I have spent my career sharing the view that effective and safe aircraft maintenance depends on the concept of a three legged stool balancing the responsibility equally between the airlines, the OEMs and the regulators. Now, my perspective is that aircraft maintenance is a four legged stool, with the MRO providers as the fourth leg. Information keeps the stool balanced. However, as of today, the MRO industry has not achieved the equivalency of the fourth leg. Why? Because it does not represent today's reality of the maintenance business.
One perspective is that the process of maintaining aircraft is caught up in a time warp, whereas airlines, ownership, and reliability have changed dramatically. Effective aircraft maintenance and the ensuing benefits of safety and efficiency depend on integration.
The reality of today's world, however, is more about segregation than integration. There are fewer airlines with the capabilities to effectively perform maintenance internally. There are more and more disparate maintenance providers and fewer internal airline engineering capabilities to perform the necessary analysis for effective maintenance programs. Fewer airlines invest in technical infrastructure and own their aircraft. So, the aviation world is changing dramatically, while most of the rules and the performance measures of maintenance still mimick yesterday's legacy airline reality.
It then becomes quite clear that other than some legacy airlines, many operators do not integrate the performance of maintenance in-house. They depend on MROs and OEMs. However, there is a disconnect: The folks with the least technical resources are regulated in the same manner as those with the most maintenance resources. Can they perform the integration role if their emphasis has shifted to a dependence on suppliers and OEMs? How do we further the role of continuous analysis and surveillance as an operator's responsibility when most of the data is spread out over many sources of supply?
How should the fourth leg be holistically integrated? Is there a role for the MROs to be not just the fourth leg, but to make sufficient margins to effectively compete?
In the future, airlines will not own their own maintenance information systems. Those systems will transition like their airline reservations did. Maintenance information systems will be distributed, and there will be only a few providers, rather than the myriad systems that exist today. This will create more transparency and aircraft mobility.
Lessors will play a bigger role in standardization. Maintenance programs will become increasingly standardized and only a few airlines will have extensive maintenance capabilities. Regulations will evolve, which will put more burdens on the MROs and OEMs for analysis and surveillance.
Maintenance programs will travel with the airplane rather than stay with the airline. That way, the transfer and transition costs will reduce. The aircraft will become its own source of maintenance information, carrying its own maintenance data and records. This will change the business and create savings by eliminating the vast need for record keeping infrastructure.
Program management will shift from many airlines to MROs and OEMs. This will require the MROs to have more data, analysis and surveillance—and to absorb some regulatory risks. They will have to integrate more of the processes and data acquisition that the airlines may not do.
We are on the cusp of major changes in our industry, and it is about time that today's data, information and technology become the drivers of the future of maintenance. This could be very exciting—or threatening—depending on your perspective. In this case, the past is not the prologue to the future.
Ray Valeika, retired from Delta as senior vice president of technical operations, is an internationally recognized aviation operations executive. He advises airlines, OEMs, private equity firms and lessors on MRO. He has won several awards, including the A4A Nuts & Bolts award and an Aviation Week Laurel.