The Art of Aircraft Maintenance: Painting a Picture of Complexity and Detail
By Greg Paxson, A&P/IA, Senior Aviation Maintenance Consultant
Do you have a great Technician or a Professional Maintenance Manager? Hopefully, you answered yes to “both”, because you need both. Safety, experience, and training are the hallmarks of any reputable management company’s maintenance department. Most owners, pilots and anyone looking for a management company will probably know to look for these things. But, does a technician who participates in the company SMS program, goes to recurrent training and knows his way around your aircraft, equal professional maintenance management? Not always. There is a lot more to maintenance management than a sharp technician and a well maintained aircraft. Professional maintenance managers are artists, like Michelangelo or Renoir, who can elegantly add value in ways and areas not obvious at first glance, as the devil is always in the details.
Your Maintenance Technician as Artist, Finance and Project Manager
Just like a palette, brushes, paint and easel are essential for the artist, budgeting and forecasting are crucial tools in aircraft maintenance management. Accurate forecasting of cost and downtime can maximize aircraft utilization and allows planning throughout the flight department and other supporting
entities such as accounting, finance and human resources. Well planned maintenance events allow the flight crew to take advantage of downtime for training, other duties or vacation. Because maintenance varies with utilization, the budget has to be a living document. As flight time increases or decreases the related maintenance is pushed or pulled and the schedule and costs will shift as well. When maintenance schedules firm up, good maintenance managers will bundle maintenance requirements into single events to save downtime, increase aircraft availability and reduce the costs associated with redundant shop visits. For example, it is often appropriate to extend one or more maintenance items (by using grace periods or with the blessing of the manufacturer) and/or comply with others to-do items early to avoid taking the aircraft out of service on multiple occasions, thus decreasing both costs and total downtime. Dynamic planning and forecasting also avoids delays in maintenance. Pre-ordering parts or kits with long lead times ensures the maintenance facility is ready for the entire work scope upon induction. This, in turn, helps deliver the aircraft back to flying status as quickly as possible.
There are a number of sophisticated tools (and some very simple ones) available to the professional maintenance manager. Used correctly, these tools will enhance the value of the aircraft by increasing availability and managing costs. The important thing is that quality maintenance management is not just addressing what’s currently on the due list but forecasting upcoming maintenance while accurately budgeting the event. As a general rule, I like to have visibility to events requiring one week of downtime six months in advance, events with two weeks one year in advance, and three weeks downtime up to 18 months in advance.
Maintenance Repair Organization Selection and Comparing Apples to Apples
Vendor management is another key area for the professional maintenance manager. Many owners are used to seeing three (or more) quotes for major maintenance events. Multiple quotes keep the vendors competitive and are the first step in ensuring the owner is receiving good value for the maintenance dollar. Frustratingly, quotes from multiple vendors are rarely the same. They are almost never apples-to-apples. It is very important that a detailed analysis be compiled to compare and contrast the various quotes before presenting the costs to the owner. Maintenance and Repair Organizations (MRO’s) often quote inspections, retrofits and services in very different formats. One might quote labor only, while another will quote labor, parts and services. Freight is often a variable and can be a significant cost on a large job. Some MRO’s will quote freight others may not. Either way, it’s going to end up on the final invoice.
Scheduled inspections are only part of a normal work scope. Inspections are geared to find discrepancies and items requiring preventative maintenance (“over and above” the original estimate). These items can often double the cost and downtime of the job. The labor rate the MRO will use to repair these additional items is important to know going into an event, and is often negotiable. Discrepancy labor can be sizeable. A 10% reduction in the discrepancy labor rate can have dramatic effects on the final cost of the job. Additional charges such as handling fees, miscellaneous parts and supplies and hazardous materials fees are sometimes buried in the terms and conditions and not a part of the bottom line number on a quote. Interior access or removal and replacement of parts not originally installed by the airframe manufacturer, are sometimes quoted as time and material. They may or may not be built into the quote and this may have a dramatic effect on the final invoice, leaving it looking nothing like the original estimate. These items won’t necessarily show up on the quotes’ bottom line but will surly make the final invoice. It is extremely important to know all the nuances of the entire quote in order to prepare a complete, detailed, apples-to-apples analysis. Otherwise, it is impossible to budget accurately, choose the vendor providing the best value and receive a final invoice that isn’t full of unanticipated costs.
Maximizing Your Warranty Programs
Most aircraft have some type of maintenance and/or warranty program: airframe parts, engine major maintenance and overhaul, scheduled maintenance, APU major maintenance and overhaul, avionics parts or wheels and brakes. There are a number of providers, all with varying programs and unique terms. Many people don’t know that there are ways to manage these programs to the owner’s advantage, reducing costs and increasing their ultimate utility.
Most programs are pay-as-you-go (by the hour) or a onetime yearly payments based on a not to exceed number of flight hours during the year. Parts and engine programs will generally have a minimum number of flight hours. Often this is negotiable; however, if not managed correctly and prior to contract signing an owner with low utilization may be stuck with a year-end invoice for hours that were never flown. Some programs will keep track of the cost of parts and services utilized in the contract period. This cost, when deemed excessive, can be used against the owner at contract renewal.
Ordering parts for troubleshooting or moreover, to avoid troubleshooting because they are “free” is a fallacy yet an unfortunately common practice in the industry.
The cost of parts assigned by the program is usually the manufacturer’s list price. But what if that cost is way out of line with the market? Time for the maintenance manager to step in, work with the program managers and ensure the costs assigned are more in line with the market. Programs will all have escalators and indices that drive the cost of the program. Rates usually increase, but, when it comes time to renew, rates and contract fees can (and should) be negotiate. These programs can be great tools for helping fix the cost of maintenance; however, they have to be administered carefully so they provide the greatest cost benefit.
Creating a (Maintenance) Flight Plan for the Future
What is your aircraft going to need three years, five years or 10 years from now? What equipment is mandated and when will it need to be installed? Paint, interior refurbishment and cabin management upgrades are projects that should be started 12-18 months in advance and should be scheduled at least 6 months prior to the start of work. Trying to accomplish these items in short time frames will lead to reduced choice of materials, options and/or equipment, cause excessive downtime and increased costs. Often these events are coordinated with large scheduled maintenance inspections. This takes advantage of the scheduled downtime increasing availability. The myriad of details necessary to smoothly complete a large maintenance, upgrade or retrofit event requires tremendous preplanning, many decisions and coordination that can only be accomplished with many months’ lead time. Change orders and last minute items are costly not only in dollars but in downtime.
Michelangelo and Renoir’s works were complex and detailed – with incredible professionalism and forethought self-evident in the beauty of their paintings. Similarly, impeccably maintained aircraft and a culture of safety and service are the essential foundations of good aircraft management and can truly be termed “works of art” when well executed. Professional maintenance management is certainly part art, part science with serious attention to a whole host of details. Such “artistry” increases the cost benefit of an aircraft, improves availability and bolsters the owner’s relationship with the management company.
If you would like to know more about aircraft maintenance management and how Business Aviation Solutions can add value to your aircraft experience, please contact our resident artist and Senior Aviation Maintenance Consultant, Greg Paxson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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