We have all had a flight delayed because of a technical problem and experienced that heart sinking moment when the captain announces that “we’re just waiting for the paperwork”, because it is impossible to guess how much longer it will be until push back. While there is widespread use of electronic logbooks (ELBs) by flight crew, replacing the famous pilot cases, there has been slightly less use of electronic technical logs (ETLs) to replace hard copy documentation and even less integration with other IT systems in the airline, so the response to a problem can be lengthy and relatively disorganized.
For a non-electronic system, from the manifestation of the fault on the flight deck, there is communication of the problem to the Maintenance Control Center (MCC), which will carry out research to find a solution, including generating the necessary paperwork in the Maintenance Information System (MIS) and ordering the replacement parts. Even if the mechanics have pre-warning and replacement parts, they will still always read the tech log, as information can get degraded while passing down the chain from pilot to MCC to shift supervisor to lead mechanic before it gets to them on the line. That still doesn’t resolve problems with understanding bad handwriting or if the crew have made an accurate assessment of the fault. For example, a stall warning can be triggered by landing gear, flight controls or caution and alerting – three different ATA chapters.
If the crew and maintenance can connect to a much wider data pool, diagnosis becomes much more accurate and standardized, with no room for misunderstanding. A database of fault codes generated by the aircraft’s maintenance computer would immediately give the source of that stall warning. With a better idea of how long the problem will take to rectify, plans can be made to minimize delays, perhaps by swapping the aircraft for another on the next sector if the times exceeds the turnaround. Once the problem is resolved, the mechanic can sign off the job on their device and this will alert the crew via the ELB/ETL – no crowding into the cockpit or passing forms through windows. Minutes saved in this way potentially avoid delays and cancellations later.
But why is paper still so common? One reason is inertia in huge organizations. It seems that the push for ELBs sometimes comes from flight operations, where cockpit crew see the immediate benefit, while there is push back from maintenance as they ‘own’ the paper logs. The final procurement decision in this case is usually taken at a management level that has oversight of both departments and so has a greater understanding of the potential advantages to the whole company.
John Stone, VP of Product Management at Ultramain, says the challenge is to help airlines to understand the benefits so they want to get involved early, rather than them feeling that they have to do it because everyone else is going paperless, which seems to be the mentality of the majority of operators right now. Having said that, he notes that it is six years since Ultramain carried out a software implementation that involved paper.
He also points out that an airline with 100 aircraft is going to have millions of paper log pages. They will have been typed up manually, with a risk of error. They may have been scanned into an IT system, but they will still have to be boxed up and shipped to a warehouse, where they will sit useless and unchecked unless there is an accident that requires their retrieval. If regulatory changes are introduced, existing stocks of logbooks will have to be thrown away and reprints ordered in the new format. All of this is costly and inefficient. A good example of new technology here is the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from EASA. British Airways, an Ultramain customer, simply changed the ELB format electronically overnight.
He adds that Ultramain’s ELB can also hold details of the previous 50 flights, allowing the mechanic to check whether they are dealing with a recurrent fault. Of course, this data can also be used separately to analyse individual aircraft or the entire fleet. Another advantage of the ELB is that fuel, oil and hydraulic fluid consumption can be monitored and any exceedances quickly identified. Billing can also be expedited. It would take several days in either case with a paper-based system.
With over 1 million sectors flown with Ultramain ELB by customers including Air New Zealand, British Airways, Cathay Pacific (a customer for 20 years) and Japan Airlines, he says the company has accumulated vast experience of airline operations, which help in the development of new and improved products.
However, it is Japan Airlines that he singles out for particular comment, as it has developed a complete maintenance strategy that uses IT to the maximum. This is the Zero-Zero-100 programme: zero irregular operations or inflight shutdowns; zero inflight defects and 100% on time departures. This started in 2016, with AMOS from Swiss AviationSoftware being added in 2018 and Ultramain’s ELB (including a Cabin log) and Mobile Mechanic for line maintenance following in 2019. Also included was Ultramain’s Crew Communication System, which allows flight crew to contact engineering with a single button.
The main driver behind Zero-Zero-100, he explains, was that the airline had been using a paper-based system but the introduction of the Airbus A350 and Boeing 787, both e-enabled aircraft, made this ripe for replacement. However, the airline’s vision extended far beyond the new aircraft to the digitalization of the entire maintenance organization. This is definitely the way forward for progressive operators.
Cameron Hood, CEO of NVable, has a slightly different take on the situation as his company produces CONVERGE, a combination of an Electronic Technical Log and the associated processing software. It was involved in trialling initial versions of the ETL in the 1990s and was the first to introduce the Panasonic Toughpad as a preferred platform for the ETL with an airline and the first to introduce the use of Microsoft Azure and the benefits of scalable, secure cloud architecture to an airline data environment.
In his experience, the ETL procurement decision is usually driven by Maintenance Operations Control, with line engineers the second to benefit as they are usually not catered for at all. Flight crew have their EFBs so are happy but he acknowledges they do have an important input to ETL operations and the decision to acquire such a system needs their acceptance.
He says there has been some confusion between EFB and ETL, with the latter sometimes being called EFB hardware. This leads to most people thinking that all that is needed is an EFB and an iPad, with the ETL software on the latter. This is certainly possible from a technical point of view but he points out that the paper technical log stays with the aircraft at all times, as required by the aviation authorities. He strongly believes the ETL should not be a personal issue device and should also remain with the aircraft at all times.
He adds that a key element is two-way communication, with the device able to transmit data back to base for subsequent analysis and to receive data from the airline’s main server to give salient information to technical staff at work with a problem. This is particularly useful if there is a rogue aircraft in the fleet with unusual serviceability issues or operational restrictions, as they can be made aware of the potential difficulties.
CONVERGE has multiple modules, although three are at the core. The Line Maintenance Module bundles work items from multiple sources into a single work pack for an aircraft, and schedule when it should be carried out. It will then be transmitted to the ETL and be available to action at the appropriate time. Defects are created automatically meaning less work for engineers, and the status is updated automatically via the CONVERGE Website allowing MOC a real time view of exactly what is going on where.
The Damage Module allows full lifecycle management of scrapes and dents. These are located on the appropriate view or chart of the aircraft that are available in the ETL. Once selected, you can scroll around and zoom in and out to allow exact placement of the damage marker and the necessary information is entered. Photographs of the damage can be captured throughout the life of the damaged item to allow degrading damage to be identified and tracked, giving a true timeline of any changes which may occur.
The Document Management module allows distribution of documents from the CONVERGE portal via the Web and ETL devices. Documents are added to a customer defined folder structure and each document revision is stored for auditing purposes. Permissions can be assigned at the Document or Folder level and, with documents having a Published and Unpublished state, you updated documents can be prepared in advance and release across the organization with a single click.
Given the wide range of data that is potentially available, he says it is really up to the airline to select its main requirements and for NVable to develop the necessary solutions. This might include information that is not directly relevant to maintenance. One customer is British Airways CityFlyer, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of the flag carrier, operating regional flights with a fleet of 22 Embraer 190s. In this case, NVable collates schedule and flight data and puts it into a ‘warehouse’ so it can be analysed by the airlines as it needs it, perhaps for future operations. Another example might be validation of fuel usage, with pre-defined alert levels if there are exceedances. More complex solutions might be the calculation of a rolling consumption rate on oil. The data store can also be used for defect analysis and engineers can even register their associated repair activities as a useful bonus.
CONVERGE can interface with other IT systems, which was part of the original design, so data use is extended to other parts of the airline if the customer wishes. While the MIS is an obvious option, he also mentions finance for fuel billing but adds, in these environmentally sensitive times, CO2 analysis.
Visualization is again driven by what the customer wants. Multiple dashboards can be created, each tailored to a specific audience. Dashboards update as the data arrives and areas which need attention are highlighted in amber or red according to defined parameters. A Notification Module allows users to create their own notification rules and content, as well remaining in control of who receives the notifications (whether internal or third parties).
If an aircraft is moving on from an airline’s fleet, CONVERGE can produce a pdf of the technical records, more in keeping with traditional paper-based record keeping, but the company is also happy to facilitate getting all the online data moved out into an electronic format that can used by the new operator. This also applies to the damage record.
As for airlines looking for commercial off the shelf solutions, he feels that this will happen as the acceptance of the technology matures, not necessarily because of COVID-19, but the pandemic has given them a reason to think about how these systems might be used to make life easier if another emergency situation arose. For example, technicians could go from working at the airport to working from home as the fleet is grounded. There will still be regular checks required so those procedures could be loaded onto a personal issue device with automatic alerts when they are scheduled to be carried out.
The latest development for Converge is a link-up between NVable and Commsoft. John Wilson, Chief Product & Technology Officer at Commsoft, says CONVERGE is ‘best of breed’ and the intention is to deeply integrate it with his company’s OASES MRO software to help airlines deal more efficiently with technical problems. This will provide a seamless experience across all aspects of aircraft maintenance, flowing from the office, hangar, line activities and to each aircraft.
The company has an annual product road map and the latest version highlighted that customers generally dislike using software that doesn’t allow them to complete their workflow efficiently. Efficiency is particularly important where data is highly dynamic such as short-term planning and material provisioning. The main theme this year is to provide better tools for line maintenance planning and resource management, along with generally improved mobility and growing integration with operations systems and ETLs. Converge will help solve this as a three-day lag in processing paper logs is no longer acceptable and the joint venture is aimed squarely at the MOC and flight operations. If they have real time insight into a problem, he explains, they can start planning contingencies as well as simply resolving the issue, often one of the flaws in the current decision-making process.
Write it Up
Although ETLs have been around for a while, their potential has been under-utilized until now. With e-enabled aircraft and improved communications, along with much more sophisticated software, there is now a real opportunity to radically change maintenance procedures when it comes to resolving problems. However, it might also take a cultural change inside airlines to grasp that opportunity and use the data throughout the organization.