Aircraft Commerce held their Airline & Aerospace MRO & Operations IT Conference—APAC in Singapore this week. It was the second year that the publication has hosted part of its MRO conference series in Asia; last year’s event was in Bangkok. It seems the change of venue was a wise move, as attendance this year was considerably higher. More than 30 airlines and MROs sent delegates (except for the Chinese airlines, who seem not to attend these events unless they are held in the PRC). Floor “traffic” throughout both days was lively and the conference proceedings were also well attended.
Many of the speakers talked about the importance of “data cleansing” and the “data integrity” in the various MRO IT systems. Sharhabeel Lone of SAKS Consulting opened the proceedings by highlighting “key strategic mistakes in MRO technology implementations”, and provided examples of failures in this domain and their consequences (a news item about a CFO losing his job due to an IT systems glitch drew some audible gasps from the audience). The fact that he kept returning to the obvious need for “clean data” might have seemed unnecessary to an IT crowd, but it says a lot about the persistence of this problem in MRO IT implementations.
A different, and also well-known issue, came up in the case study presented by Cathay Pacific, who presented their lessons learned in the implementation of an MRO IT system (Ultramain): the crucial need for proper management of process change. A survey conducted after the system went live found that many engineers were having a hard time adapting to the new way of working and found “clever” ways to continue working as they were used to. Some were exporting data from the new system and using it in “private” databases and spreadsheets. Insufficient and inadequate change management procedures are another obvious trap that everybody keeps talking about but many keep falling into.
But the presentation that most caught my attention, and not in a positive way, was the one given by InfoTrust Group’s VP of Sales, Jason Duffey, who spoke about the new documentation standards: S1000D (for technical publications) and Spec2300 (for flight operations). Mr. Duffey lauded the new standards as “consolidating” existing standards and enabling airlines to re-use and distribute content as they please. S1000D in particular was portrayed as heralding a “new age” in the industry, one in which airlines will be free to do as they please with technical documentation. Documentation nirvana is just around the corner.
When the time came for questions from the audience two people spoke up. The first, a representative from Lufthansa, asked how the new standards would set the airlines free, especially when OEMs are forcing them to use proprietary viewers. He went on to question why the OEMs won't provide the data in standard formats that allow airlines to make real use of it by integrating into their IT systems. (As an example of this policy, he mentioned the A380 content, which may only be viewed with Airbus’s application and incorporates tags in a way that cannot be re-used by Lufthansa.) The second comment came from a software vendor who asked (sarcastically) how one could talk about “consolidation” of standards with S1000D when technical documentation for all existing aircraft will continue to be provided in ATA iSpec2200 (or older standards) and PDF for decades to come; only new aircraft (B787 and A350) will use S1000D. Mr. Duffey could only concede that he agrees with this statement. If most aircraft rely on data that is not S1000D compliant, and new aircraft use S1000D data that cannot be integrated with existing IT systems, then where exactly is the “huge business benefit” for the airlines?
These two comments highlight the problematic situation in which airlines and MROs find themselves as a result of the OEMs’ anti-competitive policies regarding technical publications. Instead of allowing the airlines to make best use of the technical content for their MRO operations, Boeing and Airbus are adopting policies that restrict airlines by forcing them to use proprietary systems that limit airlines' IT choices and infringe on their ability to realize technological advantages and savings. Airlines are thus unable to leverage the wealth of information contained within their current technical publications to enhance their maintenance operations: work scheduling, job card generation, parts list synchronization, inventory cleanup, etc.
While this may not seem like a major issue for a small, single-fleet airline, it is. Airlines that get “kidnapped” by the OEMs will find themselves with few options when it comes to reducing maintenance costs, optimizing inventory and sourcing alternate parts (PMA). This trend can already be seen as Boeing has become a competitor in aftermarket MRO (see Boeing Shanghai) and their S1000D policy will further reduce the ability of independent MROs to develop efficiencies that are possible only with proper data ownership. This seems to be an effort on Boeing's part to take MRO shops out of business and to compete directly with airline maintenance organizations. In the words of the Lufthansa representative: “this is a disaster for the airlines”.
It will be interesting to see how this plays out between the OEMs and the airlines/MROs. Hopefully, the strong message that came out of this conference—that “content is king” when it comes to successfully implementing MRO IT systems—will prompt the airlines and MROs to adopt a more independent approach vis-à-vis the OEMs and take control of the content that shapes and determines the efficiency of their maintenance operations.