Are OEMs Holding Airline Maintenance Hostage?
Involuntary servitude is a thing of the past, right? Think again.
Airlines operate some of the most sophisticated and advanced pieces of equipment invented by mankind. They pay up to a quarter of a billion dollars for a new aircraft, and then spend many millions of dollars every year to maintain it. They must follow strict regulatory procedures just to stay in business. They operate in an industry that is facing huge challenges to achieving sustainable profitability: volatile oil prices, depressed world economy, entrenched unionized workforce, etc. You would think that in such an environment airlines would do anything to become more efficient, liberating themselves from unnecessary yokes and burdens that weigh them down.
Yet when it comes to decreasing costs in maintenance operations through the use of advanced IT systems, many airlines seem to be happy in continuing to fetter themselves to inefficient systems forced upon them by the aircraft and engine OEMs. This is especially true when it comes to the utilization of technical content in MRO operations. Most airlines still use outdated, underperforming software to handle technical content only because the software comes bundled with the equipment they buy from the OEMs, or because they are too time-pressed to properly evaluate superior offerings from specialized software vendors.
Almost every step in maintenance operations has a connection to a technical document. In most cases the connection is direct: the use of a procedure from the Aircraft Maintenance Manual, the list of parts pulled from the Illustrated Parts Catalog or the need to follow instructions contained in a Job Card or an Engineering Order. In other cases the connection is indirect, necessitating a reference to some document in order to complete a certain maintenance task. Technical content is not just boxes of paper stored in the Technical Publications library. It is the grease that oils maintenance operations and makes sure these run smoothly. When the IT systems handling technical content do not provide up-to-date information, or when they are not properly integrated with the MRO IT systems running the business, inefficiencies and higher costs of operations are guaranteed.
Most of the OEMs know that what they do best is manufacture airplanes or engines, not write software code. But they also understand that to hold sway over their customers after the initial sale of the equipment, they must take the airlines hostage for the long term. One of the best ways to keep this dominant subservient relationship is by making sure the airlines use their IT systems for technical content. By offering these systems at a low price (or for free), the OEMs ensure that the airlines do not become independently efficient in their maintenance activities and remain tied to what the OEM feeds them. This strategy is perfectly understandable from the OEM’s point of view. It is much less understandable why the airline MRO’s would continue to accept this predicament, when the obvious alternative, breaking free, produces clear and immediate benefits.
One can only conclude that the airlines are suffering from a hostage mentality, exhibiting symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome. They have been under the gun for so long that they are simply unable to conceive what it means to be free, believing their captor knows what’s best for them. Waking up one morning and deciding to break with known routines is not something that comes easily to anyone, let alone big organizations. The few airlines that managed to overcome this hostage mentality and break free cannot fathom going back to being in the power of the OEMs. If only there was an easy way for other airlines to see the light.