The line maintenance services industry is undergoing major growth and transformation all stemming from increased air travel. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) recently reported that global passenger air traffic had increased by 6.5% in 2018 with airlines transporting over 4.3 billion passengers. That fact coupled with the aircraft manufacturers’ record number of aircraft deliveries bodes well for service providers. That is not to say that the industry is not without its challenges. Line maintenance service providers, organizations and teams must contend with a host of challenges from workforce shortages and increased competition to regulatory demands and a lack of common data standards. There are also major challenges relating to staff scheduling and communications. To address these challenges, they are turning to advanced solutions to streamline their operations and drive increased productivity and ultimately, cost savings. Optimization software, particularly when applied in the line maintenance area, is proving an effective tool in helping line maintenance teams mitigate the challenges and stay ahead of market developments.
State of MRO and Impact on Maintenance Operations
Today’s MRO market is marked by several prominent trends. There is more outsourcing of line maintenance to third-party service providers and an increased focus on prescriptive and condition-based maintenance service. We also are seeing Big Data, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Internet of Things (IoT) technologies driving both process improvement and growth; all positive trends. Another trend - one of the most significant, but less positive - is the labor shortage that continues to grow as demand for services increases. An Oliver Wyman report noted that the demand for commercial MRO maintenance services will outpace the supply of workforce in the United States by 2023. That growth trend is in parallel with other regions. The Asia-Pacific region, for example, is experiencing aircraft line maintenance growth which is expected to continue over the next several years despite a shortage of skilled line maintenance technicians. Other factors affecting the MRO market include the increased industry consolidation as the smaller players are partnering to gain strength in order to better compete against the larger players who also are expanding their line maintenance through the acquisition of local companies. Given the challenges along with the projected growth of the aircraft line maintenance sector, which Markets states will grow from $18.57 billion in 2017 to $23.50 billion by 2023 at a compound annual growth rate of 4.10% from 2018 to 2023, it is essential that aircraft line maintenance operations be at peak performance. Optimization software is supporting that goal.
Line Maintenance Challenges
Aircraft line maintenance is typically performed during an aircraft’s turnaround period. In some situations, the line maintenance tasks may extend beyond the turnaround period such as in the case of MROs that also manage aircraft towing to hangars and/or basic maintenance checks during an aircraft’s longer night stops. Most line maintenance is characterized by the 50% factor. That is, 50% of the work is either unplanned or will be performed at times different from those planned. Additionally, to accommodate tight flight schedules and avoid maintenance delays, there are decisions that must be made on the fly to reassign staff to address unplanned issues promptly. When these decisions are made manually, it is not atypical for subpar decisions to be made, resulting in lower staff productivity and unnecessary technical delays. Given that aircraft line maintenance is directly linked to flight schedules, it is clear why line maintenance workers largely base their work patterns based on these schedules. That said, considering that flights are sometimes on-schedule and sometimes late, it is necessary for line maintenance workers to be prepared for potential schedule changes. While certain tasks can be planned upfront, many other tasks are contingent based on various factors. Therefore, line maintenance workers are never completely sure when to expect an aircraft until it is on the ground. This creates a stressful situation for workers which can negatively affects staff morale and productivity. Communication and transparency of shared information between departments (i.e., line maintenance, maintenance control center, flight operations and cockpit crew) is another area which presents challenges to the line maintenance operations. When communication or information sharing is not optimized, questions arise as to whether all stakeholders are looking at the same data and schedule, and/or whether they have the same forecasts for when an aircraft’s maintenance work will be completed. It is important that they all have access to the same situational view so that the best decisions can be made and communicated to all parties. The main goal regarding communication in line maintenance is to ensure that all of the relevant data is accurate, up-to-date, complete and accessible to all departments. Since communications can be conducted via phone, radio and screens, it is critical that there be a transparent flow of information so that inefficiencies can be quickly identified and addressed. Staff scheduling in line maintenance also requires processes to be at peak efficiency. The processes of scheduling staff are complex and begin long before the day of operations. Six to twelve month in advance, line maintenance planners must be able to project the workload on given days and at specified times, along with what workforce skills will be required. Through accurate forecasts, the planners can create shift plans that will best cover the expected workload and avoid situations where staff and skills shortages lead to disruptions. These forecasts, while difficult to create, are essential when preparing for fleet changes, schedule changes, or changes in the staff’s skill set. As the day of operations approaches, staff schedulers must reassess upcoming maintenance workload and review their shift plan. Since each aircraft has a small number of items that require repair, but which are not critical for flight safety, they need only be repaired prior to a certain time. The list containing these various open items is in constant flux along with the expiration dates for each items repair. This prompts the potential need for extra staff on short notice. This situation, coupled with each staff member’s personal requests for days off, shift swaps and/or planned vacations or leaves, further creates internal discord. Once line maintenance operations commences, there are challenges relating to the designated staff with the right qualification calling in sick and requiring a new staff assignment, aircraft requiring unexpected repairs, and the usual irregularities that can occur during the day’s operations.
Advancing Line Maintenance with Optimization Software
Optimization software, such as INFORM’s Line Maintenance Solution, effectively addresses these primary challenges facing line maintenance operations. Regarding staff schedules, there are solutions that cover all related processes and facilitate advanced planning. Specifically, these solutions support long-term planning of line maintenance staff. Applying rule-based functions, they estimate the line maintenance workload based on the number of flights to be covered. Relying on a sound workload estimate, optimal shift plans can be generated to ensure the efficient work coverage. Additionally, these tools are effective for evaluating multiple scenarios such as higher or lower workload impacts, as well as, how the introduction of new aircraft into a fleet or the effect of changing labor agreements will impact the expected workload. Once the need for shifts and skills have been addressed, optimization software also supports workforce scheduling and rostering by generating optimum staff rosters that accurately reflect each staff member’s skills, time-off/vacation wishes, and other employee requests or schedule constraints. Using the solution’s web-based employee portal, each staff member can view and manage their own schedule online on a 24/7 basis giving them a sense of control over their schedules. Staff management during the day of operations is also greatly enhanced by sophisticated line maintenance solutions. When flight irregularities occur and unexpected maintenance requirements are reported, the solution facilitates a quick and optimized response to reduce technical delays and increase overall staff productivity. Because of the solution’s mobile platform, tasks can be tracked individually and addressed promptly. Through this structured communication and information gathering, the analysis of key performance indicators becomes much easier and effective in driving continuous improvement.
At INFORM GmbH, the Aviation Division has been applying its optimization solutions to support hundreds of customers worldwide. Its new Line Maintenance Solution has already assisted large line maintenance customers in increasing staff productivity and satisfaction, while decreasing technical flight delays, increasing on-time line maintenance completion, and reducing costs associated with line maintenance operations.