It's safe to say nobody planned for the historic disruption in operations that COVID-19 brought about over the past year. Faced with an unprecedented drop in demand seemingly overnight, many air operators were forced to put expansion plans on hold, make difficult decisions about staffing and park unused aircraft. While the pandemic has not yet fully run its course, today the green shoots of a recovery are visible. A dramatic economic stimulus package has been signed into law. People are getting vaccinated. And air travel is picking up. Are you ready?
Bringing furloughed workers back may seem straightforward-especially for flight crews, who have been flying occasionally to maintain currency requirements. But when it comes to aircraft maintenance technicians, there are two challenges you may need to think about: the readiness of aircraft and the resilience of maintenance crews.
Ensuring Aircraft Are Properly Restored
Let's start with the hardware. When an airplane is in regular service, its airworthiness is constantly being assured. Flight crews monitor the performance of systems from the flight deck and maintainers conduct preventative maintenance, inspection, and repair procedures at regular intervals.
Parking the aircraft for an extended period interrupts operational cadence. According to Boeing's manufacturer guidelines, "Returning a parked airplane to service after a lengthy downtime requires extensive restoration of its systems." The procedures established to preserve an airplane during parking and later restore it to in-service condition are extensive and lengthy, but necessary to ensure airworthiness. Airplane inactivity and the lack of regular in-service maintenance checks can lead to a loss of component lubrication, the discharge of batteries, contamination of fuel tanks and loss of pressure in hydraulic systems or tires, among other potential problems.
In addition, if the aircraft was exposed to the outside environment while parked, it may have sustained damage from heat, humidity, ice, hail, sandstorms or even insects. For this reason, external openings on the airplane such as relief valves, vents and ports should be inspected as part of the return-to-service process to ensure they are clean and free of environmental contaminants.
The high degree of integration and complexity of both hardware and software in modern aviation means a high degree of care and attention is required when restoring an aircraft after parking. All of this takes time.
Ensuring Technicians Aren't Overwhelmed by Return-to-Service Demands
The second challenge in ensuring air operation readiness is the human factor. During normal operations, maintenance crew schedules are structured and overtime work periods are usually limited in number and duration. But maintenance is driven by the demands of the flight operation. If a customer needs to get somewhere on short notice, the pressure is immense to ensure the aircraft is airworthy in time for departure. If the aircraft has been parked, this can be a problem.
There are no shortcuts in the procedures for returning the aircraft to service, so all that work may need to be compressed into a short amount of time. Compound this issue by several aircraft returning to service at about the same time and also by the fact that your maintenance worker bench strength may be limited (not just in number-some technicians may be rusty after having had so much time off over the past year), and you have the makings of significant fatigue risks among your maintenance crew members.
The Benefits of Fatigue Risk Management Program
To help mitigate the risk of errors by fatigued maintenance workers, consider investing in a fatigue risk management program (FRMP). Many business aviation and charter operators have already realized the benefits of an FRMP for their flight operations, in terms of both lower operating costs and improved safety. The same benefits extend to maintenance departments.
The pandemic is ending-there is no better time to address potential risks of fatigue in your maintenance operation than right now.
Author: Matthew van Wollen, Chief Financial Officer, Pulsar Informatics, Inc.
Pulsar Informatics is an IS-BAO I3SA certified company specializing in systems that help organizations reduce fatigue-related risk and achieve peak performance. Fleet Insight enables safety managers and schedulers to proactively evaluate fatigue across their entire operation's schedule and formulate mitigation strategies. Fatigue Meter Pro Planner is used by pilots, flight attendants, and maintenance personnel to evaluate their individual flight and duty schedule.
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