By Vern Berry
I have been blessed with a variety of experiences in my aviation career including at one time DQC for a major airframe maintenance and repair organization (MRO). I took the job because I had never worked for a major repair station but assumed that having worked with them for years as an auditor and operator’s representative; I pretty much knew the score.
Well, so I thought anyway. My experience concerning MROs and the circumstances that make them the peculiar animal that they are was hard won and based on the patience and support of persons who worked with me during my time there.
MROs working on any type of aircraft for Part 135 or 121 entities must comply with the certificate holder’s processes. They must be approved to work on that aircraft type. They must have current repair data and tooling. Their people must be trained and qualified — then authorized to work on the aircraft by the operator’s quality unit after a thorough audit. Operators are required to provide training on their procedures. Operators having a D091 Operation Specification for substantial maintenance vendors must show that the MROs satisfy the requirements of the operation’s specification’s standards to their certificate management unit. And all that is supposed to happen before you drive through the door.
Once the operator’s airplane is sitting on the hangar floor, one would think that if the operator has done all that work in advance to qualify the vendor then why should I be concerned? Ah, but therein lies the rub.
As the only airplane in the hangar — it’s all very simple; just focus our efforts on one aircraft and the customer’s expectations. However, when there are multiple hangars, aircraft lines, and aircraft with multiple competing customer expectations and processes, things become very complex.
Production and controls
In the real world — airframe repair and overhaul is big business and the driver of that business is man-hours. An operator’s maintenance representative will be checking each day for the labor numbers related to work progress. Key to this is the repair station’s assessment of the routine maintenance and its subsequent estimates for non-routine maintenance.
Lacking knowledge of these in advance can result in unwelcome surprises during the check and sticker shock once the aircraft is finished.
Aircraft are assigned a man-hour budget that may or may not reflect the cost to the owner/operator but will be the time assessed by the MRO as adequate to complete the work. It reflects the margin between cost and profit. Project managers and supervisors driven to make their project shine to upper management work to the schedule and within their man-hour budget. Aircraft are staffed to this budget. Repair stations make their money on this margin and, in today’s economy the margins can be very thin. Finishing an airplane at or below budget makes the project/check manager look pretty good. It’s not necessarily bad for the customer so long as quality does not suffer.
The decisions made before and during the project in support of these constraints place constant pressure to move the aircraft along. Schedule slots are often assigned to backlogged aircraft by date in a nose to tail fashion. They are waiting for the spot on the hangar floor when your airplane is complete. Management monitors the work flow to assure that the revenue stream is working to projected plans. Pressures to move the aircraft drive up the risk of quality and safety failures related to workarounds and substandard work.
When multiple types of aircraft are in check at the same time things become complex — resources have to be scheduled across various lines in accordance with each aircraft flow plan. The project manager seldom has all he needs — he has to work with other managers who have the same requirements. Therefore there is competition for internal resources and this competition can be intense.
All project managers are working to the same goal — working within the budget constraints set up for each project while assuring that work flow meets schedule targets. The best organizations understand this situation and minimize its effects by assuring that each aircraft line receives adequate support and that each line team works together. It does them little good to have one successful line while three or four others are marginal or failing due to resource hogging.
Cost and quality
So what does all this mean to the operators maintenance representative? Well, it means a lot. Maintenance representatives from the operator often are charged with assuring that work moves to the agreed schedule. Cost and quality are a concern. Good management of the internal pressure and processes of the project addresses all of these attributes. The key is to assure that your aircraft is defended by either the repair station’s procedures or your own to mitigate or neutralize errors and poor performance.
Here are some rules that may prove helpful to heavy check management and quality.
- Avoid extended absences from the hangar — the maintenance representative should be monitoring the aircraft and the paperwork daily. Capture of quality issues early in the check can prevent expensive rework or other quality failures that will impact schedule.
- Understand the repair stations processes and be aware of their impact on your own. Operators have airworthiness requirements that must be met. Work with the MRO to address inconsistencies early in the check and get solutions in writing to avoid misunderstandings.
- Get regular updates on activity from the project manager or crew supervisor. Follow up on the briefing by visiting the aircraft to check the facts and the actual work discussed.
- Contractual agreements covering the project charges should be discussed prior to the start of the project. Contractual elements are best communicated by itemizing where the itemized points are shared with the project manager and his team.
100 percent buy back
Many MROs provide 100 percent buy back for all work performed. That means that every routine and/or non-routine work card must be inspected by an assigned inspector. This individual is generally well qualified on the aircraft. For operators this often includes required inspection items.
100 percent non-routine buy back sounds good for assuring that work was done correctly but there is a down side. The buy back process can become a bottleneck to work progress.
Work stops until the buy back occurs. Inspection checks the area and, if OK’d, the area and work-card is closed. That’s if all is “text book.” However, mechanics can become lazy and use inspection as the gauge for work adequacy. They depend on the inspector to catch problems rather than double checking that the work is correct. Hence the responsibility for good work performance creeps over to the inspector who is kicking back work in an effort to assure that quality standards are maintained. As this occurs the work will slow as a backlog occurs. The inspector takes more time because he knows that they are making him account for work correctness. If the repair station cautions or reprimands an inspector for missing something rather than the people who did the work then transfer of work responsibility has taken place. You now have only one line of defense for maintenance errors. Critical path items that depend on buy back, should receive close attention when this transition becomes apparent.
Time to take action
Talk to the chief inspector and production managers if you feel this is present. Look for rejections as a gage for quality. Good production quality should show a low number of rejections but there should be some findings and evidence that it falls to the worker who accomplished substandard work. If there are a lot of rejections; investigate why. If there are no rejections make it a point to verify that the inspector is qualified and that they are doing the work. Work with the MRO’s quality unit or management to resolve any discrepancies. Bring in your own quality unit if necessary.
The hangar floor
The MRO hangar is an industrial environment. A&Ps are often treated like industrial workers rather than aircraft maintenance professionals. An operator’s attitude and relationship with the mechanics on the aircraft can have an impact on the quality and progress of the heavy check. They rise to the occasion when treated with professional courtesy and respect.
Personnel issues related to sub standard work should be deferred to the MROs’ management. Do not try to resolve these issues on your own. The activity and culture in a repair station environment is complex and easy to misread. Always maintain your professional bearing in these circumstances. If a mechanic is treated with any perceived disrespect, it will spread to the crew and could have an impact on quality and production. Think of it as getting involved in a domestic disturbance — don’t.
Third-party vendors do a pretty good job but like all organizations they require oversight and sometimes a little mentoring. After all, they are there to service an aircraft that in all truth the operator is expert. Therefore they must carry out the operator’s program requirements under demanding expectations. The key is to show up on the aircraft each day; remain vigilant of the daily performance and team up with the MRO to assure that things stay on track with the highest standards in mind.
Vern Berry is an experienced maintenance professional. Based in New York, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.