According to an article in the December issue of MRO News Focus (“TAP M&E Takes on the OEM Bullies”), TAP M&E is being denied access to critically important repair information. The article says that certain OEMs have dramatically changed the quality and quantity of technical content they provide to airlines and MROs. In TAP’s case, some maintenance and repair manuals have been cut from 50 pages to five pages. This results in two significant problems for TAP, 1) as an airline it becomes impossible to diagnose and repair certain aircraft components so they must be sent back to the OEM; 2) as a third-party MRO provider it becomes impossible to fulfill maintenance contracts already signed with other airlines.
The experience of TAP is essentially an extension of a trend that started back in 2003 when some OEMs stopped providing rich SGML-based information and instead switched to delivering dumb PDF documents. At that time, according to one MRO facility, the lost productivity on the shop floor increased costs by a million dollars per quarter. Naturally, this MRO was forced to pass on the higher costs to the airlines (who then passed it on to the travelling public).
Since that time, many large airlines have found ways to get the original OEM content (SGML/XML), which they need for their internal maintenance planning and inventory systems. On the other hand, smaller airlines have been forced to work with PDF, which is more challenging to load into the ERP. The key point is that the current battle over who has rights to usable service and parts content began years ago when OEMs started reducing the quality and quantity of service and parts information they provide to their customers. Now, some OEMs are refusing to make any technical content available in a format that is useful for the airlines, insisting that they use proprietary systems to gain access.
Surely, OEMs have certain rights and expectations regarding the information they publish, and some of that data may truly qualify as intellectual property. On the other hand, since airlines have always relied on this data to maximize aircraft safety and uptime, they too have certain rights and expectations. (This was described in a previous blog, “Safety Held Hostage?—FAA Enters the Debate” where we highlighted that airlines are responsible for safety, costs and schedules.) It appears these OEMs are trying to leverage service and parts information to: 1) recapture parts revenue that is being taken away by PMA sales and; 2) capture or control the maintenance, repair and overhaul services business. And they are doing this with fancy names and marketing pitches like “Boeing Edge.” (You can see their new glossy brochures glued into almost every recent aviation publication.)
The issues at hand really come down to one question, “Who do airlines trust to keep their fleets airworthy?” The answer depends on who has access to accurate service and parts information and who has the demonstrated expertise. For years airlines have used tools like Enigma to fully-integrate technical content into maintenance and inventory processes. (For PDF data the Enigma InService MRO product actually allows it to perform like XML.) As a result, airlines have gotten very good at safely maintaining their own fleets and those of other airlines. In fact, according to this article 2011 was the safest year yet. To continue this trend, airlines must have access to service and parts data.
For OEMs, as aircraft reliability increases they've seen a reduction in the number of spare parts they sell. To counter that trend, these OEMs are now limiting access to technical content, preventing airlines from fully leveraging it within their own maintenance and inventory systems. From a business standpoint it is fair to ask, “Is this a good thing for airlines or for the public?”
According to the MRO News article, TAP doesn’t believe the OEM's strategy of limiting service and parts information is good for the industry. As a result, TAP is now joining with other airlines to consider legal options. Clearly there’s a battle heating up with OEMs on one side, and airlines, MROs and PMA providers on the other side. With the MRO Americas conference right around the corner, it will be interesting to hear what the OEMs have to say for themselves.