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Last Friday, Southwest Airlines had a 5 by 1 foot hole develop during a flight that forced an emergency landing. Fortunately, no one was seriously injured but the crash once again raised public awareness to the maintenance practices of the Aviation Industry.

Many observers were quick to jump on a 2008 fine against Southwest Airlines that was later reduced to $7.5 million. Citing the airline’s failure to conduct mandatory inspections for fuselage cracking as a sign of terrible maintenance.

Others are concerned that this is a problem of an aging fleet citing that fatigue cracks are not uncommon in older jets. Some wonder if an increasing reliance on outsourced maintenance to a foreign country or third parties is responsible.

The Airline Maintenance Perception

The reality is that all three reasons above may be contributing factors but there is also a lot of misinformation. For example, there was not an inspection requirement for the lap joint where the split on the SW Airlines occurred because Boeing didn’t think one would be needed yet. It is nearly impossible to foresee every possible failure point on an aircraft. On the other hand, manufacturer’s maintenance and inspection guidelines often need to be adjusted based on experience.

Regarding the aging airline fleet, the average of Southwest Airlines fleet is about 11 years which is the lowest in the industry. More importantly, age is not the driving factor, the number of takeoffs and landing is.

Southwest Airlines as well as many other airlines do outsource their maintenance but this does not mean problems can be avoided by keeping maintenance in-house. Among major carriers, only American Airlines and Delta perform more than 70% of their own aircraft maintenance and neither of these carriers is a stranger to airline maintenance disasters.

The root of the problem is aircraft require a great deal of maintenance to meet FAA regulations and to ensure safety. Maintenance costs money and many airlines have struggled to keep a positive cash flow over the years. This is one of the reason airlines seek a competitive advantage by outsourcing maintenance to lower costs facilities in poorer countries.

EAM Systems Can Significantly Reduce Maintenance Costs

Aircraft inspections are more or less a series of inspection checklists and preventive maintenance or repair tasks that need to be performed. Unless they are well organized, coordinated and planned by maintenance professionals, inefficiency and error occurs.

Moving operations to another country is not a solution if the job was not being done right in the first place. For example, the cost of fuel alone for a flight to Central or South America and Southeast Asia may not cover the extra labor costs to do the job correctly. If you add in the cost of fines and an accident, labor cost becomes a non-issue.

So what is the problem? The problem is that domestic airline carriers are not looking in-house to see how they can do the job better nor are they taking advantage of technology like an EAM systemEAM Systems Organize all assets, then automate much of the work management process, then provide scheduling tools for inspections, preventive maintenance and repairs.

The better organization afforded by an EAM solution also significantly reduces paper flow when performing handheld device inspections. By computerizing the work order lifecycle, maintenance staff spends far less time filling out paperwork and has more time to focus on maintenance activities. This allows more work to be done with the same amount of resources.

Most importantly, the organization and streamline of maintenance work will give maintenance operation the opportunity to perform more pro active inspections without raising the costs. EAM systems can save up to 30% of maintenance costs, the key is a commitment to excellence and long term planning.

Airline Asset Management Competitive Advantages

When an EAM is implemented, a database of all assets is created. This includes descriptions, locations, serial number, age, condition as well as any documentation including photos, schematics etc. As each work order or inspection result is completed, the data is recorded and uploaded onto the main EAM server. Uploaded information includes who did the work, parts required, time spent, costs and notes. Management can then run reports to:

  • View time spent costs on repairs across facility locations, by maintenance staff or by asset.
  • Identify common problems then develop system wide solutions.
  • Use the work history recorded on the database to identify bottlenecks and set standard operating procedures across all facilities.
  • Use the historical record to develop training procedures as well as have a crucial database for knowledge transfer.
  • Identify which assets are requiring too much maintenance, perform a cost/benefit analysis to have better information available for capital budgeting.

EAM solutions provide the aviation industry with the ability to lower short and long term costs. Perhaps the greatest incentive to invest in EAM systems is that the historical database can provide proof to the FAA that proper maintenance is being done on a regular schedule basis. Having proof of work done may also mitigate liability claims from disasters such as American Airline Flight 191 in 1979.