If you tell people you work in aviation you often hear, ‘oh are you a pilot’. ‘No’, you reply, ‘I work in the aircraft maintenance business’, and explain that there is much more involved to keep the aircraft in the air. You often tell them in simplified terms the comparison with car maintenance and that maintenance has to be carried out on time and precise to keep the car or aircraft moving. In the aviation world this somewhat more complex process is called continuous airworthiness management. For insiders this similarity is farfetched, but nevertheless it does the job! Maintenance management in an airline environment is one of the most challenging environment to work in.
Without going into the details relating to the strict international standards one can state that the airline is the central entity in the aviation industry. Why? Because in the end everything is focused on the transportation of passengers and cargo to their destination safely and on time. The airline is responsible for the overall continuous airworthiness of the aircraft. The regulatory structure dictates clear duties and responsibilities to maintenance providers, aircraft and component OEM’s and design companies. Each support the airline who has to ensure that the aircraft is kept in compliance with all the operational and maintenance tasks. This complex structure is audited by regulatory bodies, but also via the internal company procedures established in so called “expositions”. These procedural manuals are the fundaments of each aviation company that dictate internally and externally how the company runs its business.
How do airlines assure Continuing Airworthiness?
Well, quite simple….keep track of all OEM and regulatory requirements and if applicable to the organization or equipment assure timely compliance to these requirements. What makes it complex? The often vast amounts of data that need to be managed and to assure in-time compliance in the day to day pressure of keeping the fleet flying, safely and on time.
Reading the above you may already grasp the complexity of keeping track of all these requirements. A modern aircraft typically has over 2000 maintenance tasks and even more regulatory guidelines. These regulatory guidelines are called “Airworthiness Directives”. Next to the standard maintenance program they dictate a certain requirement to be fulfilled before a certain due date or set of flight hours or cycles. Not adhering to these requirements results in the aircraft not being airworthy, insured nor fit for flying.
The role of Maintenance Management Systems
In the old days and even at the beginning of the computer age airlines used paper based system and standard office applications to keep track of the operational and maintenance requirements.
Nowadays the majority of the airlines have some sort of software system in place to keep track of the maintenance, operational and regulatory requirements. Difference can be in the amount of integration with other systems such as SAP or the operational (flight performance/scheduling) system. Nevertheless still there are airlines that run their entire business or specific areas of the business in a spreadsheet.
There is a big hidden risk in these systems. When they are not set up properly or more than one person uses them, it is possible that not all requirements are looked after as they should. This can lead to all kinds of non-compliance issues and in the end to safety issues when these are not properly audited and resolved. It can even be a hidden failure and although everybody thinks the aircraft is fit to fly there may be maintenance requirements overdue. This was from time to time experienced by aircraft leasing experts or airline continuous airworthiness officers as they are at the forefront of reviewing aircraft data, maintenance program and AD compliance and acceptance and redelivering of aircraft.