The discussion of Big Data is focusing efforts on turning unscheduled maintenance into scheduled events. But that begs a question: how exactly does an airline plan its scheduled maintenance most efficiently in the first place, especially if there are major modification to be done? Are better planning tools necessary? One MRO IT specialist thinks many carriers could do a better job.
“Using Maintenix Fleet Planner, it took three hours to build a year’s production plan for a 100-aircraft fleet,” recalls Mark Martin, director of commercial aviation products at IFS. “Traditionally, this would take roughly three days.”
More significant than planning man-hours saved, Fleet Planner business rules yielded 15% fewer days of aircraft in maintenance, compared with planning done without the application. That is a big boost in availability and revenue.
Martin gives another example, trying to use spreadsheets to figure out the best way to combine modifications like WiFi installations with normal maintenance on a 20-aircraft fleet over three years. The plan starts out with about 800 scheduled visits, just for maintenance. “With spreadsheets, planners need to consider how best to plan each modification, asking whether to merge mods into existing visits or schedule them independently. What is the impact on visit duration, cost, resource efficiency and other factors? What is the downstream impact of extending a visit or adding a new one?
The IFS executive says doing all this on spreadsheets can take days to figure out and still not be optimal. In contrast, his fleet planning application can specify business rules on when and how to incorporate WiFi mods into the maintenance plan. “With a button click, modifications flow smoothly into an optimized plan, maintaining compliance with flight hour and cycle limits.” Planners can also see key performance indicators such as visit duration and total costs to ensure the plan is efficient.
Yet Martin says most carriers are still attempting to handle this complex problem the old fashioned way, with spreadsheets and massive man-hours. Some major airlines may have built in-house tools over time to address the complexity of the challenge, but these are likely to be patchworks of ad-hoc solutions.
The basic problem is this. Even with just a maintenance plan to lay out, optimizing the plan is extremely complicated. An airline must meet regulatory requirements, but do more than that. The airline is also trying to maximize shareholder wealth, which means maximizing the net present value of future revenue less costs. And maintenance decisions affect both revenue and costs in very complicated ways, ways not always visible to planners.
For example, all managers want to minimize the amount and frequency of aircraft downtime, to avoid revenue losses. But failure to do some discretionary maintenance risks decreasing reliability and customer satisfaction, also revenue losers.
An airline thus needs a decision-support tool that can capture all these complexities completely, quickly, easily and accurately. Incomplete or inaccurate tools will miss important effects. A program or set of programs that run too slow or is not easy to use will discourage planners from looking at all possible alternatives.
Martin says generic maintenance planning tools designed for all industries do not recognize the details important in commercial aviation. And realistic airline tools installed on each airline’s server may be too expensive for many small to mid-sized carriers to use. So he recommends a sophisticated, airline-specific system acquired under a Software as a Service (SaaS) model for affordability.