What happens when an airline is gearing up for its peak travel season, and the company that provides 75% of its maintenance, repair and overhaul services abruptly closes? That is what Air Canada experienced last year.

On March 18, 2012, Aveos Fleet Performance was open, but the following day, it ceased operating in Montreal, Winnipeg and Vancouver—without notifying its employees or customers. When that occurred, 26 of Air Canada's engines, four of its aircraft, 2,500 components, technical data and records as well as millions of dollars of inventory were trapped.

“It was even more significant than just 75% of our workload, because it represented 75% of our workload and 75% of our processes,” says Alan Butterfield, Air Canada's vice president of maintenance and engineering. Aveos controlled those processes, so “Air Canada had no ability to receive and create work orders to ship unserviceable components out to vendors,” he notes.

Butterfield overcame incredible obstacles not only to help keep the airline's full schedule—and increase it 4%—but also make major changes to the airline's IT system, improve configuration management, enhance performance data and set up the operation for the future. These achievements won Butterfield the 2013 Laureate Award for MRO.

How did Butterfield do it? First of all, he found a place to work—an International Association of Machinists strike had locked access to his buildings for 10 days. (The parties later signed a collective-bargaining agreement, but the entities are still working through its changes.) He also set operational priorities and established an organizational structure to run the airline, developed both immediate and long-term supplier agreements, and retrieved the airline's assets at Aveos through the Canadian bankruptcy court.

A “contingency” group comprised of internal staff, consultants and Oliver Wyman achieved the following:

•Secured AAR Corp. and Arinmar Ltd. within three days, to manage component work-order streams.

•Secured leased assets within two weeks to keep the airline operating.

•Found airframe maintenance capacity within about a week and by July had long-term solutions in place.

•Launched a large leased engine initiative within days and later sourced CFM56 engines to Lufthansa Technik.

•Executed many ancilliary services solutions within days, such as those for wheels and brakes.

At the same time, Air Canada was installing a new IT solution for maintenance and engineering, which it accelerated. It implemented Spec 2000-compliant Trax as the cornerstone of its maintenance data flows, making it the first Tier 1 to go to a full web-based solution. The whole Air Canada fleet is now in Trax, and Air Canada requires all vendors to feed data into it, as well. “I don't do business with suppliers not in Spec 2000” to ensure data is centralized and contributing to the most efficient operation, Butterfield says.

This also transitioned Air Canada maintenance toward a process-driven business instead of a job-focused one. This means a “tremendous cultural change” and employees trained to focus on the “what, how and why” instead of the “who,” he notes.

Thus, Air Canada was able to switch from internal, engineering-driven processes to externally focused innovation. “The world innovates by looking externally,” Butterfield says.

Butterfield has set Air Canada maintenance and engineering on a path of innovation and a focus on continuous-improvement analytics.