AUTHOR: ROB VERMEIJ

Is one of the top priorities of your airline to improve passenger service and experience? Do you think there is a relation with airline passenger experience and how airlines manage their Maintenance & Engineering data? We think there clearly is:

In general, the global industry is in full swing to become an experience-oriented industry. Increasing customer expectations and the difficulty to differentiate on hardware alone, is also making the aviation industry, you and me, to focus on providing the best service and experiences possible. It is therefore no surprise that airlines are investing and innovating fast in gathering and analysing customer centric data to find improvements that can be made in their service offering. Flight Operation is another heavy focus, due to its major impact on fulfilling the prime service the customer expects, flying from A to B on time.

Unfortunately, aircraft maintenance and airworthiness management are not yet so much in this race, the drive to use data better seems to be less of a priority at most airlines. In this blog we are contemplating why we think it’s like this and give examples why this should be changed.

Data Access

First, we would like to talk about the ease of data access. Of course, gathering data from your customers through digital channels and surveys and buying behaviours looks in the first place much easier in contrast to aircraft maintenance. However, this is changing and has been changing the last decades with modern aircraft and upgraded IT infrastructures. A quick assessment:

  • Maintenance & Engineering (Airworthiness Management) Software/Systems
  • Electronic Technical Logbooks (ETLs)
  • Electronic Flight Bags (EFBs)
  • Flight Management System (FMS)
  • Onboard Sensory Data
  • Reliability Monitoring Systems
  • Engine Health Monitoring
  • Condition Monitoring
  • Fuel Efficiency systems
  • Etc.

A recent Aircraft IT Survey showed that 90% of the respondents are using a form of specialized IT system to manage their aircraft worthiness and maintenance (48.1% - one system – additional 30% use more than one IT system and still 10.9% use in house). This means there is basically no problem of sourcing data, as such a system is a very good first source for (big) data modelling and analysis and thus you have the potential already there.

Intermezzo: Speaking of Big Data, for this blog I will refrain from using this term as it can be vague, distant and daunting, actually possibly another factor why airlines are not prioritising to start investigating in its possibilities, as it seems “difficult and abstract”. Any data can be used, no matter if it is coming from a single source or multiple. It is true however, the bigger the dataset and the more datapoints (frequency) and different data it contains, the more accurate and detailed your analysis can be. Now back to the topic!

Another added benefit in aircraft maintenance compared to customer focused data analysis is that there is an abundance of reference or “0 change” material. All the OEM documents contain detailed time requirements, man hour assumptions etc. Your reliability analysis churns out the current status. So, there is a very good feedback loop to see if your data analysis is improving processes. With customer centric data, such a baseline reference needs to be created first.

Reasons why data might not be used to its fullest

So why do most airlines not use this potential to its fullest in aircraft maintenance then?

In our eyes, there a few perceived obstacles/challenges to overcome in the industry, things you can start working on right now. But before reading further, you have to ask yourself a few questions, because motivation and believing in the concept is a big first step:

Do you want to know which data your airline is producing?
Do you think data can learn you new insights?
Are there problems in your airline that need comprehensive data analysis to be solved?

If the answer to all above questions is “YES”, then keep on reading.

1.           So, which data is actually collected every day?

As pointed out earlier, the increasing volume of data generated by the aircraft and supported systems and the further complexity in the IT infrastructure landscape, is not making it easier to keep an overview of the data that is available to you. The sheer size and organisational structure of an airline can further amplify this problem, where specialized teams (e.g. ATA chapter based) work on their own specific parts of data in the system and thus miss all the work their colleagues are doing and the data that comes from that.

The first step is thus always to map out the data you currently have, or believe you might have, and involve all the different disciplines within the company to get the holistic overview. Such an overview makes it much easier to identify potential targets and gains for data analysis, and thus truly deep dive in your data.

Tip: Do not concern yourself with the question of “is this data accessible?” at this stage, this might unnecessary limited your view. From our experience, the access to data is always discussable and otherwise there might be a substitute dataset lurking about that can be used for similar purposes. Think limitless at first!

2.           “We always did it this way…”

Aviation is a highly regulated industry, built on a century of best practises, safety standards and preventative measures, in this regard it is always considered as quite rigid and inflexible industry. It is not surprising that this feeling also trickles down to the people working in it daily and thus do not see an immediate need to change. This on top of the natural reluctancy of the ‘human being’ to change from a “comfort” position.

“XXX software works perfectly fine (e.g. Excel), know how it works and gives us all the info we need.”

For you, as enthusiastic data guru, this seems a huge wall and also can severely impact motivation. However, everybody has persistent problems in their current way of working, that they do not like and like to change.   

An engineer might be having the same part failing again and again, which leave him clueless but always need to instruct the mechanics the same way. Better insight in other or more data might help to figure out possible causes and preventions.

A Head of Engineering & Maintenance has KPIs, for example, dispatch reliability. The problem is, it does not seem to improve, and he/she has no insight why or how while he keeps getting questions on it from the Management Team. Again, better data insight might help.

By talking to your colleagues, discovering problems they are having and identify potential targets that can be helped with data, you will also increase the willingness to change and gain support for your quest. One thing is for sure, people always like to have their problems solved!

As a precursor to below, driving out these problems might be harder than you think because sometimes people do not realise yet how severe an issue is until the right questions and way of look at it are applied. Third parties could help you with this, such as EXSYN, who do this for a living and thus with their experience are very efficient in driving out problems and finding potential solutions.

3.           Lack of skills and knowledge

While the data is encompassing everyday things like component removals, aircraft hours/cycles, workorders etc. so the actual engineering knowledge, it might still be difficult to handle it. The amount of available data is huge, in order to deal with it and get the most out of, you need to know where to start and collect people with the right skills around you.

Data science is an entire discipline in itself, next to that you’ll need IT minded people that can efficiently retrieve and process the data. With this in mind, a mistake many airlines and companies make, is that an IT department is not automatically a good support in data analysis, simply because they do not know what the data represents or actually means, something the engineers do.

So, it’s not the IT, but the actual engineers or business users that can become the ultimate key-users. They’ll need guidance and some training at first, not unimportant, so empowerment from IT that they can access certain databases and sources. But once you’ve got such a team in place, knowing the processes in detail and can work with data it makes for a killer combination. It needs to become part of day-to-day work of all people in the company.

4.           What can be done with data?

Why do I need all this data you ask, what can we do with it and what does it benefit me?

Data can show you trends, causes and effect and, if used right, a certain amount of prediction. In the end all human decisions are also based on the data, or current perceived facts, at that moment. However, we are only capable of handling a few data points at a time, with the right tools this can be multiplied almost unlimitedly.

Some examples you can think of, that data has the potential to introduce or improve:

  • Trend monitoring and improved reliability analysis
  • Preventive maintenance capabilities  - reduction in unplanned downtime
  • Improved (Technical) Dispatch reliability, by reducing the number of unforeseen findings and defects
  • Better stock allocation and replenishment
  • Efficient use, and possible reduction, of maintenance slots
  • Set-up for AI and machine learning in near future (requires good data!)

The end benefit is, next to a more cost and time efficient maintenance operation, an increase in service towards the customers. Surprising? Not really.

With data you are better at analysing causes of unscheduled defects, better with your stock and line maintenance resource management (e.g. time and material are in place at the right moment) and with predictive maintenance you will reduce unscheduled defects even further. All in all, this improves the technical dispatch reliability and thus the overall on time performance of the whole airline. Less costly delays, happier passengers and a better reputation are all the result!

Calculating the Return-on-Investment (ROI)

The ROI? Next to overall technical disruption costs, impact to flight schedules and the further effects down the organisation, there is one very tangible and simple example:  

Imagine a typical A320 with 180 seats on an intra-European flight. If such a flight is cancelled, or delayed, next to the rebooking and knock-on effects, passengers are entitled to €250 euro of compensation. This would amount to a total cost of €45.000, - in compensation alone for that flight. Now, if with better data analysis, you are able to prevent only 10 cancellations/heavy delays a year, that would already save €450.000, - alone in compensation rights.

You might have heard the above one before, let me try to add one more service benefit. While I said in the introduction, companies have a hard time to differentiate on hardware product alone (which for airlines is mainly the cabin product), it is still an important aspect of the customer experience and should always be functional. Timely and accurate aircraft maintenance plays key in this. If you are, with data, able to better predict cabin product failures (such as the IFE screens, or a business class seat), you might be able to reduce the number of “defective” seats during flights, preventing passenger complaints and reputation damage.

So, with this, we invite you to ask yourself again: Why do airlines not use data to improve aircraft maintenance to it’s fullest?

Do you would like to know what is possible with your data and how you can contribute to the passenger experience? 

Schedule an information session with one of our consultants to receive more details how you can get started.