December 14, 2022

How can airlines improve AOG outcomes?

When an aircraft is on the ground, time is everything. Can data coupled with processes rewind the clock?

A costly evening

It's a typical night, at a typical airport, just after landing as a plane is taxiing back to the gate for an otherwise uneventful, run-of-the-mill flight. On the flight deck, a warning light goes off for the #2 AHRS.

The clock starts to run — that which measures the economic costs of AOG (Aircraft on Ground) or even an on-time departure for the next segment.

The co-pilot points it out to the Captain — who has seen it before — “I'll make a note and call it in,” she says. Meanwhile, it's a busy night on the ground as she keys her mic to speak to ATC. Some 20 minutes later, the plane has taxied in and is marshaled to the gate. Once chocked, the Captain greets each passenger personally on their way out. The Captain finally has a moment to reach for the aluminum case containing the paper tech log, and flips to a page to make a notation.

Tick tock.

The Captain picks up the phone to call the Systems Operations Control Center (SOCC) to indicate the problem. There, the responsible manager makes a radio call to maintenance to inquire about a deferral. He thinks this is a problem he saw a few months ago on a different aircraft — “Pretty sure it can be deferred — but it needs to be fixed within three days,” he thinks. This aircraft is grounded — at least until he can be sure. Meanwhile, passengers for the next flight are already at the gate waiting to board. They'll have to wait.

Tick tock.

Back upstairs in maintenance, the team's research finds the specific reference to the AHRS fault in the MEL and determines the deferral. (The manager's anecdotal hunch was correct.) The SOCC is called, as the next segment will not push back on time. Maintenance sends a technician down to placard the Cockpit. This time they're lucky; the next flight is delayed by about an hour. No parts are needed. But, the crew will time out, and the last leg of the day is canceled.

A costly evening, all in all.

For operators large and small, a scheduled aircraft that can't meet its requirements is expensive.  The scenario above is repeated daily and globally. Whether it's an inspection, deferral, authorization from the manufacturer to continue operating, or a designed solution to meet the requirements of the regulations, each is urgent. “Anyone who's worked in maintenance knows the immediate questions,” said Andy Wilkinson, a long-time aircraft maintenance leader, now at TrustFlight.

“How quickly can the airline get an engineer? How quickly can the airline get the parts? How quickly can CAMO (Continuing Airworthiness Management Organisation) get the return to service work pack? There can be improvement here, and ultimately better outcomes from an AOG.”

While time is of the essence, could the airline have been more proactive, rather than reactive? And for that matter, how could the airline react more quickly to a typical potential AOG on a typical night?

How to Rewind the Clock before a potential AOG event

“Data is key,” said Jim Swoboda at TrustFlight, who has more than 25 years with legacy carriers on their maintenance and airworthiness procedures. “It's the one element that can help you rewind the clock.”

“In a modern airline environment, data analysis informs how events unfold and how frequently they unfold and where they happen, why they happen, and what conditions drive the events,” Swoboda said. How an airline records events, and whether that information can be collected digitally for analysis is critical. Ideally, such a system will present the information in a way that effectively flags recurring issues so that decision-makers can spot repetitive pain points.

“Armed with data, the CAMO team is so much more efficient,” Swoboda said. “That could involve making changes to the timing of a maintenance schedule, increases of parts and spares at different bases, or even increase training with personnel so that they can determine best solutions for the airline in the shortest amount of time.”

Indeed, data might change the way an aircraft or fleet is deployed, or even how pilots operate to meet the mission. Continuing airworthiness solutions should collect and pool reliability data and allow for efficient reliability reports. “TrustFlight has gone one step further to connect directly into the maintenance control software with a reliability analytics tool,” Swoboda said.

Consider events with no maintenance impact, but you have a material effect on aircraft use. “In winter operations, the maintenance organization might notice that the airline is having many door problems on the fleet, specifically frozen cargo doors and latch assemblies,” Swoboda said. “If you can identify that is a recurring problem — beyond simply anecdotal review — you can schedule your fall maintenance to increase lubrication to the assembly in the fall. The doors won't freeze shut and they'll still work.”

Data will allow the airline to get ahead of the game.

How can an airline react faster to a potential AOG, before it is confirmed?

The scenario described earlier is typical of an airline with varying levels of operational connectedness. How quickly can the pilot communicate issues to the SOCC and maintenance? How fast can each diagnose problems? Out of every event, there's an opportunity to improve an airline's reaction time.

For most operators, however, paper is still king. Paper-based processes coupled with telephone and radio calls are less effective for “moving the metal.” Instead, imagine a scenario where as the aircraft is rolling out after landing, and the AHRS Case message warning illuminates. The Captain is not so task-saturated to review the embedded MEL within the electronic tech log in seconds and make a notation, seamlessly and instantaneously transmitting that information to the relevant parties, all at once.

Couple instantaneous reporting with data pools and an airline can extract data and more quickly determine solutions. “The SOCC and maintenance can see the airline has had a flag pop up in ATA Chapter 34 — Navigation snag or the AHRS scenario here. You can then glance at any event related to that ATA chapter, and quickly determine how the problem was handled across your fleet,” Swoboda said.

“That alone will shave a significant amount of time off a carrier's AOG downtime, and that is currency,” said Andy Wilkinson, of TrustFlight. “And, the data provides a single source of truth for the operator to not only improve its reaction and performance time, but to improve the quality of information received. For example, checks and measures built prevent erroneous information from being entered in to the electronic tech log, unlike its paper counterpart.”

Wilkinson sees the promise of digitization to reduce reaction time for AOG.

“For those short-term events — say 30 minutes or less — it's not unreasonable to get a 50% gain in the turn time with a digital tech log versus the paper system.”

The sum of these solutions allows the airline to rewind the clock — or at least be more efficient in reacting to potential or actual AOG incidents.

And in the scenario above, a less costly evening for the airline.

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