American Airlines is becoming the first carrier to install automatic identification technology (AIT) on civilian aircraft by attaching contact memory buttons on replaceable structural components, such as doors, stabilizers, rudders and elevators. Doing this will allows the carrier to more efficiently monitor the components' individual history because the high memory capacity buttons, about the size of a dime, automate data collection, which can save labor costs and improve data accuracy.

“We can take the reader to the part and tell exactly if it was delivered on that aircraft or if it's been moved from one plane to another, how many hours it has accumulated on each plane, if there has been any major damage to it, and does that damage require inspections beyond the regular [ones],” says Monica Puckett, a compliance engineer for American Airlines. Getting all of that information quickly will save a lot of labor time.

But there's another big benefit: installing the MacSema contact memory buttons help American comply with an FAA Part 121 inspection rule for airplane structures that could crack. “The CFR121-1109 supplemental inspection rule really forced the rule on how we were going to track structural components,” says Phil Yannaccone, lead engineer for the airline.

As he explains, a structural repair manual for a passenger or cargo door could say: “If you know time and cycles, you can live with the threshold—maybe 20,000 cycles until you have to do the inspection—but if you don't know the time and cycles, you'll have to live with the repeat interval that can be as low as 3,000 cycles.” For big aircraft components like doors and flight controls that can move from aircraft to aircraft, that is a huge difference in inspection requirements.

The carrier plans to install contact memory buttons, which are high-capacity read/write data storage devices, during heavy maintenance visits on its entire fleet within four years. The Boeing 777 and 737-800 aircraft are first up, with each narrowbody getting 30 buttons at American's Tulsa, Okla, base and each widebody receiving 23 buttons at the airline's Alliance maintenance base in Texas.

Yannaccone says Amercian's Boeing 757s and 767s will take longer to get through the program because their delivery documents did not include serial numbers.

Puckett says the program involves two parts. American's maintenance and engineering staff completes a general visual inspection of each aircraft, which involves checking data tags on parts (by manufactureing part number and serial number), and inspecting for damage. For the first aircraft, a 777, that took 1.5 hours.

“Engineers take that information, upload it to a contact memory button, and then mechanics install them on each part,” she says. Afterwards, the quality inspectors verify the right buttons appear on the right parts. This second procedure took about two hours on the first aircraft, but Puckett thinks they might get the entire installation process down to about two hours.

American already has installed contact memory buttons on five 777s and Puckett plans to complete four or five 737s this year. “This has been a very smooth process for us so far,” she says, and “the next step is working on the tracking through our system.”

For subsequent heavy maintenance visits after the installation, American Airlines will interrogate the contact memory buttons to make sure its database matches what is on the button. “This will help us track damage tolerance inspections requirements that we may have when we install a reinforcing repair,” says Puckett. The upfront general visual inspection that the maintenance and engineering team does before button installation “will help us down the road because we'll know what kind of inspection to do if the component was repaired,” says Yannaccone.