It’s estimated that over 90,000 flights, from 1,200 airlines, fly between more than 4,000 airports around the world every day. The logistical management of this airborne metropolis coupled with essential maintenance issues, presents a myriad of complexities—especially for large airlines that operate a wide range of aircraft across a huge number of domestic and international routes. It’s the MRO software that will come into its own to support larger airline operators. In this article, Rob Mather, Vice President, Aerospace and Defense Industries, IFS, describes how maintenance software is key to addressing industry challenges for large airlines in order to futureproof airline growth and keep operations running smoothly in the current marketplace—and into the future.
Of course, flying 100 million passengers every year across 50 countries and 500 routes via a fleet of 300+ aircraft is no easy feat for a single airline. Not only a logistical headache, but a task that requires continual maintenance of aircraft for the largest airlines in the world, without impacting or disrupting passenger travel. Passenger numbers are only on the rise—research from IATA indicates the airline industry has made a strong bounce-back as global passenger numbers skyrocketed in 2022, compared to figures from the year before.
MRO providers saw a steep drop in global demand for MRO services in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and commercial MROs were particularly affected.
As more flights return to the skies, complexity also increases, and fleet maintenance will come under major scrutiny to keep aircraft airworthy.
The choice of MRO software is more critical than ever. The larger the number of aircraft, the more strain is placed on MRO IT systems in terms of capability, functionality, and performance—and frequently, these bigger airline operators run more complicated IT landscapes. As recovery ramps up, these large airlines will have to address five key MRO system challenges.
- Maintain cybersecurity: The larger the airline, the bigger the threat
It’s no secret that the aviation industry benefits greatly from technology and digitization—with digital adoption only set to increase further in the next few years, growth of the airline industry is expected to soar. But with this growth, comes a complex environment which includes challenges in managing cyber vulnerabilities—the bigger you are, the more of a target you become. In addition to the best practice cybersecurity requirements for IT systems in general, MRO platforms must focus on edge protection to prevent mobile device data breaches, cloud intrusions, and insider attacks. Security must be built in from the ground up, not tacked on as an afterthought.
To identify vulnerabilities and mitigate threats, frequent vulnerability scanning is a necessity and can help business systems and environments adapt where needed. As with any strong security program, these activities never exist in a vacuum—extensive penetration testing of IT systems and networks is required.
But testing alone isn’t enough. Airline operators need seamless agility and resilience to stand a chance in the cybersecurity battle. The MRO software provider must constantly adopt a clear security posture to address the most critical issues upon discovery. While not forgetting to address less severe vulnerabilities with frequent updates—or design out vulnerabilities to begin with.
- Deep functionality required to support large airline operations
With small or medium fleets of aircraft, many maintenance system limitations can be overcome with manual processes. But a manual approach simply does not scale when dealing with hundreds of aircraft and thousands of maintenance personnel.
For example, the combination of more detailed modeling of engineering data with a much higher degree of automation in maintenance systems brings huge benefits. This in-depth functionality will allow engineering, planning, and maintenance to work together in the most efficient way possible and improve key areas of the business such as configuration management.
And these efficiencies are even more significant when you consider the vast difference in scale experienced by larger airlines. A process improvement saving technicians time represents a specific value when applied to a few dozen or even a hundred technicians. However, when you expand that small incremental value to thousands of technicians, the sheer scale of the potential value grows commensurately and makes a huge positive impact on airline operations.
Similarly, siloed operations can be managed in a smaller airline where data can be shared externally to the system with relative ease through informal communication. But, as an organization scales, not having fully integrated processes becomes more challenging. To remain competitive, the largest airlines need all their teams working with the same data across all their processes in lockstep.
- Efficiently handle more than one operating certificate
It’s not uncommon for larger airlines to have been the result of mergers or to be a part of an airline group, so an MRO IT system capable of managing multiple air operating certificates (AOCs) is imperative. Currently, many MRO IT systems are developed to support maintenance operations on a single AOC. This means setting up a new instance for each operating certificate and/or different maintenance program against the same fleet—but doing so only limits the potential economies of scale where multiple maintenance programs share commonalities or where central teams manage activities across multiple AOCs.
Setting up a separate software instance for each AOC is time-consuming and costly from a hardware and software licensing perspective, and extremely inefficient for the maintenance organization. While each AOC may operate somewhat differently, there can be multiple commonalities shared between AOCs, particularly with maintenance processes such as planning, operations, and material fulfillment.
The top MRO solutions handle multiple maintenance programs and operating certificates in a single instance of the system, thereby surfacing all relevant data to support operations. The aircraft can be switched back and forth between the operators, and when they do, the maintenance program they are maintained under is changed accordingly.
- Guaranteed system performance to manage large numbers of aircraft and personnel
When an airline moves to real-time paperless maintenance, MRO IT system availability becomes mission-critical. It becomes about completing operations in the timeliest fashion, without compromising on performance. Aviation maintenance IT systems designed for smaller fleet sizes can fall victim to degradation when employed for larger fleets of 300+ aircraft. If the situation escalates, MRO operations can stagnate, resulting in aircraft on ground (AOG) events, gate congestion, and delayed or canceled flights. In general, most MRO IT systems show signs of significant performance degradation when fleets reach roughly 300 aircraft.
With scalability in mind, industry-leading large fleet MRO solutions are built with little to no performance degradation. It’s critical that any MRO solution be tested at scale to verify it achieves its stated performance benchmarks—in particular, if an MRO system’s tests show the solution exceeds performance benchmarks for the largest airline scope. This can be achieved by ensuring testing pushes the limits of scale, for example with 1,100 tails, 4,000 concurrent users, and five years of real-time historical data access evaluated—it ensures an MRO IT system can handle the extreme workloads of any top airline.
- Support flexible operations – APIs hold the key to support business growth
More often than not, small or medium airlines seek an MRO solution that is a single tool, capable of managing everything across the maintenance organization. However, when operating a much more complex operation, larger airlines must do more than the bare minimum, with mixtures of legacy systems, home-grown solutions, and point solutions, the system landscape becomes extremely complex—and well-defined business APIs and open architecture will be key to allow airlines to create new applications, easily connect existing ones, or integrate new technology to gain every possible advantage. With a platform based on modularity, airline organizations can combine exactly the configuration of capabilities needed and connect all the pieces seamlessly. This means that any change or any essential information that enters the system, or a connected system, propagates everywhere it’s needed.
Investment is at the forefront. Larger airlines just need to realize the benefits.
Investment in modern aviation maintenance software is vital for a large carrier to grow and thrive in the current marketplace. The best maintenance solutions will enable airlines to guarantee high system performance, scale MRO to meet passenger demand, capitalize on new embedded technologies to improve automation and optimization, and maintain security standards. Not only will MRO IT systems save airlines time and reduce costs, but they will maximize aircraft uptime and lead to improved passenger satisfaction across the board.