The commercial aviation sector has felt the full force of the coronavirus pandemic, with airlines reducing their operations. Carriers, OEMs and MROs alike are having to adapt to meet social-distancing measures as they try to continue business operations. Also, a combination of increased remote working, social distancing and regulatory measures could kick-start the use of e-signatures in maintenance operations.
The desire for remote technology to play a greater role in aviation maintenance is something inspectors have supported for several years, so the news was well received when the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced policy at the end of March which will allow video links and other remote technology to help conduct inspections and validate regulatory compliance moving forward. The policy is in addition to an increasing set of procedural changes that have been implemented to accommodate social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic, but the aviation industry will be thinking longer term, hoping that this change of direction is a sign of things to come.
With digital and mobile maintenance very much top of mind for the FAA, inspectors and airlines, the use of the already existing technology of e-signatures is perhaps something that has gone under the radar in recent times. A number of IFS customers have indeed been using the technology in their maintenance operations, but I foresee e-signatures now hold more value than ever given the current circumstances we find ourselves in. Here is why the industry should take full advantage of e-signature capability both during and after the coronavirus pandemic.
A logical step on the journey to paperless operations
The core purpose of e-signature technology is ultimately to eliminate the amount of paper in the maintenance process and help streamline critical processes inside maintenance operations. Organisations can enhance their overall efficiency when paper is removed from the equation and work is managed electronically. Typical uses for electronic documents in maintenance include airworthiness releases, maintenance releases and documents that support getting aircraft ready for release, such as job cards and technical logbooks.
Here, the e-signature capability takes away the time-consuming activities associated with paper in terms of data entry, the re-keying of inaccurate information into the Management Information System (MIS), and inefficient search and retrieval.
Paper-free maintenance planning, labour, part and tool scheduling and work assignment mean that if changes occur, there is nothing to print, shuffle or distribute. All stakeholders can immediately see their new assignments as planners push electronic job cards out to a mechanic’s device.
It is this level of functionality that is helping organisations make great strides to achieving paperless maintenance operations in the future – while limiting the social interaction between workers in the short term.
Shed paper documents and reap financial benefits of an ecosystem
Paper in any process is a bottleneck – it is a ‘single user’ medium. Take an aircraft release, for instance. The cash and goodwill cost incurred when a plane full of passengers is waiting to leave while a mechanic fills out a paper form, walks it to the cockpit for a captain’s signature and then returns it to maintenance operations can be significant. Now consider an electronic technical logbook as an example of how airlines can minimise aircraft turnaround times by reducing reliance on paper. Pilot-to-maintenance interaction could be digital, faster and safer – given the current need to adhere to social-distancing measures.
An app-based, next-generation logbook approach is how IFS is helping airlines address aircraft turnaround times while reducing paper-based processes. When accessible on a mobile device, this technology eliminates the need for pilots to physically sign-off logbooks, and the enhanced data available from this capability means faults raised during an inbound flight can be seen in real-time. A pilot can then consider how a fault might impact flights ahead of time, preventing issues being unaddressed after an aircraft has left for its next destination.
There are similar benefits in terms of shift handover. A standard work order for some operators could be up to 200 pages long. The mechanic must then go through every page to identify the open tasks and build a separate list for the next shift. This manual process takes time and it is easy to miss key details.
Now let’s add e-signatures. This provides a real opportunity to help operators refine their shift turnover activities – they can save potentially double-digit hours per day and hundreds of thousands of dollars from a labour standpoint.
All singing from the same digital hymn sheet
An aviation maintenance management software system should have integrated functionality that ties materials, technical records, engineering and maintenance execution together. With e-signatures and the support of an effective aviation maintenance management software system, maintenance tasks can be carried out in one system and designated as requiring digital sign-off. Software ideally will provide alerts to any errors or conflicts in real-time, ensuring all relevant information is available to the signatory before a record is signed.
When a document is electronically signed by a technician, inspector, supervisor or other maintenance personnel, it becomes an electronic record, encrypted and permanently stored in the aviation maintenance management database. These records can then be viewed and verified at any time, but cannot be altered. Audit trails become much more efficient and the ability to instantly search for and retrieve a specific set of records to perhaps respond to a regulator’s request is hugely beneficial, potentially saving thousands of hours on a yearly basis.
Non-repudiation on a document and a digital trace means someone cannot deny that they have signed something, while quick searches, reports by date and the level of auditing provided by system automation enables technicians to focus on their core job of maintaining aircraft.
E-signature tech – here to help today and in the future
E-signature technology is not new in commercial aviation, but regulation has been significantly lagging behind the pace of technology change. It would be foolish for regulators, airlines and MROs alike to ignore this capability in the current climate, where even the smallest of advantages can make a huge difference to help protect the futures of commercial airlines and safety of people.
Those who explore e-signature capability stand to help themselves from a business standpoint in the future, and will safeguard the welfare of their workforce and customers during undoubtedly testing times at present.