Swiss International Air Lines’ fleet is undergoing a makeover, having brought its first Bombardier C Series aircraft into service in July 2016 and with orders in place for the Airbus A320neo. Stephan Regli, the Zurich-headquartered carrier’s vice president and head of maintenance, tells Inside MRO’s James Pozzi about the company’s maintenance ramp-up in preparation for the new fleet and how it operates across its day-to-day maintenance activities.
Swiss International Air Lines began operating in 2002. In that short period, what have been most significant changes in how the airline approaches MRO?
Declining yields are forcing airlines to constantly consider how to reduce costs. Maintenance is one of the biggest cost drivers for airlines, therefore carriers are putting pressure on the MROs to reduce prices for their services. In the past, airlines signed long-term, all-inclusive contracts with their MROs. Today, airlines are looking for the best solution in terms of price and quality for aircraft, component and engine maintenance. They are seeking customer-tailored solutions that can be adapted to the dynamics of their business.
What are some of the key elements of Swiss’s current maintenance strategy?
Our current maintenance strategy relies on all services needed for the daily operation of the entire Swiss fleet. This covers line maintenance, including A checks at our bases in Zurich and Geneva, and at 16 stations worldwide; engineering services; as well as the entire supply chain management, including procurement and logistics. All other services—which do not have to be performed at the airline hub as aircraft base maintenance, engine and component services—are contracted to MROs.
Do you have different approaches for different aircraft types or service types (line, heavy, engine, components?)
We are applying the same approach for all different aircraft types, the Airbus A320 family, A330, A340, Boeing 777, Avro RJ and the C Series, as described previously. The only exception is with the maintenance of our Honeywell Avro RJ Engine LF507, which is serviced in-house by our engine shop in Basel, Switzerland. This service remained with Swiss Maintenance as no MRO able to handle the volume was found. Our engine shop will be closed with the phase-out of our AVRO RJs by the end of 2017.
What does Swiss look for in an MRO partner—be it a parts supplier, logistics company or maintenance provider?
We choose our MRO partners carefully; we need to be convinced they are able to meet our high standards and offer the best value for the money. In our selection we evaluate the reputation, capability, flexibility and experience related to an MRO candidate. We consider cost transparency, stability and integrity as the foundation for a mutually trusting and strong partnership. In return, we expect our MRO partners to participate with us in our future in areas such as spare parts, tooling and capability investments, and risk sharing.
Please give us an example of MRO contracts you have signed in recent years and why they were the best option for Swiss.
In our contracting approach we have a strong MRO market focus that aims for a balanced portfolio consisting of the original equipment manufacturer, Lufthansa Group MRO provider Lufthansa Technik, and independent MRO providers that best meet our expectations. For example, in preparation for our new Boeing 777 arrivals we recently signed up with GE Engine Services for a 15-year total support package of our GE90 engines; with Epcor for auxiliary power unit maintenance; and with Lufthansa Technik for wheel, tire and brake servicing.
What do you foresee as the next big challenge for your airline’s maintenance teams?
Phasing-in two new aircraft types—the 777 and the Bombardier C Series (for which we are the launch customer)—within only six months will undoubtedly present a few challenges for our maintenance teams. With the renewal of the fleet and the phase-in of leading-edge technology aircraft, the qualification of our engineers will need to be adapted, mainly by upgrading their license from B1 to the required B2. Our engineers also will need to become familiar with advanced structural materials such as composite materials with which those new aircraft are built. The new generations are providing a lot of system parameters that can be used for predictive maintenance. This will change the way we do line maintenance. The maintenance of newer, highly connected aircraft will be different; it will be preventive rather than reactive.
What technologies have you invested in over the last few years to support your teams?
The operational efficiency and reliability will be improved by the replacement of the traditional paper logbooks with electronic logbooks. Electronic logging is already in operation on the new 777 fleet and will be rolled out for the rest of the fleet in due course. We have also invested in radio frequency identification devices (RFID) as an alternative to bar codes. The advantage of this system is that it does not require direct contact or line-of-sight scanning. This technology is used to track cabin safety items such as life jackets; other applications will follow.
What technologies do you believe will have the greatest impact on MRO performance in the future?
All aircraft manufacturers are offering so-called aircraft health-monitoring systems for their new-generation aircraft. These systems are continuously providing a huge amount of aircraft system data from the aircraft to the ground. The challenge will be screening all this data to detect possible system problems at an early stage and to advise maintenance to perform appropriate maintenance action.
Another issue will be adjusting to work without paper printouts. Any aircraft maintenance is always [supported by] with consistent and comprehensive documentation of all steps. Focusing on a paperless maintenance not only will be an environmental boon, but will help save resources, time and money.
The “skill gap” within the MRO sector is an ongoing concern. How is Swiss working to bridge this gap?
Swiss Maintenance is investing a lot of money into its continuation of training programs. These programs include far more than what is required by regulatory authorities. We offer traditional aircraft type refresher training and ongoing on-the-job training, provided by highly skilled personnel, ensuring that our engineers are always up to date. We also offer our staff web-based and classroom training. As to the future, it is becoming increasingly challenging in Switzerland to find young people who are eager to become aircraft engineers. This is due to the fact that industrial and labor apprenticeships have become less popular as the younger generations’ interests have shifted more toward the finance and service sector. We are evaluating different options to counter this challenge.
Swiss Fact File
History: Formed in 2002 after the bankruptcy of Swissair, Swiss International Air Lines incurred heavy losses in its early years before eventually becoming profitable in 2006. During this time, the Lufthansa Group acquired a stake in Swiss of 11% and then increased its stake to majority ownership two years later. Swiss also runs a regional airline, Swiss Global Air Lines, which operated as Swiss European Air Lines until February 2015.
Fleet: The majority of aircraft in Swiss’s fleet comprises Airbus A319s, A320s, A321s, A330s and A340s. Swiss has placed orders for 15 next-generation aircraft, including 10 A320neos and five A321neos. Its Swiss European Air Lines regional subsidiary operates 24 aircraft in total, including six Boeing 777-300ERs and 16 Avro RJ100s. In July 2016, the carrier brought its first Bombardier C Series into service, with the Canadian-produced aircraft earmarked to replace the Avro RJ100. Swiss originally placed an order for 15 of the CS100 variant and 15 of the CS300 aircraft.
In-House Facilities: Swiss holds line maintenance approvals from several airworthiness authorities across multiple aircraft types, along with a limited base maintenance approval for structure repairs. At its Zurich facility, the carrier has more than 200 staff performing maintenance services on its entire fleet. This includes a specialized nondestructive testing department and a sheet metal shop to support its line maintenance operation in cases of structure inspection and repairs. It is also able to call on Part 21-certified engineers for fast-repair situations. In its Geneva hangar, which can accommodate two narrowbody aircraft, Swiss’s fleet is maintained by a team of 40 engineers. Also, the airline operates 16 global line stations, employing 80 engineers across the international network. The entire maintenance operation is managed, controlled and steered by a 50-person-strong maintenance operation control center.
Third-Party Services: Swiss offers third-party maintenance services across 16 stations worldwide. The main goal of setting up the stations is to serve Swiss jets along with other aircraft also operated by airlines under the Lufthansa Group. As part of a strategy to optimize the workload of station engineers, Swiss offers these services to third-party customers under the framework of the International Air Transport Association Technical Pool, which the airline says helps reduce fixed costs.