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Planning for the end

No this is not an article about survivalists in the backwoods, says Tim Alden, but it is very much about a matter of financial survival when a common activity in the airline world has to be addressed: end of lease preparation

In the press recently we have seen announcements from major airlines of significant orders for new aircraft at long last. This typically indicates that the older legacy aircraft are reaching the end of their economic life with the current operator, or the end of their current lease period.


These new fleets are often phased in at the rate of one to two a month – depending on the size of the company – and a great deal of effort is expended to ready the organisation to operate these aircraft. The smoothest preparation is aided by readily available electronic data from the manufacturer for the maintenance and operational management of the aircraft. Several different standards abound but the data is plentiful and generally of a high quality.


A proactive airline puts a team together and works with the lessor and the manufacturer to determine configuration and operating terms in order to streamline the entry into service – because time is money. At this stage however, few companies consider planning for the day the aircraft will be handed back or sold on. This could be in as little as a year’s time or several years down the road. In that time, operations may change, staff will change, locations will change, and even the system of records control may change. All these events conspire to make the final act of due diligence on an organisation’s stewardship of a complex aircraft all the more difficult.


Back in my past, I experienced this perspective from several different angles; one of them at an operator with older aircraft needing to be handed back and accepted by a new operator; then as an auditor liaising between the authorised maintenance organisation of a lowcost carrier and three different lessors, each with very different agendas. There was however, a common theme running through all of these projects – that was verifying the completeness of records.


The operator hand-back

Now this was many years ago and during a difficult time for the airline. Times were tough, but the lease had come to an end and a potential new operator had been located. The aircraft had been delivered to a maintenance facility for a check in accordance with the conditions of the lease and a small team had been dispatched to the base to aid with the transition. Despite being a small airline we had a good technical team and so had prepared all the log books, printed off all the reports, documented all the boxes of records, certificates and so on, and felt in pretty good shape to address any audit. The lessor did not have on-site representation but the new operator sent a large team to vet the aircraft. We did OK but suffered in one major area. Because we were operating away from base, we had no access to our systems at all, consequently hours were spent on the phone trying to substantiate information. This was back in the days of dial up – and, even then, remote access to our systems was just not possible.


But why did we need this verification check? For the simple fact that we realised that our records were not as complete as we thought they were. Do not get me wrong, from an airworthiness perspective, the maintenance performed was all up to date, all the effective service bulletins (SBs) and airworthiness directives (ADs) were either embodied or documented for future termination. The damage sheets were all up to date. No, what we were missing was a list of work not carried out. This was to become a recurring theme…


The MRO hand-back

Several years later, I was contracted to help prepare records managed by a leading MRO organisation on behalf of a lowcost carrier which had three aircraft all due to come off lease at the same time. In this instance, the operator was the same, the current maintainer was the same but, because the current operator had absorbed a previous rival company, they had inherited aircraft from three different lessors, with three different return conditions and three different agents acting for the lessors, as well as two prospective new operators. One of the main issues affecting the speedy conclusion of the redelivery process was the substantiation of work not carried out.


Let me explain this a little further. The majority of a company’s technical procedures and, by default, the data systems that have evolved to support their activity, rely on receiving data, checking effectivity, and then only performing the activity deemed absolutely critical to the operation of the aircraft. This is the proactive, keep-it-flying approach we all expect. What is often found missing from the equation, however, is the process of documenting, at the time of assessment, exactly why an instruction was deemed not effective or not acted upon. Most systems worth their salt have robust configuration control at their heart: these prevent such silly situations as an aircraft with 16 engines fitted.


This configuration control needs to give the user the ability to control as far down as a fan blade if necessary; but in return, needs to be intuitive to use. Core configuration, if done correctly, allows you to stabilise the fleet so that differences between aircraft can be easily tracked. The same AD or SB, as we all know, can have very different connotations across a fleet – especially if the aircraft span a significant age range. Add in the decisions by operators with respect to performance of recommended SBs and there is a significant management exercise involved. Fast forward to the end of the lease and the auditor has a list of ADs relevant to your model of aircraft, they want to know not only when you did certain ones, but also, if you didn’t do others, and why you didn’t do them. >>

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