Runway Maintenance: Key to Unlocking Improved Customer Experience

Aug. 15, 2019
Put best practices to work in order to improve your airside assets and improve your airport experience.

The world is rapidly changing. It is adjusting to accommodate humankind’s increasing needs and increased personal spending parity, thus oftentimes converting luxury into economy. For air travel, this literally translates to an increasing need for unparalleled, cutting-edge, state-of-the-art passenger experience. Passenger experience is defined as the interaction of the passenger with people, processes, organization or facilities over time. It means that everything from the check-in counter, the concourse, the duty free, to eventually boarding the aircraft can be an important touch point in the passenger experience.

However, is it everything that leads up to the flight or the flight itself that primarily influences a passenger’s experience? The answer is - it is like theater. Numerous variables and backstage performers work in unison to promote a positive passenger experience. A large portion of what goes into making the passenger experience pleasant is often governed by people and technology that the passenger never gets access to or is even aware of. Passengers are often primarily focused on two things: did my plane depart on time and did I enjoy the experience? Connected airport technology and effective runway maintenance can help the customer answer “yes” to both questions.

Airports are a complex medley of people, processes and individual facilities that are always interacting with each other. The steps that airports take to promote a good terminal experience are often static. For example, once the terminal is built, the facilities are setup, food, beverage and retail are up and running, it is often the general upkeep and comfort within the terminal that keeps the feel-good effects. On the airside, a timely departure typically needs massive alignment of dynamic variables and situations. Perhaps the most important variable on the list is the availability of the airfield itself.

As per the latest statistics, published by Statista, the airline industry is set to perform 39.8 million flights in 2019 with the number of flights growing by over 1 million every year. According to the Bureau of Transportation, 6.42 percent of flights are delayed because of aviation systems and only 1.51 percent out of these are delayed because of closed runways. For these numbers to be kept so low, airside maintenance staff must work very hard. They aim to keep these statistics low, in turn promoting excellent passenger experience and safety. Maintenance regimes, as simple as they might sound, often take careful precision and experienced staff to develop and implement. The sheer number of assets on the airside typically make it a highly complex collection of systems that serve some of the most critical functions. Let’s look at some of the factors affecting maintenance regimes at airfields.

Quality of initial installation

Sometimes,many large organizations, including airports, make the mistake of choosing an installation partner that is merely low cost, but lacks the required experience or expertise. For an airfield, this can easily be a “recipe for disaster” for future maintenance. If the installation quality is improper or inferior, it can lead to latent defects and issues for the maintenance staff. It is not uncommon to read about issues like missing earth bars, flooded approach sections, non-standard spacing of stop bars, clustering of circuits in pits without proper dressing, a lack of spare ducts, etc. These are often the result of non-standard design problems or poor installation. It can be extremely difficult to entirely overcome these issues during service and the maintenance staff must often look for work-around solutions.

Presence of experienced maintenance staff

Quality maintenance is virtually impossible without the presence of trained, experienced staff. Right from the planner who creates work orders, to the technicians who deliver them, everyone plays an important role in the execution of airside service and maintenance. It often all begins with creating the right plan, which includes either preventive or corrective maintenance. The choice of the right engineers, technicians and tradesmen at the airside not only helps promote the delivery of best-in-class maintenance, but also often equates to lower lifecycle costs to the airport. This is further influenced by costs related to staff attrition, overhead management, training and lost man-hours. In addition to that, the right operations and maintenance teams can also result in productivity gains during troubleshooting because of their enhanced skillset.

With respect to staff quality, a big question is often what do successful teams do best? What helps keep them in control? The answer is relatively simple – knowledge and information. As straightforward as it sounds, airfield maintenance technicians who know their airfield well, have adequate historic data on system failures, and have a strong understanding of their asset lifecycles are typically the ones who deliver superior service. Good maintenance organizations who understand servicing of the airfield often care more about ‘maintenance without malfunction’ than fixing a fault when it occurs. It only re-iterates that preventive or predictive maintenance is often the key to reducing the degradation of equipment and reducing the risk of equipment failure.

Thermal imaging of pits and ducts to promote operating temperatures remaining within range, regular friction testing on the runway, checking frame assemblies, establishing lock-out tag-out procedures are in place, checking for irregularities on pavements, torquing of fixtures, inspecting the condition of a wind sock fabric, etc. are all often part of an effective preventive maintenance regime. These activities typically go a long way in reducing corrective maintenance on the airfield. Preventive maintenance can sometimes be faced with the problems of shutdown windows due to airport capacity and traffic. However, efficient maintenance teams minimize the occurrence of such events by employing watch and ward maintenance, scheduled NOTAM (Notice to Airmen) and prioritizing efforts on certain assets that may need maintenance attention more than others.

Asset management and lifecycle of assets

With the scale of airport infrastructure and pre-defined standard operating procedures, airports typically have monthly, set key performance indicators (KPIs) to meet.  Most large airports with available budgets implement a computerized maintenance management system (CMMS). The main objectives of the CMMS are to improve business intelligence, implement effective, preventive, and predictive maintenance, improve knowledge of spare parts consumption and promote the better scheduling of labor. It often leads to a reduction in material and labor cost, subsequently improving asset lifecycle and reliability. Important information like what needs replacement, what requires corrective maintenance, preventive maintenance scheduling, daily inspection schedules, shift rosters, inventory and parts management, training requirements, etc. are all parameters that are regularly significant to operations and maintenance performance.

Technology on the airfield

In the days of big data, we now have various technological advancements in the field of airside maintenance. Solutions like Radio Frequency ID tagging for asset management on the airfield, leads to paperless audit trails for civil aviation authorities in any part of the world. Usage of drones for Precision Approach Path Indicator (PAPI) calibration and for runway inspections often increases productivity savings and reduces man-hours for the airport maintenance staff.

It is also important to emphasize that maintenance is a direct variable of airside safety at almost any airfield. Good service and maintenance regimes can directly influence the coefficient of safety at an airport, eventually affecting passenger experience. Passenger experience and airside maintenance are often deeply related and in conclusion, these elements that work behind the curtain, are typically critical to ensuring a pleasant show experience.

Adhishesh Sood is a strategic business consultant with Honeywell where he leads the airside service & maintenance business in the Middle East region. He holds a Bachelor of Technology in Instrumentation and Controls, a Post Graduate Degree in Business Marketing and he is also a Harvard Business School alum where he completed the Program for Leadership Development.