Airlines Investing In MRO IT, But Carefully

Airlines seeking new IT solutions for document management, e-signatures, maintenance planning and e-enabled aircraft

A version of this article appears in the September 8 edition of Aviation Week & Space Technology.

Information technology has revolutionized the connections between airlines and passengers in the last decade. But gains from IT in maintenance hangars have come more slowly and must be pursued much more carefully. Airlines pick their openings cautiously, examine business cases closely and focus IT efforts where gains seem clear.

Where are these gains being made? SITA reports nearly one-third of airlines say aircraft engineering and maintenance is their highest priority when investing in business intelligence. But business intelligence is only one area where airlines may see prospects for improving operations or cutting maintenance costs with IT. Each carrier chooses priorities based on its fleet, operations, maintenance strategy and existing IT capabilities.

And even smart, financially strong airlines proceed carefully. For example, Southwest Airlines uses its legacy Wizard system, a version of Maxi-Merlin, for old aircraft and Trax for its 120 Boeing 737-700s and -800s. John Brutlag, director-aircraft standards, says the carrier is evaluating how Trax would scale for the full fleet of 700 aircraft. 

Southwest also is looking at IT changes needed to support the 737 MAX, due in the fleet in July 2017. Health monitoring will be one big change, but the 737 MAX will interact with Southwest ground stations in other ways. Now that the design has been locked in, the carrier can review requirements more closely.

“How do you integrate digital data with technical pubs to ensure techs have the information to troubleshoot and fix it the first time?” asks Brutlag. He expects MAX systems to be similar to those on the 787, but likely less advanced, as Boeing’s widebodies have more sophisticated systems. 

Further, the airline is considering best-of-breed applications for specific functions; for example, planning and forecasting airframe and on-wing engine work. Southwest faces unique challenges here. “Our point-to-point system is different than hub-and-spoke,” Brutlag explains. Southwest’s aircraft fly through five or six airports a day, of which one or two have maintenance facilities. Hub-and-spoke carriers put aircraft into MRO bases once every three days. “That makes it difficult to judge planning systems. We have not found the granularity we need in systems developed for hub-and-spoke airlines.”

Supply chain management is another opportunity for improvement. “We’d like to have visibility into where our rotables are in the repair process,” Brutlag says, “so we could do better forecasting.”

Brutlag says Boeing Toolbox serves the airline well for document management. “But maintenance rules are very dynamic, so the more dynamic we can be with tech data, the better off we would be. We’d like a system we can control and change as we go forward,” he explains.

Trax offers very robust configuration control, according to Brutlag, but Southwest is also looking at technologies such as radio-frequency identification and Universal Product Code (UPC) to manage physical configuration of aircraft.

Related to configuration is change management for engineering projects and service bulletins. Brutlag says Trax is fairly efficient here. “But with Trax, Wizard and the engineering system, I’m not sure we can make changes to aircraft and update all the dependencies in tech data.”

Southwest is very interested in mobile maintenance and is testing a Boeing application on 12 tablets to see if it can eliminate time wasted in traveling to and from aircraft. 

The airline uses electronic signatures in engineering processes and wants this capability for technicians. Trax enables e-signatures, but this function has not been activated yet.

As an aggressive outsourcer, Southwest would like more data from MRO shops on component history. “This is not an area of excellence at repair shops,” Brutlag notes. “When we exchange between operators, we need the history of components. I’d like to manage by serial number.”

In contrast, third-party airframe shops have better data systems than airlines. “They have much better control of cost and time, because in their business they have to manage costs very competitively.”

Other airlines are also setting very specific goals for IT enhancement. EasyJet uses Swiss AviationSoftware’s AMOS to manage maintenance. The carrier’s IT priorities over the next five years include implementing e-signatures for work orders, preparing for e-enabled aircraft and integrating systems with end-of-lease documentation. EasyJet also wants to optimize maintenance planning and enhance maintenance IT systems generally.

Senior Vice President of Technical Operations Mark Bianchi says Virgin America wants to enhance IT primarily for maintenance planning, supply chain execution, supply chain management and document management. The low-cost airline also seeks to increase mobile maintenance capabilities and adopt e-signatures.

In addition to these airlines, with the help of IATA, Aviation Week surveyed 31 maintenance units at other carriers. The results, summarized in the charts below, show that enhancing MRO IT systems is clearly first in importance, followed by replacing and maintaining existing systems.

The surveyed carriers are looking for enhancements across the board. Documents, e-signatures, maintenance planning, supply chain management and e-enabled aircraft seem to be the most common concerns, but there is substantial interest in all the other capabilities mentioned. 


Maintenance shops also set their IT priorities carefully. One common theme at several we spoke to is improving connections with customers.    

AAR has three priority areas in its IT programs, says Chief Information Officer Kevin Larson. These are customer-facing functions, mobility and analytics with business intelligence dashboards.

Priorities can be combined in some cases. AAR has just rolled out a mobile business intelligence dashboard for airframe maintenance customers, who can check work-card status, work-card details and completion milestones with real-time visibility.

The MRO provider shows customers the same details and dashboards that AAR sees at its facilities. “They can see how many work cards are open,” Larson says. Customers know if things are progressing on-schedule or if there are problems.

The system has rolled out to a launch customer and feedback so far is positive. Five more customers will soon have it, and all AAR customers will probably be on it eventually. The dashboard is initially on iPads, but can work on Android devices as well.

While the tool gives customers work visibility, AAR analysts also use the same data for planning, to predict non-routines, trigger part orders and assign bays, labor, supplies and other resources. This predictive business intelligence stretches six months to a year out, and Larson says AAR is always trying to improve its accuracy. It not only aids AAR, but after each check data is fed into customer systems, so they can improve planning, too.

Another customer-facing solution is Online Partner Services (OPS) for inventory status, component repair collaboration and MRO approval. One customer uses OPS for all part requisitions at an international maintenance facility. AAR is using OPS concepts to develop a mobile application for real-time inventory visibility and requisitions. 

Larson would like to see more automation in the linkage between AAR and its customers, to avoid dual data entry. “It may be [in] our system or the customer system, but I would like to automate and integrate more with web service. It means better data integrity and quicker processing.”

AAR has a web-based maintenance and inventory system, developed with an Oracle database engine, Oracle development tools and linked with Oracle’s BI solution. AAR’s applications are using current technology. Larson sees the Oracle Application Development Framework (ADF) platform with Java “as the next architecture for our systems.”

Other major MROs have different priorities. Over the next five years, Lufthansa Technik will devote substantial efforts to maintaining existing ERP and MRO systems and replacing parts of these, according to Sven Heitsch, head of strategy and technology of information management. LHT also is looking to enhance IT capabilities in maintenance execution, supply chain management, going more mobile and adopting e-signatures. And LHT will devote significant efforts to preparing to support the e-enabled aircraft.

AFI KLM E&M has continuously enhanced IT systems to support new information technologies available on new-generation aircraft. The MRO is now positioning itself to support the Airbus A350 and Boeing 787, including e-enabled capabilities.

Mobility is another priority for the MRO. It has several projects under way using different mobile devices—including tablets—and software applications, including e-signatures. Hardware and software are being tested in Paris and Amsterdam.

Because AFI KLM E&M is increasing its global network and customer base, it also needs to improve IT for supply chain management and customer contact.

Haeco’s top IT priorities in the next five years include maintenance execution, maintenance planning and supply chain management, according to Elson Chan, IT manager for infrastructure and operations. Chan says the MRO is also interested in increasing mobile solutions.

Smaller MROs may seek more ambitious changes. For example, Fokker Services will maintain current IT systems for spares and component maintenance, but it seeks to replace systems for airframe maintenance.

Manfred Hoogenboom, director for e-business, says Fokker now has three systems that handle aircraft maintenance, some component maintenance and some part manufacturing. “We want to bring these three activities together into one system.” As aircraft maintenance is the main process handled, the new solution must bring benefits in several areas. Fokker wants better work preparation for airframe checks. “Efficiency is poor within our current system,” Hoogenboom acknowledges; the MRO would like better project management control.

Hoogenboom says Fokker wants to enhance e-commerce solutions and mobile services to get closer to customers. As type certificate holder on Fokkers, Fokker Services provides operators with the products, services and knowledge they need each day to keep aircraft flying.

These services are available on Fokker’s customer portal and some can be sent to customers’ mobile devices, but not all. “A manual such as the wiring diagram manual is hard to use on the small screen of a smart phone,” Hoogenboom notes. On the other hand, certain data on in-service experience, spares, component maintenance and logistics are perfect for display on mobile devices.

Fokker is also planning what Hoogenboom calls “interesting new services” for non-Fokker aircraft. Mobile will play an important role in these services as well.

Airborne Maintenance and Engineering Services (AMES) is considering whether to stay with its existing MRO system while enhancing it or replacing the system altogether, according to Chris Brown, director of continuous improvement and training. “We are looking at pricing structures, and these are not apple-to-apple comparisons,” Brown notes.

One difficulty in comparing system costs is that AMES is fairly unique for a small independent MRO. It does heavy airframe work, line maintenance, components and manufacturing. “It’s hard to find a solution that does all that,” Brown says.

So AMES is also working on developments with current software providers. Its priorities include maintenance execution across the board, airframes, line and components. Unfortunately, “usually systems for airframe execution are not good for components,” Brown explains.

AMES is also interested in better supply chain management, inventory management and forecasting. “That would be huge,” Brown says. And the MRO is interested not so much in better record management as in digital records. “We are growing, so our record programs will grow too,” he says.

AMES has some mobile solutions and wants to expand them. Brown does not see RFID as helpful in maintenance now, but thinks it might be in AMES’s manufacturing business. Preparing for new e-enabled aircraft is not an issue for AMES, which does checks primarily on older Boeing models.

On the big decision—replacing versus upgrading—Brown admits that maintaining AMES’s current software is a significant cost. “But the biggest cost is when you have inefficient processes due to old software. And lack of stability can also be a cost.”

AMES has had some problems with the stability of its current software. Since this system must capture labor costs and apply payrolls to each job, “if you have some burps in that system, that is your livelihood,” Brown notes. Sometimes the cost of not changing systems can be even higher than the pain of replacing them. 

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