive but more knowledge-based. So the shift will be toward more data analytics.
How much of a role will 3-D printing play in the MRO industry in future? What are some useful applications you see for it?
I see 3-D printing as a major innovation in the MRO industry and something people should look at. It does not have mainstream applications yet, but it will have a role. I see applications mostly being in nonstructural parts such as those for cabin interiors. And, 3-D printing can reduce costs and improve lead time in getting parts for interiors.
We have seen real progress in virtual-reality and augmented-reality software. Do you think such technology may be useful in helping to train maintenance engineers and technicians?
I agree 100%. Virtual reality will help maintenance engineers and technicians speed up the learning curve. Aircraft components and parts rarely fail these days, so it is hard for maintenance personnel to gain experience in dealing with different scenarios. But using virtual-reality software for training would help them to gain experience.
What is Cathay Pacific doing in terms of big data and building up its predictive-maintenance capability?
Cathay is using big data in its operations and developing capabilities in predictive maintenance. This is still in its infancy but is very much a focus and part of the airline’s broader effort to remain competitive. OEMs such as Airbus and Boeing have been helping Cathay with this. The use of big data has helped the airline to rethink its approach to scheduled maintenance and reduced its maintenance costs.
You were part of the team that worked to introduce the Airbus A350 into Cathay’s fleet. How was that experience?
Entry into service of the A350 was exciting for Cathay. It has been more than 20 years since Cathay introduced a new passenger aircraft type into its fleet, and it was the first in my career. The airline spent two years working with Airbus on the A350 entry into service, to make sure the suppliers and maintenance facility were prepared for all aspects. Compared to the A330/A340, the A350 has a much more powerful maintenance diagnostics system. Some of the A350’s other key innovations are that modification of the avionics can be done with a software upgrade rather than a hardware upgrade. The heavy check, which Airbus refers to as a 4C check and Boeing refers to as a D check, occurs once every 12 years rather than every six years on an A330.