The aircraft maintenance operations for the world’s top airlines has changed dramatically in recent years from an internal airline-owned operation, to an airline-managed global supply chain of vendors, MROs (Maintenance Repair & Overhaul), parts manufacturers, leasing companies, and OEMs participating in the process. This “dis-integration” of the traditional “vertically integrated, in-house aircraft maintenance practices of airlines requires more effective information technologies. Airlines today are seeking technologies that can support the broader task of managing a dynamic network of independent suppliers, while maintaining the tracking and retrieval capabilities for regulatory compliance. Cloud computing has emerged as the perfect systems architecture for carriers to manage their maintenance operations and communications in harmony with their worldwide supply chain, lessors, and regulatory authorities.
Traditionally, airline maintenance information systems employed a hierarchical computing approach. For the past 20 years, conformity to a single organizational “standard, and a top-down IT management approach dictated to users the approved versions of operating systems, database, and application software. Further, cumbersome client-server software licensing structures limiting use, created many islands of automation in aircraft maintenance, requiring further layers of complex communication software to move information through the organization systematically to get the work done. While this approach was adequate when airlines owned and vertically integrated their entire portfolio of maintenance assets such as aircraft, facilities, parts, and mechanics. The increased use of outsourcing aircraft maintenance activities, labor, capital management (aircraft leasing), and parts supplies exposed severe limitations to this computing model.
Originally advanced by the low-cost carriers, the increased use of 3rd party maintenance vendors have now transformed the aircraft maintenance models of all the major flag, low-cost, and cargo carriers. Airlines now balance their internal resources with the benefits offered by external maintenance suppliers, such as lower cost and improved performance metrics. While this flexibility and cost advantage has tremendous benefit,the information management responsibility of the airlines to monitor the performance and compliance of both their internal and outsourced operations presents new challenges as well as great opportunities to improve performance Airline maintenance operations require information systems architecture to simultaneously manage both internal and external resources, from different systems of multiple vendors, and from a wide selection of different user devices. No longer can systems or interfaces be dictated–BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) is now the norm. Major airlines have quickly found that cloud computing, with an inherent global operating system of web connections,perfectly serves this ecosystem of aircraft maintenance operations, offering a many-to-many communication topology, along with a business oriented software licensing structure for this entirely dynamic, mobile computing environment.
Many of the same attributes that made cloud computing a good fit for airline reservation systems, customer/passenger facing applications on the revenue side of commercial airlines, can be applied to reduce aircraft maintenance expenses. Cloud computing’s inherent cost saving benefits such as ease of use, packaged applications, infinitely calable infrastructure, and low administration requirements are well known. Cloud computing used by the aircraft maintenance operation builds on this low-cost infrastructure, leveraging inherent data access capabilities, and establishing secure connections to the wide variety M&E, ERP, SCM, CMS, and Production Control systems that exist within the airline and their external suppliers. Now all can be easily accessed at low cost. Aircraft maintenance status, updates, and complete packages of data can now be transferred in real-time from anyone to anywhere in the world, a process that in past might have taken months to complete for an airworthiness or lease return audit. Cloud computing establishes for the airline, a bi-directional communication conduit for complete visibility of both their internal and external partner’s activities. Further, as smarter aircraft and jet engines are produced, each becomes an additional cloud data access connector where the ability to quickly assemble, format, and normalize massive amounts of aircraft maintenance data for reporting, analytics, and business intelligence.
Once maintenance data and connections are established in a secure, cloud computing environment, the infinite scale of the cloud allows aircraft maintenance information to be efficiently stored and managed over time offering even further value. The information stored can also be repurposed for other applications. For example, during an aircraft lease return, maintenance information accumulated over many years must be presented to the leasing company prior to returning the aircraft. This information can now be quickly assembled from multiple systems via cloud connectors and formatted into predefined file structures for web access. With proper security credentials, the leasing company has a cloud computing maintenance data-room for remarketing the aircraft to a broader group of interested buyers.
Cloud computing has emerged as the most cost effective operating system to manage the aircraft maintenance process. In a recent analysis, an independent industrial engineer was commissioned to study the efficiencies provided by a cloud computing system managing aircraft maintenance records verses similar legacy systems to determine the improved Return on Investment (ROI). This research selected five airlines of various sizes (1,200 aircraft in total), and determined an average 6 month payback and savings of $28,000 per aircraft over a 4 year period, based primarily on ease of access, averaging a 10X increase in productivity, thus reducing administrative staff. More common cloud computing expense reductions in systems administration, computer hardware, and software maintenance were also factors.
Cloud computing systems are quickly displacing legacy information systems in the maintenance operations of the world’s top airlines. We are seeing just the tip of the iceberg of the cloud computing revolution. The airlines are seeking to expand and proliferate its use with more and more of their vendors, seeking to improve their operational effectiveness through the use of analytics and to collaborate on best practices with other airlines through the use of normalized, big data. Although standards and vendor integration are still key to moving forward, we are at the beginning of an information revolution in the airline maintenance industry. The potential is huge and the excitement is growing as more and more folks capture the vision.