Ever since JetBlue Airways distributed Apple iPad 4 tablets (now being phased out in favor of iPad Air 2) to its pilots three years ago to host electronic flight bags, the New York-based airline has been pushing the boundaries of mobile devices in the airline industry. Starting in 2014, all of the carrier’s cabin crewmembers have received the iPad Mini 3 with Touch ID tablets for activities such as point-of-sale transactions, documents, and access to forms, manuals and other resources for cabin management. Now JetBlue is using tablets for its line maintenance operations.
For JetBlue, the successful application of mobile devices to line maintenance tasks will be the result of an in-depth evaluation process in which the airline’s technicians played a major role.
“Whenever new technology is introduced, you have to institute change management by involving those people who will be directly impacted,” says Tony Lowery, JetBlue’s vice president-technical operations. “Our maintenance technicians have participated in all aspects of the evaluation process since it started early last year.”
Lowery says JetBlue “looked at every device on the market” and ultimately chose the iPad Mini 3, which is equipped with a 5 X 8-in. viewing screen. That tablet was one of four products evaluated—including Apple and Android, Windows-based and open platform types—of similar sizes. An important point in favor of the iPad Mini was that no changes to JetBlue’s IT infrastructure were necessary. “That includes the Citrix 6.5 platform, which is used to access maintenance data, which is hosted on Trax,” says Lowery, adding that “the road map” is to transition from Citrix to an iOS application in the future.
Other considerations that went into the selection process included the tablet’s usability as a tool in the maintenance process. “We had to provide a device that the technicians could easily carry, and access and view [maintenance-related] data,” he explains.
The evaluation also considered what each device was capable of displaying, and how long it would take to integrate into the existing IT system. What JetBlue found was that as a mobile device’s capability and complexity increased, so did IT integration time and costs. “That meant that we had to have a clear understanding of the functionality we wanted for the mobile devices,” says Lowery. “Once that was determined, the selection process was easier.”
The two primary functions required for deployment of the tablets upon roll-out were quick access to maintenance documentation—whether inside a hangar or at plane-side on a tarmac beyond a Wi-Fi zone.
“The inclusion of additional functions, beyond those two, would have made implementation more complex, costly and time-consuming. However, this is not to say that the two basic functions are what we will stay with, going forward,” Lowery stresses.
For example, JetBlue may add the capability to access technician training qualification records or ACARS (aircraft communications addressing and reporting system) information. “At some point those functions may be added, but only if we determine they will lead to higher productivity,” Lowery says. “We are always looking for continuous improvement, better compliance and adapting new technology.”
While technician involvement during the adoption phase was important, JetBlue sought advice from other airlines applying mobile devices to maintenance. Some freely shared their mistakes, which included using multiple tablet types or picking one that was virus-prone. “Some did not establish a change-management plan during the selection and implementation process,” Lowery reports.
A key recommendation from some of the carriers JetBlue contacted was to set up project phases but not to delay the deployment for what Lowery terms a “fix-all” solution. “Otherwise we would never deploy any devices to our technicians and quality control inspectors, if we waited for the perfect device with every desired application,” he says.
Lowery explains that a group of 11 technicians and two quality control inspectors at five of JetBlue’s 11 line maintenance stations tested the four devices over a six-month period. All of the devices were linked to JetBlue’s IT back-end system during the trials. Feedback from the field was done using face-to-face workshops, as well as by email survey.
“In some cases, it was found that the devices we looked at were open to attack or harder to integrate,” says Lowery. “Among the negative remarks from the participating technicians was ‘too much security, and too many logins.’ However, this issue has subsided greatly with the iPad Mini 3 tablet with implementation of biometrics.”
What also helped, according to Lowery, was that a majority of the technicians involved with the testing were familiar with the iPad and its functions. “For those with less knowledge of the device, we conducted test training classes to develop the best training for all levels of familiarity.”
Once a final product was chosen, a sampling of technicians evaluated it for a few more months. Consequently, says Lowery, “There were no tradeoffs that had to be made, and no setbacks, and no changes were required to our maintenance manuals and procedures.”
In fact, he reports that JetBlue met its targeted Aug. 1 date for full implementation of the devices. A pivotal point was reached in “late June and July, when 300 technicians were using the tablets at all 11 line maintenance stations,” he says. That number is now more than 500 line mechanics.
Lowery points out that the technicians and quality control inspectors who use iPads are permitted to take them home, since that is expected to “increase familiarity and instill a sense of ownership.”
The benefits of using mobile devices as a maintenance tool are already starting to show, especially in workflow. “Now that the technician has access to the data next to or onboard the aircraft, he no longer has to go to a desktop computer in order to look up and print out the [information] needed for the repairs such as, for example, a tracking history of any repetitive component defects. The result will be enhanced data quality, because the technician can see it—when and where he needs to—on a hand-held mobile device.”
Another major payoff anticipated will be a reduction in the number of short technical delays, which the airline defines as a minor mechanical problem taking 10 min. or less to resolve.
“Within 18 to 24 months of full implementation of the tablets, we expect to see improvements with technical dispatch reliability, since our technicians will no longer be dependent on the land-based (desktop) system currently in use, and will be able to deal much faster with problem disposition. From an operational perspective, we believe we can eliminate short-term technical delays completely.”
Asked about the return on investment, Lowery argues that the bottom line is a more productive workforce, which translates into lower costs.
“Return on investment is not a big concern, because as the devices are implemented, we should begin to see greater productivity immediately,” he explains. “We look at mobile devices as a staple tool—much like a wrench—that a technician needs to do his job. I believe our technicians will wonder how they did without mobile devices, just as we wonder how we did without cell phones for so many years.”