Print headline: Planning Ahead
In an industry where fleet utilization is critical to keeping airline revenues healthy, scheduling maintenance effectively to minimize asset downtime is essential. With greater volumes of data being extracted from aircraft, along with an influx of new tools and technologies for using this information, methods of carrying out maintenance planning have also become more sophisticated.
However, some in the industry are finding that maintenance planning techniques have not developed as quickly as anticipated. Mark Martin, director for the commercial operator product line in the aerospace and defense business unit at software specialist IFS, says carriers typically spend more on maintenance than on fuel or crew, and this reality makes MRO costs a prime target for any reductions. “Yet as the next generation of aircraft enter service and with fleet sizes growing larger than ever before, typically maintenance scheduling, planning and execution strategies have not advanced at the same pace,” he says, highlighting that many operators are still using manual processes such as spreadsheets.
Martin says there are some key fundamentals required to ensure any fleet maintenance plan works effectively. “Building an executable long-range plan often depends largely on the tribal knowledge built up in the planning organization over many years,” he says. “At the highest level, fleet maintenance planning must span all aircraft across a sprawling network of routes. Any changes to the plan can have huge knock-on effects further down the line—with schedules being torn apart in minutes when an aircraft becomes unavailable at short notice, or when parts and labor availability change.”
American Airlines, the world’s largest commercial operator, relies heavily on planning strategies across its maintenance operation that focus solely on servicing its in-house fleet. The scale of the fleet, along with the variety of aircraft types it operates on 6,700 daily flights across 350 domestic and international routes, makes scheduling MRO a major challenge.
Craig Barton, vice president of technical services at the Dallas-based carrier, says American is still finalizing parts of the operational integration with US Airways, a merger that was completed in 2013, with the integration process commencing the following year. “One of the final areas is in the technical operation core maintenance systems,” he says. As part of an ongoing process, American is also integrating its maintenance network so that all work, tooling, materials and other maintenance needs can be completed on any aircraft at any of its maintenance locations.
Operating the world’s largest commercial fleet presents some planning hurdles. “Workload balancing can be challenging in a large maintenance network that can have high numbers of overnight-maintenance aircraft, especially in peak seasons,” Barton says. Further complications are presented by the complex alignment of dual-maintenance software programs American operates. “Working in two maintenance planning systems (even with a common user interface) and three inventory systems can complicate that work as we work toward our tech ops integration,” Barton says.
Many carriers prefer a single maintenance software system. Southwest Airlines implemented IFS’s Maintenix software across its Boeing 737 fleet in 2018, with the aim of consolidating its maintenance systems by 2019. It had previously used two maintenance systems: the first is a legacy Wizard system, a version of Maxi-Merlin, along with a Trax system that was inherited when Southwest acquired and integrated the operations of low-cost carrier AirTran Airways in 2010.
The MRO software market, valued at more than $4 billion by research consultancy Marketsandmarkets, has become an increasingly competitive segment, with multiple vendors offering software packages encompassing maintenance planning modules. Among the players is UK-based Commsoft, which provides its OASES software to more than 130 aviation companies globally.
According to its managing director, Nick Godwin, developments in Commsoft’s MRO IT systems over the past decade have been paced by growing improvements in mobile technologies, faster access to the cloud and comprehensive database technologies. “In essence, this has meant that more accurate data can be generated and validated at the source, and the speed of processing has allowed a transformation in the way that data can be used, allowing faster prediction and economic optimization and streamlining of aircraft maintenance operations,” he says. Typically, the timescale for a fleet of 10 Airbus A320 or 737-800 aircraft will take around 10-12 weeks, with two Commsoft team members working “hand in glove” with the airlines’ own specialists.
It is also common for carriers to build their own systems and use them in alignment with another software program. For its line maintenance planning, American uses tools designed in-house in the form of its Aircraft Maintenance Planning System (AMPS) which ties into the airline’s record-keeping, along with other systems. For base maintenance, it uses a customized Mxi planning module. For the AMPS system, Barton says the common planning module was built to sit on top of two maintenance systems, “so that we can account for workload, plan and assign workload, and forecast it across all aircraft regardless of the core maintenance system they reside in.”
He adds that the tool allows a workload planner visibility into all upcoming maintenance needs, both programmatic and non-routine. “It then feeds the core systems to deliver those work packages to maintenance and the supply chain,” he says. American has also developed an all-new tool called Aircraft Production Control, which “is the dynamic front end that line maintenance uses to assign and account for workload,” Barton says. It also ties into the supply chain and other tools to provide status from the support teams. All of this sits around our system-agnostic front end, which provides a common view of all maintenance-related items for all team members, while the more detailed core programs are working in the background.”
While the MRO software market is mature—having been evolving in different guises for decades—new technologies are increasingly being applied in MRO operations to enhance scheduling effectiveness. Using big data as a tool for turning unscheduled events into scheduled ones is also becoming increasingly integral to the maintenance planning operation. Recently, some of these advancements have centered on artificial intelligence (AI).
In November 2017, British low-cost carrier EasyJet integrated an AI-based simulation tool to run in conjunction with operational data extracted from its existing AMOS management software system. For the project, the carrier teamed up with UK logistics software startup Aerogility. Its planning tool integrates EasyJet’s operational data to aid the day-to-day scheduling of its entire fleet of more than 160 aircraft including Airbus A319-100s, A320-200s, A320neos and, as of summer 2018, the A321neo. Planners can then forecast when heavy maintenance needs to be scheduled, factoring in existing plans with third-party suppliers while incorporating other fleet upgrades and modifications programs.
In the latter part of 2018, EasyJet also transferred its engine and landing gear data into the planning tool. Siwan Sidhu, head of fleet technical management, says this has resulted in “significant” savings to EasyJet’s landing overhaul program. Further collaboration is also underway to include equalized maintenance checks, which typically combine A and C checks into a schedule of work packages performed overnight rather than the more common block maintenance workload. “The aim is to ensure we are able to have a good visual view of the plan using Aerogility. In the current state with the high number of checks and the frequency, the tool shows a very condensed view. We are working to ensure that all the correct assumptions and constraints are used in the software to give us an optimal visual display of the equalized maintenance plan,” he says. Looking ahead, EasyJet also has its eye on extending the application after it has completed the equalized maintenance work. “Fleet planning is an area that is being considered, as this tool could be a good fit for it,” Sidhu adds.
While EasyJet has a track record of embracing innovative maintenance tools and techniques, Nick Godwin finds that some other MRO providers remain constrained. “Digitalization is a growing trend in MROs, but we see that most organizations have limited capacity to adopt newer technologies, often having to balance the adoption of new technologies with the regulators’ oversight pace and management’s willingness to enforce changes in workflows and processes with an often reluctant workforce,” he says.
Software vendors will continue to develop their offerings, and in the evolution of software modules, Godwin expects further cloud deployments, web-enablement and more extensive use of mobile applications in most areas of engineering functionality. He adds that to meet these changes, Commsoft is reorganizing its structure in an attempt to become more agile.
American’s Barton expects more automated assignment and decision-making to be a possibility. “With data across multiple systems being shared and used, that means planning, material, capabilities and more can be aligned and managed in a more automated fashion to optimize workload balancing,” he says. America’s exploration of this process has also gathered a bit of momentum. “We’ve tested this little bit, but we mostly have it on hold due to our current full tech-ops system integration effort,” he says.