As airlines continue to adjust their fleet sizes up and down, adjusting the level of maintenance support across an aircraft fleet is a vital aspect of MRO strategy. During the past few years, the airline industry has faced several challenges such as higher operating costs, growing competition and macroeconomic uncertainties.
In an effort to face up to these challenges, many airlines have adopted strategies aimed at “rightsizing” their operations: reorganizing and redeploying their assets to get the most out of their fleet capacities in response to cost pressures, factoring in seasonal demand fluctuations and improving the management of flight schedules.
In practice, rightsizing can be carried out in a number of ways. For example, some airlines strive to ensure the appropriate size aircraft are assigned to flights, while others might choose to replace older aircraft with new and more fuel-efficient models.
Although it requires a hefty initial investment, this is a strategy many airlines are using to save on both fuel costs and maintenance—and to avoid passing on such expenditures directly to passengers. “These savings are essential to staying competitive,” says Sylvain Ausset, head of aircraft maintenance planning at SR Technics.
Airlines that are adding to their fleets with new orders also can face hurdles. New York-based carrier JetBlue Airways was a launch customer for Embraer’s E190 and also had large orders in place for Airbus A320neo-family aircraft.
“A new fleet affects how our tech-ops teams adjust to support the network,” says Boris Rogoff, JetBlue’s director of maintenance planning. “A new fleet typically will be for a specific market or routes, so we are constantly reviewing our plans to ensure it fits our tech-ops footprint. Each team may have to make tradeoffs to adapt to the footprint so that we can support the new fleet and the airline. The more efficient we get with the plan, the less constraint on the network and the better tech-ops can support JetBlue’s growth and business plan.”
Another common rightsizing strategy for airlines is establishing the right fleet mix and quantity within aircraft types to meet their operating schedules. For example, some airlines might mix twin-engine regional jets with larger aircraft in their daily schedules in an effort to improve efficiency and reduce costs if demand drops at a particular time of year and switch to operating only larger aircraft as demand rises, perhaps in busy holiday periods.
“These decisions are taken based on capacity and market conditions, which dictate the most efficient aircraft types and frequencies for the optimal seat capacity on given routes,” says Allan Bachan, vice president at consultancy Oliver Wyman.
Troy Jonas, vice president at AAR Airframe Maintenance Services, agrees that many airlines adjust their schedules to ensure that maximum fleet capacity is available for peak travel periods. “Minimal heavy maintenance and cabin upgrades” occur during peak flying periods because airlines do not want to take aircraft out of service. “They do this to meet customer demand and maximize revenue,” he says.
Changing Fleet Mix
So how does a maintenance strategy to support rightsizing differ from a typical plan, and what are the key differences? To begin with, Bachan points out that a rightsizing maintenance support strategy must acknowledge there are fewer “known activities” for the foreseeable future—at least when compared to a typical maintenance strategy—so it can be more difficult to plan ahead, especially when it comes to securing hangar slots at provider facilities.
“A rightsizing program can also be predictable when well-planned, but each event will be different depending on the type of activity in addition to the scheduled tasks such as bridge checks, painting, seating configurations and so on,” Jonas says.
For the planning phase, the use of software has become increasingly integral for airlines. Operators also are installing software to help in fleet planning as they look for cost and operational gains.
This year, JetBlue began using the TRAX Interactive Planner for its line maintenance planning, while adopting Airbus’s Smarter Fleet platform’s planning tool for long-term work.
The program, according to Rogoff, has helped eliminate a lot of the manual steps to create work orders, allowing JetBlue’s technical teams to be more strategic in their planning in the face of challenges. “As we saw the airline grow, the planning scenarios quickly became more complex,” he says. “Much like a wing design uses CFD [computational fluid dynamics] to calculate a pressure gradient, or Nastran calculates fatigue stress on a fuselage, planning software can calculate an optimized plan. If the tools can get you a 1%, 5% or 10% improvement on hundreds of millions of dollars, that’s significant.”
Bachan also points out that, from an MRO-needs standpoint, the fleet mix, sizes and types of aircraft may change. This means airlines will need to ensure induction and transfer programs. They will include bridging checks, redelivery to lessors and the sale of aircraft and material assets, all of which have MRO implications. “The age of aircraft and where they are in their maintenance cycles will also influence the volume of maintenance activity needed to prepare and upkeep the rightsized fleets,” he says.
Although Bachan admits that in a perfect world, scheduled maintenance would be level throughout the year, Jonas stresses that like many other MRO providers, AAR understands its customers need to plan for maximized capacity at peak travel times.
“Our MRO facilities adjust operations to accommodate airlines’ schedules,” Jonas says. “We collaborate closely with our customers, both to understand their requirements and plan ahead in order to deploy our manpower and resources accordingly.”
Meanwhile, SR Technics’ Ausset points out that a key difference in the company’s maintenance strategy to support rightsizing relates to the turnkey contract, which he says allows for the management of engineering design, production and material procurement services on top of the typical FAA Part 145 MRO work.
“This is a key advantage for the airline, which can trust one partner to cover all of its maintenance requirements, especially cabin modifications tailored to the airline’s needs,” Ausset explains.
As a result of its MRO provider experience and interaction with airlines, SR Technics is “well aware” of the ongoing needs of the industry, particularly in terms of “the pressure to stay profitable and the goal of remaining attractive to passengers,” Ausset notes.
To do so, he says the company supports airlines through a wide spectrum of the services required during rightsizing activities, such as cabin modifications: installing slimmer seats to increase passenger capacities and renewing and optimizing first-, business- and economy-class passenger layouts as well as inflight entertainment systems.
Peaks and Valleys
Despite the willingness of many MRO providers to adapt to such changing demands, they still commonly face a range of issues when providing maintenance for airlines that rightsize their fleets. Some MROs have adopted novel approaches to adjusting their operations to cater to the inevitable changes. For example, Ausset emphasizes that the main obstacle SR Technics faces in these cases is to ensure competitive pricing while maintaining and increasing the quality of its services.
“To address this, the company has successfully ramped up a narrowbody MRO center in Malta with low-cost carriers in mind,” Ausset reports. “Also, when it comes to aircraft redelivery, we understand the economic pressure to get aircraft back in the air as quickly as possible.”
Bachan reiterates that the predictability of the work type—as well as the volume expected—continues among the main issues facing maintenance companies. “One coping mechanism is swapping out blocks [of time] for previously scheduled checks [in exchange] for rightsizing activities and phasing the work into multiple visits. For example, separating painting programs from bridge checks or induction checks,” he says.
Jonas agrees that the main concern for an MRO provider lies in managing the “peaks and valleys” of airline demand for heavy maintenance. “As skilled technicians are our greatest asset, we have to find ways to productively engage them during slow maintenance periods. In some cases, we’re able to deploy some technicians to supplement our airline customers’ line operations,” he notes.
Jonas adds that AAR schedules required training as well as encourages vacations during slow periods. However, while such strategies help mitigate the challenges, he stresses that they do not offset the disruption to his company’s operations. “Without question, there’s a cost to our business related to seasonal fluctuations of airline operations,” Jonas says. Looking ahead, he predicts the seasonal deployment strategies of airline companies “will remain part of the landscape.”
That said, Bachan does not believe there will be key innovations and trends that are focused specifically on maintenance or MRO support for rightsizing in the near future, largely because such changes “will also be affected by evolving trends with MRO in general,” he says. Some of these emerging trends are 3-D printing, RFID [radio-frequency identification], drones as inspection tools and voice interaction for communications between mechanics and software.”
—With James Pozzi in London.