Aviation maintenance: fail to plan, prepare to fail

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Amidst the boom in the commercial aviation industry, maintenance remains a major cost area for all airlines. They now spend more on maintenance than they do on fuel or crew, making maintenance costs a prime target for reduction. Yet many operators are still using manual planning processes, building an executable long-range plan which often depends largely on the tribal knowledge built up in the planning organization over many years. New cloud-based solutions are enabling maintenance and operational availability to work together, making manual, time-consuming and error-prone maintenance planning a thing of the past.

Airline operators are witnessing an unabated pace of change in the commercial aviation industry. Oliver Wyman figures indicate that 58% of aircraft in service will be new-generation by 2027, alongside a continued growth in air travel demand, and a maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) market set to grow more than 25% in under a decade, from US$77.4bn to just over US$114bn.

Yet with the next generation of technologically advanced aircraft entering service and fleet sizes growing larger than ever before, maintenance scheduling, planning and execution has not advanced at the same pace. In the highly competitive commercial aviation market, where margins are small and expenditure is high, effective maintenance planning has the potential to increase profit.

By introducing better planning capabilities, operators can make the most of the resources they have, with the end goal of being able to cost-effectively service more aircraft with the same number of maintenance staff – and generate the most revenue out of each aircraft.

Unfortunately, many planners are still generating their maintenance plans in spreadsheets. That might be fine for a plan created solely by calculating start and end dates, but it does nothing to make the planning process more efficient or to enable more strategic planning.

Fleet planning easily overwhelmed
Manually collecting and maintaining up-to-date aircraft usage data and performing useful and effective planning work within a spreadsheet becomes a time-consuming and daunting task. Add the complexity of aligning plans to accommodate constantly shifting labor and parts availability and other station constraints, and soon it becomes clear that planning by spreadsheets is not an optimized process.

At the highest level, fleet maintenance planning must span all the aircraft carrying passengers across a sprawling network of routes. Any changes to the plan can have huge knock-on effects further down the line, with schedules being torn apart in minutes when an aircraft becomes unavailable at short notice, or when parts and labor availability change.

This is simply a day-to-day challenge. Looking forward, week-to-week or month-to-month, spreadsheets cannot provide accurate answers to strategic business questions such as: how many new aircraft can we support? What will it look like if we add a new aircraft type in four years? What happens if we use external MROs for this fleet?

Long-range fleet maintenance planning: what you need, and what it should do

Managing a fleet of next-generation aircraft requires next-generation tools. Automated solutions must come to the fore to help decision-makers choose the best plan to support their business. Any supporting solution must be able to pinpoint the most efficient maintenance plan tailored to an organization’s unique requirements. The result should be improved aircraft availability, check yield, and hangar utilization.

Whether for single-base operations or globally distributed maintenance organizations, the automation should enable faster and more efficient planning. Because even the best of fleet plans can unravel in the blink of an eye, any modern fleet-planning solution should enable multiple planners to quickly and easily modify, merge and share plan updates.

The devil is in the line-maintenance detail
Similarly, in line-maintenance planning, there are fundamental challenges that need to be addressed, but on a shorter planning horizon. Efficient line maintenance means supporting a growing number of daily flights and shorter maintenance windows without onboarding additional maintenance staff. But when committed maintenance activities slip, it can impact operations on the day of scheduled maintenance. There is less time to take corrective action and, as this responsibility is corrected by manual inputs, this introduces the opportunity for human error and differing courses of action, depending on the planner in-charge.

This is easier said than done. On the rapidly changeable day of operations, line maintenance organizations struggle to ensure that maintenance resources are being properly allocated to the most important tasks, in complete alignment with the company’s operational objectives. Ensuring aircraft availability in quantities sufficient to support the flight schedule is a given. Beyond that, planners are often on their own to figure out which tasks are performed first. The decisions planners make about which aircraft to prioritize may differ depending on the objective: to maximize revenues, maximize seat availability or maintain schedules. 

Granular view? Easy
Line-maintenance planning solutions must dynamically react to schedule changes, as the solution continuously monitors the maintenance plan for individual aircraft and identifies changes as they arise. Maintenance priorities must be contextualized against corporate goals to drive business value from maintenance processes. Planners must be able to view all relevant information in a single screen, allowing them to use the software to create executable plans quickly.

SaaS tools put maintenance planners on cloud nine
As planners become responsible for more aircraft and more maintenance visits, there has to be a new approach. Stretched spreadsheets just can’t hack it. There are generic planning tools, developed to fit general scheduling needs of multiple industries. But the lack of industry specificity in these solutions typically leads to failure when they are deployed in a commercial aviation setting. Some vendors offer planning tools more suited to purpose, but with rigid architecture and on-premise hardware. This makes them unaffordable to small planning departments. And for carriers with larger fleets, it signals the start of a major IT project, with all the associated cost, risk and overheads.

Fortunately, Software-as a-Service (SaaS) solutions are now emerging in commercial aviation that bring new efficiencies for both IT and business. SaaS solutions – such as two new solutions recently introduced by IFS for fleet and line planning – are helping to address the high capital expenditures airlines and MROs typically face for hardware, software and ongoing services and support. It is also becoming a vital tool in the new aviation IT landscape as a means to speed-up delivery of new capabilities and eliminate the cost of purchasing and managing on-premise technology.

Maintenance and operational availability glued together
In a recent IFS Digital Change survey, almost 60% of commercial aviation respondents cited operational availability as a significant industry challenge. Managing operational availability and avoiding schedule delays begins in the maintenance planning process.

Legacy maintenance planning and scheduling tools can no longer offer competitive levels of availability. Automation in the planning process must now be a prerequisite in any supporting solution. SaaS delivery provides the flexibility and scalability to cover fleets as small as 10 aircraft, and as large as 1,000+.

The ripple effect of effectively planned maintenance is far reaching – aircraft are turned around quickly, airworthiness is assured, and maintenance costs can be kept in check.

Mark Martin is director of the commercial aviation product line, aerospace & defense, at IFS

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