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Maintenance

Getting ready

The clock is ticking as the delivery of Virgin Atlantic Airways’ first Boeing 787 gets nearer. Ian Harbison visited its London Heathrow base to check on the progress
 

Phil Maher, Director of Engineering, and the rest of his team at Virgin Atlantic Airways (VAA) have had a busy 2012, with maintenance activity up 40% on 2011. Much of this came from a number of changes to the fleet, with four Airbus A340-600s and a Boeing 747 being returned and replaced with five Airbus A330-300s delivered fresh off the production line and three more that were on wet lease (two to China Airlines and one to US charter carrier, Ryan International Airlines). This aircraft, he says, has proved to be extremely fastidious, at 99.4% technical dispatch reliability, pushing the VAA fleet average up to 98%.

 

However, there is no time to stand still. September 2014 should see the delivery of the first of 16 Boeing 787-9s that are on order (the airline also has five options and purchase rights for a further 20 aircraft). The aircraft is expected to introduce a whole new way of working for the engineering division and it is now busy looking over its processes – not only to make sure that entry into service is painless, but that any improvements can be transferred to the other aircraft types in the fleet. There is also a requirement to put in place the external support it will need from other MRO providers. Here, having both Part 145 and Part M approvals is important as this drives increased availability by developing the capability to resolve problems quickly. As a relatively small airline, VAA seeks economies of scale through collaboration with large MROs that have significant market influence. This is reflected in the choice of Lufthansa Technik (LHT) for airframe, nacelle and component maintenance (see box story), and AFI-KLM for CFM56 engines and components for the A330, A340 and 747.

 

VAA also works closely with Hong Kong Aircraft Engineering Company (HAECO), which was responsible, along with Northwest Aerospace Technologies (NAT), for the cabin reconfiguration on the airline’s Gatwick-based fleet of seven Boeing 747-400 aircraft. This included new and upgraded passenger seating, a new in-flight entertainment system with connectivity, new monuments, interior furnishing and décor enhancements. HAECO undertook the aircraft modification project management, material management, on-site coordination with cabin and in-flight entertainment vendors, cabin reconfiguration and associated system testing. NAT played the role of the engineering integrator, providing programme and supplier interface management, modification engineering and parts kits, on-site installation support and providing EASA Supplemental Type Certificates (STC) under its EASA Design Organisation Approval (DOA). Some of the work was subcontracted across the border to Taikoo (Xiamen) Aircraft Engineering Company (TAECO), which had been carrying out D checks on the 747s. A four-year maintenance services agreement has just been signed with TAECO for D checks on VAA’s 747-400 fleet from 2014 to 2017.

 

Maher comments that he is not concerned that Lufthansa has not ordered the 787 as their decision to support the aircraft is reassurance enough. In the case of AFI-KLM, the same applies – he says that although AFI are not an Airbus A340-600 operator, they have continued to provide excellent component support over the years. Maher adds that with AFI already having extensive experience of the Boeing 777, the introduction of the 787 will be an evolution, rather than a revolution, and will position them well to support 787 entry-into-service. Virgin is known as an innovator, and is looking for new maintenance solutions, which includes active engagement with Boeing to carry out a full evaluation of their GoldCare services. All companies mentioned will be in receipt of an RFP, along with British Airways Engineering and SR Technics.

 

Detailed cost modelling of 787 support depends on Boeing’s Recommended Spare Parts List being issued, and Virgin are building the RFP by looking for service-level commitments and how work packages can be bundled. It is all too easy, Maher points out, for an airline to buy the aircraft and simply inherit the initial costs. Instead, it should be monitoring whether the benefits promised in the aircraft purchase agreement are actually being achieved. Furthermore, there should be a close examination of where and why there are any shortfalls in service provision, with outside contractors taking responsibility and accountability if they have compounded the failure. Therefore, Maher wants to redefine the relationship between the airline and the MROs.

 

He says he prefers long-term partnerships to the traditional transactional relationships and is trying to get the MROs to look more at total cost of ownership and asset management rather than just fast turnaround times and value for money. That includes driving down direct maintenance costs and being aware of the need for aircraft availability. It will take a lot of local control as well as active management on both sides, but he believes it will deliver tangible benefits.


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