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Why Airlines, Aftermarket Struggle With Digital Record-Keeping

Paper accounts for about 90% of all commercial airliner maintenance records globally, which increases the risk of incomplete information.

A commercial airliner typically will pass through five or six owners or operators between initial delivery and retirement. With that much movement, the risk increases that at least some maintenance documentation will be lost. The reason is paper.

Paper accounts for about 90% of all commercial airliner maintenance records globally, according to John Maggiore, director of maintenance and leasing solutions for Boeing Digital Aviation. “There are literally millions of boxes of paper-based documents, which would circle the Earth 25 times if laid end to end,” he explains. “For now, the MRO industry is just in the early stages of transitioning toward electronic formats.” 

Records for legacy aircraft are highly susceptible to missing paper maintenance documents, according to Andreas Stenger, project manager for digital business innovation at Lufthansa Technik in Germany. “Looking at our experiences with numerous lease-return projects, we always identify missing, incomplete or inaccurate documentation,” he reports.

While Stenger says some missing records can be found by contacting former owners or MROs, he cautions that without supporting MRO documents, components will need to be pulled and “re-exchanged” or repairs repeated, resulting in unplanned expense and delay within the lease-return process.

Given the huge amount of paper-based documentation, notes Stenger, “it is highly probable” that the maintenance history will not be complete, as not all relevant documents can be found. “Sticking to paper-based processes, operators must invest significant effort in managing their records and continuously proving they are in regulatory compliance,” he says.

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Obtaining engine maintenance documentation can be equally problematic. As Rudy Bryce, GE Aviation’s general manager for TrueChoice Transitions, reports, paperwork issues are frequently encountered when evaluating assets. The older the engine, he says, the more challenging the traceability, particularly for pre-electronic age (1990s vintage) powerplants—as well as widebody engines.

“Engines on widebody aircraft present the greater documentation challenge since they accumulate cycles more slowly, and life-limited parts [LLP] can remain with those engines for decades,” Bryce says. “By comparison, in the narrowbody and regional airliner fleets, cycles accumulate much faster. LLPs are changed more frequently, so the paperwork trail is shorter.” 

He points out that engines alone can generate thousands of pages of documents over their service lives. “The sheer volume can be a challenge, but beyond that, you have issues like lack of standardization and even legibility,” Bryce asserts. “Records have no value if they are not legible, and a few bad scans in a digital package can pose a real problem in a transaction.” He adds that network-security measures also can cause problems. “A lot of firewalls make it difficult or impossible to easily transmit the volumes of data we’re dealing with.”

Maintenance records can involve a combination of paper and electronic formats, as Toby Page, manager of fleet transactions for Southwest Airlines, reports. He notes that the Dallas-based carrier is “very active in the used 737NG market” and sees about a 50-50 mix of paper and digital records.

“We have to deal with both,” Page says. “Some electronic records are located in cloud storage, while others are on somebody’s desktop computer. For some aircraft, we have seen where the record-keeping went from paper to electronic.”

Page stresses that record completeness depends more on the number of operators of an aircraft than its age. “With more operators, there is a greater risk of missing documents,” he says. “Things do get misplaced, but keeping records in digital format considerably mitigates the risk of incomplete record sets.”

Maurick Groeneveld agrees. He is director of aircraft management and remarketing at Frankfurt-headquartered Doric, which has a portfolio of jets in the leasing market. “Electronic records are easier to handle,” he contends. “The aircraft leasing [industry] still wants hard copies, such as job cards that show what was done to repair the airplane. We’ll scan the paper documents to make them easier to handle, as well as for security.”

Going forward, Groeneveld predicts the industry will generate more electronic job cards, but this will increasingly be linked to the aircraft’s onboard technology, as well as what the operator is allowed to do by its country’s aviation regulatory authority.

As for how maintenance documentation will be affected by the big-data-producing, new generation of commercial jets, along with advances in connectivity technology, Groeneveld says there are challenges. He cites an example: “The data belongs to the aircraft and hence the owner. However, getting access to data that resides with the OEM can be a challenge and requires extra effort for lessors—particularly in cases of unplanned lease returns. This is generating extra wording in lease agreements related to data access.”

David Campbell, senior vice president and manager of technical operations for aircraft leasing giant GECAS, stresses the need for standardization and harmonization, especially as electronic records become more widespread and many airlines develop “integrated solutions across all areas of their maintenance” operations.

“The industry has had limited success in agreeing to a worldwide standard for the interchange of such records, and there are no guidance materials on ‘eRecord’ transfers,” Campbell notes. “The Aviation Working Group and the International Air Transport Association are working on standardizing the redelivery checklist of technical records.”

The International Civil Aviation Organization, says Campbell, has established a “work program that endorses the need” to develop and introduce the organization’s provisions in support of state approval and recognition of electronic records and digital processing of such records. “We hope this program will deliver guidance materials enabling worldwide eRecord movements and obviate the need for any paper.”

As the industry embraces electronic change, other issues arise such as the ongoing evolution in data storage technology. “During transfer between different systems, data loss is an emerging problem,” says Kestutis Volungevicius, head of engineering and training at FL Technics in Lithuania. “It might happen that one system’s mandatory field could be optional for another system, thus some additional information or cross-references that had been collected during years of operations could be lost with one click.”

In fact, rapid changes in technology could present difficulties along the lines of what Volungevicius mentions.

Bob Jones, a product marketing specialist for Aircraft Technical Publishers (ATP) of Brisbane, California, explains that with electronic record-keeping, the main concern is the media on which the information will be saved, such as in a cloud, bubble memory or thumb drives. “That gets into questions about volatility,” Jones says. “Could the physical integrity of the media deteriorate to the point where the data is no longer retrievable?”

The longevity and retrievability of MRO data are a major challenge for the industry, reports Manuel Terranova, president, CEO and founder of Peaxy of San Jose, California. This is particularly true, he says, for the preservation of unstructured data, which includes noninvasive testing results, engineering drawings and data generated by simulations. 

“Those are the kinds of data that live in file form, and tend to reside on storage systems that are designed for a tech cycle of about 3-5 years,” Terranova says. “As these tech cycles change, the files will be copied and moved to more data storage spindles. It is during this refresh process when the files are moved, that the information . . . can get lost.”

Along with accessibility, says ATP’s Jones, it is important to consider whether the information can be shared with others. “That raises questions as to how the information is accessed and shared, and the format in which the data has been saved,” he says. “Also, does the software have any restrictions on access for sharing?”

Transferring electronic data also runs the risk of encountering incompatible formats. “If the buyer and seller of an aircraft use different data-hosting formats, the buyer would have to determine if the data can be transferred to the format he is using and if there is a risk of some data being lost,” cautions Sylvain Le Gall, the Montreal-based vice president-Americas for the 2MoRO Group of France.

Le Gall points out that as the era of big data approaches, security will become increasingly important. “The data, generated aboard the aircraft, will transit to the end users via one or more networks, such as the internet or an in-house network,” he explains. “The risk here is that someone who is not authorized could access the content of that data. This will be especially challenging for airlines with global operations.”

However slowly, progress is being made toward going totally digital. For example, in June of this year, Lufthansa Technik went into a partnership with FLYdocs, a UK company providing aircraft technical and business support services, including data and records management.

“For us, it is the first important step to sustainably improve the efficiency of industry processes,” says Lufthansa Technik’s Stenger. FLYdocs enables users to automatically extract all relevant data from the documents and match records to the maintenance tasks. 

“The real-time current maintenance status shown in FLYdocs can, for example, be used by all lessors to get a robust estimate of the value of their assets and further help to identify the need for quick interaction instead of having delayed lease returns due to unplanned events,” Stenger says.

FL Technics’ Volungevicius reports that the MRO is working with those customers that store all continuing airworthiness data on a cloud server. “As a CAMO [continuing airworthiness management organization], we can have access to the data and perform our activity on a remote basis, and the operator can check real-time data whenever he wants,” he says. “For CAMOs and their customers, this will lead to a reduction of time required for aircraft delivery.” 

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