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Maintenance

On demand

Phones in flight mean work in the hangar for the STS Mod Center. Ian Harbison reports
 
STS Aviation Group has been carrying out connectivity conversions for the last seven years but, given insatiable passenger demand and a thriving market, the company acquired the assets of AeroMod International in September 2017, taking over a 10,640m² widebody hangar in Melbourne, FL, and formed the dedicated STS Mod Center. 
 
Mark Smith, Group President, says it is more than just connectivity, as it has also carried out interior modifications, with a large cabin reconfiguration programme at the moment on Bombardier CRJ 700s for a US airline, including galleys and seats. It also includes the introduction of business class, and he sees opportunities for more of this work, not least with the recent launch of Bombardier CRJ550, a triple-class 50-seat variant the CRJ700, with United Airlines as the launch customer. 
 

There is also a dedicated maintenance line for A checks on Boeing 747 and 767 freighter aircraft under a long-term contract. This has recently been supplemented by modifications to install ADS-B Out. This will be mandatory from 1 January 2020 for North American aircraft (and 7 June 2020 for European aircraft) and improves situational awareness by broadcasting aircraft position, altitude, velocity and identity, along with some other information. 

 
ADS-B Out is one of the additional capabilities, which include IFE upgrades, GPS and satcom installations, in-seat power installations, lighting upgrades and winglet modifications. Lease return checks and reconfigurations are another revenue stream, although a minor part at present. 
 
However, while the company is certified for heavy maintenance checks, he believes, in the current environment, that there is enough work to keep the hangar full with modification projects. In fact, wifi dominates, with seven conversion lines on the go.
 
The company has worked with all the main OEMs, including Panasonic, Thales and Viasat, although much of the work was for Gogo, as it has been selected as the preferred installer. Currently, it is Viasat that dominates, although Thales is coming up, with Gogo in 2Q19. Customers have included US and international airlines and pretty much all fleet types. The largest aircraft has been the Boeing 777-300, whilst the smallest has been the Airbus A319.
 
He says that the nice part of the work is that when the company wins a project, it builds a specific team to carry out the work. With nose-to-tail lines and repetitive work, the experience gained by the team enable it to gain efficiencies, helped by special tooling that enables the installation to be done better, faster and cheaper than somebody else.
 
With wifi, for example, there have been over 3,500 installations in seven years. Some of those, for the earlier Gogo ATG/ATG-4 systems, were carried out in eight hours, on the ramp, during overnight stays. For the current level of technology, the usual turnaround is three days and the work takes place in the hangar. He notes that it can take less time, but there may occasionally be additional work, such as a service check, a logbook item to rectify, or additional maintenance work requested by the operator, so there is a cushion built in. 
 
Special tooling for current technology includes eight mobile platforms for working in the crown area to install the antenna. These are in two pieces and connect from either side of the aircraft. As for the hardware, it is held in stock and then broken down into sub-assembly kits a few days before the aircraft’s arrival. These are issued to the technicians in sequence, speeding up the work.
 
He says there is no Lean process, as the company relies on technicians, who develop improvements based on practical experience, adding that the Melbourne hangar has been running for just over a year but handled 366 aircraft in 2018. Such was demand last year that additional space was leased in Kansas City, MO, to handle 18 widebody aircraft. Additionally, it contracts working parties via locally based FTS Aeromods to carry out installations at airline facilities and MROs worldwide.
 
With two new customers, from South America and the US, the demand for connectivity shows no sign of slacking. He believes there will always be passenger demand for connectivity from now on. As line fit is not really possible with very high production rates, a third party provider will be required. Another reason for confidence is that the technology is constantly evolving and some aircraft have visited STS several times for upgrades. He sees no change to that trend.
 
Having said that, he acknowledges that the market will begin to dry up at some point, but he says customer contact for connectivity also opens opportunities for other work and, having been successfully audited by various airlines (plus holding FAA, EASA, TCCA and ANAC approvals), he believes there would be a relatively easy transition to other work. 

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