Digitizing heath monitoring and maintenance is a journey, not a revolution. That is especially true for the major fleets of narrowbody aircraft flown by many carriers. Different versions of aircraft, different hardware for pilots and mechanics and different software for analysis all come into use in gradual stages. And all this gets more complicated when two differently-equipped fleets are being merged, as is the case of Alaska Airlines and Virgin America.
At present, Alaska pilots on both Boeing and Airbus aircraft all have iPad Electronic Flight Bags. The carrier’s Airbus A319s, A320s and A321s have also had Class 3 EFBs, but these will be removed in fall, 2018, according to spokesperson Ann Johnson.
The Class 3 EFBs of Airbus aircraft were used in the past by mechanics to access Minimum Equipment List data, but Airbus mechanics will soon get their own iPads to get MEL data.
Johnson says Alaska pilots’ EFBs, whether on Boeing or Airbus jets, do not have electronic tech logs yet. However, “we will continue to look at options once we have the Virgin America and Alaska merger completed,” she notes. “We are 85% of the way there but still are integrating some systems.”
Though tech logs are not installed yet, Alaska makes full use of other aircraft data. During flight, aircraft transmit performance data and diagnostic reports for engines, APUs and environmental systems, all via ACARS. Flight operational quality assurance (FOQA) data is manually downloaded from each aircraft every three days. For Airbus jets, maintenance fault and warning messages are sent both real time via ACARS during flight and in a post-flight report at the end of each leg.
“ACARS data is essential to continuously monitor performance of engines and APUs,” Johnson says. For the Airbus fleet, fault data sent via ACARS is sometimes used to troubleshoot failures after landing. “This fault data has been very advantageous in pinpointing root cause of complex issues.” And FOQA data can also help troubleshoot systems on both Airbus and Boeing aircraft.
Johnson says operational data has been most helpful in monitoring engines and APUs on both Boeing and Airbus jets and some other systems on the Airbus fleet. For Boeing jets, Alaska engineers use software provided by engine and APU OEMs to analyze data, as well as commercially available software to summarize data on dashboards.
Health monitoring should improve soon. The carrier expects to get more immediate aircraft fault data from 737-MAXs, which will enter the fleet in June, 2019. And Airbus has just developed a new system that can access and send much more data than is currently available. “The new system will be installed on our next delivery in 2019,” Johnson says. “However, the services contracts and fees for data delivery have yet to be fully understood.”