Data Sharing, Analysis Growing In MRO World

Airlines, MRO providers are using data analysis for more than enhancing safety.

As regulators continue their shift to risk-based oversight driven by data collection and analysis, many operators and maintenance providers are several steps ahead, using data to boost efficiency and spot issues before they become problems.

In the U.S., the FAA gave airlines until March 2018 to implement long-planned safety management systems (SMS), including data monitoring. But most carriers already collect and share data through a Flight Operations Quality Assurance (FOQA) or other flight data monitoring (FDM) system. The real opportunity is leveraging such programs as more than safety-improvement tools, says Raul Segredo, president of avionics supplier Avionica

“Our customers find good return on investment for FOQA or FDM, regardless of mandates,” says Segredo, whose company has sold more than 7,000 quick-access recorders (QAR) that support FDM efforts. “At first it seems like a burden, and the benefits are perhaps not obvious, but once you get it right, you’re saving money.”

Segredo points to FlyBe as an example. The carrier needs an FDM program to comply with European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) regulations. But instead of settling for a baseline program where data is offloaded a few times per month at most, FlyBe decided to see what benefits could be realized by pulling data more often.

The carrier outfitted some of its Bombardier Q400s with Avonica routers and QARs, and set up Wi-Fi networks at five main bases. Equipped aircraft would transmit data to the airline’s servers each time they passed through one of the bases. FlyBe soon realized that having performance parameters could help their technical services team troubleshoot problems more quickly and accurately, which translated into safely keeping aircraft in service without resorting to costly manual inspections.

In one case, a FlyBe Q400 touched down hard enough to jar the passenger oxygen masks from the ceiling, and the flight crew dutifully wrote it up as a possible hard landing. Normally, the aircraft would be pulled from service and given a once-over by mechanics with input from the manufacturer. But this aircraft was equipped to offload data automatically, and FlyBe got to work. Examining a number of parameters, such as the descent rate, the airline determined the incident was not a hard landing. Bombadier concurred, and the aircraft was soon back in service, sparing FlyBe the cost of ferrying a replacement aircraft and mechanics to the scene.

The successful trials convinced FlyBe to sign on as Avonica’s first airline customer for the streaming service. The vendor has upgraded its QARs so they can use cellular networks as well as Wi-Fi, meaning data can be offloaded at any station, though the carrier plans to start by outfitting its five main stations with Wi-Fi.

“The data transfer is transparent to the crew and engineers and provides us with the ability to monitor the flight data in our Flight Operations Quality Assurance program, which will lead to continuing safety benefits,” says Mike Wood, FlyBe’s flight operations director. “Spare [onboard wireless network] capacity will also be used to enhance the operational product, which will further improve the service which we offer to our passengers.”

For MRO providers, data collection and analysis programs are similarly valuable, but often more complicated. While operators have a single entity with perhaps a few fleet types to focus on, many MROs have myriad customers and locations and, in most cases, are following customized programs for each. This leads to data programs being more internally focused.

The FAA is pushing to change that. Recognizing the value of voluntary -data-sharing programs, the agency’s top safety official a year ago publicly called on MROs to begin feeding data into them. Peggy Gilligan, FAA’s associate administrator of Aviation Safety, noted that out of 108 Aviation Safety Action Program participants, only 10 were repair stations. The U.S.’s highest-profile program, Aviation Safety Information Analysis and Sharing (ASIAS), had no MRO providers among 80 contributors. 

That changed soon after Gilligan’s public appeal. AAR Corp. and Haeco Americas—formerly Timco—became the first two MRO providers to commit to contributing data to ASIAS, an eight-year-old program that aggregates data from about 185 sources.

“We’ve always shared between our facilities,” says Art Smith, AAR’s vice president and chief quality officer. “If we can share among industry, we’re much safer, because we’re learning at pinch points, rather than choke points.”

Smith also cited the benefit among its customers. All of its U.S.-based customers have FOQA programs. “They are transparent with their safety issues, so we want to be that way, too,” Smith says.

While U.S. MRO providers may be under-represented in some data-sharing initiatives, many have well-established internal data-collection programs. AAR has been collecting different types of data for years. Some of it, like service difficulty reporting, has always been shared, while other efforts are for internal use only.

AAR has some 60 locations around the world, including six heavy MRO facilities in the U.S. Sharing information across these business lines is a key part of standardizing its services as much as possible, under what the company calls its “1MRO” approach. It also helps the company climb the learning curve more quickly. For instance, it shares issues discovered—such as a challenge with a particular procedure on a certain model aircraft—via Items for Attention dispatches that go company-wide.

The company uses internally developed software to manage its reporting, including its APRISe performance reporting information system. The software handles everything from employee self-disclosures to on-the-job injury reports. The system also folds in results from both internal and external audits, such as FAA inspections, to help paint a comprehensive picture.

AAR examines performance on a per-location basis, as well as across the organization. This allows the company to zero in on issues that may be location-specific while also keeping an eye out for broader trends.

“They are looking within organizations,” says Smith of the on-location managers, “and we are looking between organizations.”

The software also provides customized information in response to more requests from customers.

“We had one customer that wanted to know about the dirty dozen”—the 12 most common human factors-related maintenance mistakes—“and which ones of these [are] the biggest factors in quality escape,” Smith says. “We can do that with APRISe.”

Smith says nothing has changed since AAR joined ASIAS—it simply provides data to a new source. One program that has led to changes at AAR is participation in FAA’s Part 145 repair station SMS pilot program. AAR’s Miami heavy maintenance facility is the official participant, and works with FAA on developing documentation and procedures that could become part of an approved FAA SMS, if the agency develops an SMS mandate for repair stations.

At the moment, the program is voluntary, but since other regulators, like EASA, are pushing on with SMS requirements for MROs and most airline operators have them, many repair stations are developing them ahead of an FAA mandate.

“We’ve made changes to our reporting system based on what they’ve learned in Miami,” Smith says, noting that AAR’s company-wide SMS program is probably “85% developed,” with the other 15% subject to details in a theoretical FAA rulemaking.

This article was originally published on March 12.

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