Printed headline: Mobile Done Right
Line mechanics at United Airlines have been untethered from paper manuals and desktop computers: They are using connected tablets to access all the information they need to keep aircraft moving, and it is paying off. Aircraft with maintenance issues are returning to service about 15 min. faster on average, the airline calculates.
The initiative is part of a push to empower front-line employees with mobile technology, explains Jason Birnbaum, the airline’s vice president
for operations technology. United has been issuing mobile devices to its workforce for years, starting with pilots in 2011. But app development was lagging. Two years ago, United teamed up with Apple and IBM to build a virtual “mobile factory,” staffed with a core of United developers. Most of the work is done in two locations: United’s Chicago headquarters and Houston, where the tech ops apps are developed.
“At any point in time, we will have hundreds of developers working on different projects,” Birnbaum says. Projects are selected based on high-level financial and strategic priorities that either improve customer experience, the company’s bottom line, or both.
The window of opportunity for technical operations opened in 2015, when United and the former Continental Airlines operation migrated to a single back-end maintenance system, Sceptre. “We took two not-so-great user experiences and combined them,” Birnbaum says. Among the biggest drawbacks? Access to the system still relied heavily on desktop computers. “Our front-line employees don’t sit behind a desk,” he says. “We knew we wanted to give our technicians a mobile experience.”
Full development started soon after the mobile factory launched, using Apple iPads and—like the rest of United’s mobile development push—IBM’s Mobile at Scale for iOS. United brought in 8-10 technicians from each of its hubs. Working with the developers, the mechanics provided input on everything from what the software should do to how the icons should look. “We built a version and got feedback, then got another version ready and had it tested,” Birnbaum says. By October 2017, a full beta version was ready for a few hubs. The app went through a few more rounds of improvements, and by this past May, it was in the hands of 6,000 line mechanics and technicians.
The tool does not help mechanics do their jobs better—at least not yet. The immediate benefit is efficiency.
“Before, we would go to a desktop computer, pull the maintenance information we needed, print it off, go back to the airplane, work the items and then go back to the desktop and log it,” says Brian Kerr, a designated trainer at United’s Washington Dulles International Airport hub and 33-year United tech ops veteran. Now, all the needed manuals are accessible through the 10-in. iPads. “Satellite” desktops are set up around each station, but “since we got [the iPads], we hardly use them,” Kerr says.
The iPads can access a mechanic’s core tools, including maintenance manuals and illustrated parts catalogs (IPC) for each United aircraft type. Fault codes and pilot-generated requests are communicated to the ground and visible on the app. A parts-ordering interface makes short work of sourcing materials from the IPC and delivering them to a gate.
“We can tell what kind of work we have, the time the aircraft arrives, where it’s coming from, when it’s going,” Kerr says. “Everything you want to know abut a particular aircraft is available.”
Being connected to wireless printers allows mechanics to produce paperwork, such as when there is a messy job to do—think hydraulics—or when generating maintenance release documents (MRD). Connectivity is via Wi-Fi and cellular links.
“Now, a technician can stand in the cockpit and [MRD] will roll right off the [flight-deck] printer,” Birnbaum says. “That whole idea of waiting on paperwork is becoming a thing of the past.”
Each iPad is expected to last 3-5 years, and the airline has an agreement to recycle and replace them.
The project supports both of United’s mobile-technology strategies. Keeping aircraft in service helps the customer, and it contributes to meeting the carrier’s aggressive cost targets. After seeing non-fuel costs per available seat-mile (CASM-ex) rise 2.8% in 2017, management set a goal to keep it flat, or perhaps shrink it, in 2018. Through three quarters of this year, they were on target and are projecting full-year CASM-ex to be better than flat.
Meanwhile, opportunities to broaden the mobile initiative abound. Birnbaum says United’s base maintenance teams will start to get iPads in 2019, and 200 flight attendants are beta-testing an app that communicates cabin-related maintenance issues, such as malfunctioning seats, from the air to line mechanics at the next station.
Down the road, Birnbaum sees using other technologies—such as video feeds and artificial intelligence—that will make mobile devices not just faster tools, but more capable ones. “We want to help the technicians do their jobs better,” he says. “This creates a platform for future innovation.”