Aviation is one of the largest industries in the world and is worth billions of dollars. The industry is huge and interconnected with many other industries ranging from logistics and transportation to food and catering. The industry is gaining back to its former state after the COVID - 19 pandemic with more than 3000 million passengers traveling by air globally.
And a key element of the aviation industry, one of the important pieces that keep the aircraft moving smoothly and safely is the maintenance, repair, and overhaul departments.
In this article, we explore the role of maintenance and repair in the aviation industry and how technologies like RFID and NFC can streamline the process.
The aviation industry has high standards for maintenance and repair activities. FAA mandates the airlines to repair aircraft components at very strict intervals and sometimes even completely replace them. Maintenance crews have to repair and maintain around one million components on an aircraft for it to remain airworthy. A Boeing 737 has around 67kms of wiring while a 747 has around 270kms of wiring, not to mention the rest of the components.
Routine maintenance activities are a crucial part of risk management for aircraft. It’s about reducing or eliminating the risk of failure but at the same time keeping the process cost-effective. And for this, the maintenance activities have to be well planned in advance and executed precisely.
Besides this, the industry is also highly regulated. Every country has its own aviation agencies that regulate the industry. And they all have very high standards for the airworthiness of an aircraft. These standards vary with aircraft and its components. Some components need repairs after 600 flight hours while some can last for years. And some components need maintenance after every stop.
Because of these, airlines and maintenance crews have well-planned schedules for managing the processes involved.
Every maintenance activity performed is well defined and very precise leaving little room for ambiguity. Even when refueling the aircraft, the amount of fuel filled is very precise. If it’s too little, the aircraft may run out of fuel, and if it’s too much, the aircraft is carrying unnecessary weight. All the components of the aircraft - from the engines to the landing gear - have very specific ratings or flying hours.
The airline industry is also a highly managed or controlled industry. The analysts comb through all the data they have available to make even the tiniest of savings they can. There is a story of an airline that saved $25,000 by reducing the number of olives they put in drinks.
Airlines can bring these analytics into maintenance with RFID and NFC tech. This tech can make them more efficient and cheaper without compromising the quality. The technology can also make sure that every maintenance task is carried out to the required standards and that all the steps are diligently followed.
There are many elements to maintenance, repair, and overhaul activities in the aviation industry.
In general, the aircraft maintenance cycles revolves around the number of flight hours, the number of pressurization cycles, the number of landings, and other factors. FAA and the manufacturer determine these based on the wear and tear of components. Of course, if the aircraft was involved in an incident (tail strike, running out of the runway, etc), or issues were spotted, checks may be performed before these schedules.
But otherwise, the FAA or similar agencies in different countries have detailed maintenance schedules.
These schedules are usually referred to as checks and there are usually A, B, C, and D checks. The maintenance crews are responsible for these checks at different intervals. For example, the A check is performed every 400 - 600 flight hours or so and is not intensive. But the D checks are conducted every 6 to 10 years and more or less take apart the entire aircraft to inspect and repair all components.
There’s also a careful balance on whether it’s cheaper to repair and maintain an aircraft or purchase a new one. This applies not just to entire aircraft, but also to engines. There have been incidents when airlines sold entire aircraft fuselages for scrap after an accident before their maiden flight.
Because of these airlines and manufacturers follow different models for repair and maintenance. Large airlines may have their own MRO crews and infrastructure while the smaller airlines may buy services from the former. In some instances, smaller airlines may build their own MRO infrastructure and offer their services to other airlines.
In a different model, sometimes the aircraft and engine manufacturers offer MRO services. In these cases, they may sell the aircraft and the engine at a lower price and recoup the cost through the MRO services.
Aviation maintenance or the aviation industry as a whole is all about checklists. They’re a critical aspect of aviation safety and flight and maintenance crews use them diligently. Checklists ensure that the crew performs every task in the right order even when they’re in a rush. There are checklists for everything from engine failures to a deicing procedure performed at an airport.
Checklists also keep a log of all activities performed. For example, if one crew performs part of the activities and another crew takes over, the latter knows exactly where to go on without any ambiguity.
Failure to follow these steps can be catastrophic and can cause huge accidents. There have been incidents where maintenance crews forgot to remove the covers for pitot tubes and pilots didn’t notice them in the preflight walkaround.
RFID and NFC tags can improve how maintenance teams use checklists. These tags contain small pieces of information in them, such as a serial number or component number. A technician read this information using an RFID reader. When the reader is nearby, the tags use the energy from the radio signals to power up and send back the stored information to the reader.
Aircraft maintenance crews can use RFID tags to keep track of the tasks to perform before they clear the aircraft for service. They can place these tags on the aircraft and its components as it comes in for service. Once crew personnel completes the task, they can scan the tag and remove them. This reduces the need for manually checking off the list and gives more credibility to the checklists - supervisors can be assured that the task has not been simply checked off but is actually performed.
Maintenance crews can also attach RFID tags to the different components every time they’re replaced. With an app like TargPatrol, they can set up notifications every time the maintenance cycle of that particular component is up.
Instead of looking up the maintenance logs or going through the records, maintenance crews can just scan the RFID tag next to the component. The reader will then show if it’s time for its maintenance or replacement.
Supervisors can also assign schedules for all the crew members. With an RFID system, they don’t have to manually follow up since it will all come up in the dashboard.
You can also use RFID tags on temporary components that maintenance crews use on the aircraft surface while they’re parked. For example, pitot tubes are almost always covered to prevent debris; in some cases, the control surfaces are locked to prevent damage. These temporary locks or covers are tagged with a tag labeled “Remove before flight” in bright red or yellow colors.
And if they’re not removed, the results can be catastrophic. RFID tags are a great solution to make this more foolproof. They’re robust and tough and you can use them even in rough weather. By adding these tags to these covers or locks, maintenance crews can simply scan them when they’re removed. If they’re not removed, it will show up in the digital checklist.
Keep detailed logs: This is aircraft maintenance 101 - make sure you log every activity, every component replaced, every component fixed, and every paint job. Make sure the logs have all the information about the activity such as who did it, when was it performed, what was done, etc.
Use checklists: As we discussed above, checklists are an integral component of aircraft maintenance. They help maintain records and ensure that tasks are not missed during a process.
Wear proper PPE: Aircrafts are complex systems and have different types of materials in them. Some of them may be under pressure and some of these systems may be electrified. It’s important that the maintenance personnel wear appropriate PPE that keeps them safe from any of these safety hazards.
Communicate well: Lack of clear communication is one of the main causes of accidents. Make sure that the maintenance team communicates well with each other and understands each other. It’s best to ask again instead of assuming when working in aviation maintenance since the risks are huge. Make sure that all communication, be it emails, checklists, or logs, are all in clear unambiguous language.
Keep the work area clean and organized: This is fairly straightforward - a clean work area is an easy-to-work area. Make sure that all the equipment and components have designated places to store. A clean and organized work area makes it easy for crew members to be productive and efficient; they don’t have to go all over the place looking for tools or equipment.
Conduct regular walkarounds and check maintenance equipment: It’s important to ensure that all the equipment and tools are in proper working order and are safe to use. Conduct regular walkarounds of the work area to make sure all employees are following safety protocols, that the area is safe to work in, and that the equipment is in proper condition. If any issues are spotted, rectify them as soon as possible and log them.
Plan ahead for supplies and inventory: Delays in maintenance can be costly. Make sure that you have all the equipment and supplies before the aircraft comes in for maintenance. Every day an aircraft spends in the hangar or parked at the airport is costing money for the airline.
Keep track of the components: It’s important to ensure that all the components with a limited life are tracked and replaced at the end of their life. And for this, you need to know where it is, when it was replaced, and how you can procure it. You can use RFID and a centralized maintenance management system to make this process seamless.
Take a look at TargPatrol. TargPatrol helps you keep track of your equipment and/or your personnel and help you manage your entire repair and maintenance cycle. The app lets you create checklists and schedules and assign them to your teammates. And you can use them with RFID or NFC tags for building a robust maintenance management system.