EasyJet aircraft Nigel Howarth/AWST
EasyJet is helping Airbus develop baseline reliability metrics for A320 components.

Airlines Deriving Benefits From Maintenance Data-Crunching

Succesful data-exchange platforms are leading to larger roles at airlines

Printed headline: Immediate Returns

The push to leverage data for smarter, more cost-effective maintenance has spawned scores of agreements among operators, suppliers and equipment manufacturers. While many of these deals are focused on the future—new aircraft streaming new data, new data platforms that capture it and new teams of data scientists to make sense of it all—a growing number of agreements are yielding results now.

At last year’s Paris Air Show, Airbus unveiled Skywise, its open-data platform. The airframer also revealed several pilot programs that take real-world data and drive maintenance efficiencies. Among them is collaboration with EasyJet to help establish fault signatures on certain A320-family parts. The goals: detect failures before they happen, and reduce service interruptions. 

The pilot program was limited to looking at faults on three components—high-pressure valves, radio altimeters and integrated drive generators—across only 85 of EasyJet’s 180 aircraft. The program worked: EasyJet cited 31 instances of Skywise correctly predicting faults before they occurred in service, allowing the carrier to intervene and remove components before they failed. 

This success convinced EasyJet to sign a five-year agreement with Airbus to broaden the program scope. As part of the effort, EasyJet will be equipping its fleet with Rockwell Collins’ flight operations and maintenance exchanger (Fomax) during the next year. Fomax both collects more data than current systems and provides paths for delivering it to places it can be used such as analytics programs.

While Fomax adds capability, it was not essential to deriving benefits. EasyJet blended internal data with information coming from the aircraft sensors and, using Skywise and some Airbus software, developed specific sets of parameters. 

Nigel Howarth/AWST

EasyJet is helping Airbus develop baseline reliability metrics for A320 components.

While capturing more and better data offers promise, leveraging what is collected now is ripe low-hanging fruit. 

“You have to do something with the data,” says Dave Gitlin, president of UTC Aerospace Systems (UTAS), which is being combined with Rockwell Collins as part of parent company United Technologies Corp.’s purchase of Collins. “In this industry, which is a cutting-edge industry, there are still airlines that look at this data once a month, where they download the data once the aircraft lands, onto a 3.5-in. floppy disk—a 3.5-in. floppy disk! Who else uses those today?

“We can get this data real-time into the hands of people that can really make sense of it,” Gitlin continues. “[They can] take a proactive decision to actually pull a generator before it’s a very costly repair.”

In some cases, the data is in the right place but is not easily manageable. When Qantas Airways was having trouble prioritizing fault messages generated from its A380s, Airbus stepped in and helped devise a plan. The manufacturer helped define a workflow-management process for reviewing and prioritizing faults, then scheduling work accordingly. Airbus and Qantas turned the process into an algorithm and created simple software to run it. Then they connected it to the relevant sources such as the airline database that collects Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System data as well as its maintenance information system for providing task updates. The system was put on the airline’s network so all stakeholders could have access.

The prototype’s result increased efficiency in several ways. It helped prioritize tasks based on a fault’s potential effect on an aircraft and increased the visibility of open tasks across maintenance shifts. Another key: the prototype tracks the faults, subsequent actions and outcomes, creating a de facto single-source log that can become increasingly valuable—and instructive—as the dataset grows.

Qantas soon saw a reduction in the number of open fault messages for its A380s. Airbus recognizes the potential for developing similar programs for other aircraft types, integrating real-time data and potentially using Skywise to provide guidance based on aggregated data from multiple operators.

Operators also are taking advantage of the additional major opportunity to optimize both operations and maintenance schedules by assigning the right tail numbers to the right routes. A major North American carrier has used a Boeing-owned system for tail planning for more than a decade. 

The system, now part of Jeppesen and integrated into Boeing’s AnalytX suite of digital tools, helps ensure the carrier’s tail plan is optimized for both each airframe and external conditions, such as weather. Factors such as an aircraft’s technical condition can affect performance, such as fuel burn, making a certain tail number a better match than others in the same sub-fleet. If an airframe is closer to a scheduled maintenance check, it may make sense to operate that aircraft on routes selected to maximize hours and cycles, or position it at a specific station in the carrier’s network on a specific date. 

The airline says AnalytX yields several tangible benefits. The carrier has more possible spares at its hub—aircraft it can reschedule to higher priority routes when technical faults threaten the use of assigned airliners. It also optimizes the airline’s maintenance induction plan by creating maximum hours and cycles without deviating from the schedule. 

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