It is difficult to overstate the impact the present COVID-19 crisis has and will have on the whole aviation sector. Airline travel came to a near standstill, nearly 18,000 planes are parked or in long-term storage, and manufacturers are drastically reducing their new aircraft production rates.
We have discussed in previous articles what that means for aircraft fleets, pilots and ab initio cadets.
What are some of the consequences for the maintenance industry, technicians and the training side?
Certainly maintenance people have been busy preparing two-thirds of the worldwide fleet for short- and long-term idleness. Parking an aircraft for a month or more can require between 100 man-hours for a small turboprop to as many as 350-400 hours for a widebody. Since most maintenance manuals focus on long-term storage, airlines have been consulting with OEMs for modified guidance to cover 30-90 day periods. About 12,000 aircraft fall into this category.
Returning parked aircraft to service can take a bit longer, as many as 650 man-hours for some Boeing 777 variants. Since most airlines hope to reactivate their fleets as quickly as possible, with the exception of aircraft they will retire, technicians will be needed for the reactivation tasks.
During the interim, maintenance is little more than periodically running the engines, replacing operating oil with inhibiting oil, towing the aircraft to avoid wheel flat spots, and checking nooks and crannies for birds and bug infestations. Except for some time-related checks, flight hours or cycles drive the maintenance activities. With no flying going on, airline maintenance activities are shallow.
With the expected industry recovery for summer and fall flight schedules, maintenance activity will follow the ramp-up of the flying. Only time will tell, but most forecasts are indicating a return to a new normal by 2023, equal to pre-COVID-19 levels.
The situation will be especially tricky for MROs. There are estimates that 3,500 or more airplanes will not return from the desert, and these are precisely the candidates for the heavy maintenance checks on which MRO business depends. So their activities will lag the increase of flying by some months or even years. The availability of parked or scrapped airplanes as spares donors may also reduce the need for repair or overhaul of some parts, again an activity of the MROs. Some MROs will close, most will need to downsize and encourage older technicians to retire.
Maintenance training organizations and maintenance schools are challenged as well. One quarter of Aviation Technician Education Council schools suspended operation during the pandemic and some of those are considering doing so permanently, according to Crystal McGuire, AETC Executive Director. In the first two weeks of April, only 84 A&P candidates had taken the FAA written exam, compared with 615 the first half of March. More than half of AETC schools expect enrollment to drop by 25% of more.
But out of the present misery, some good things can also come. Early retirements will create not only openings but a real manpower need. “Given the long lead time for technicians, up to seven years from start to certifying technician, those who are today at the beginning of their training might be the lucky ones that will be ready by the time the industry needs them in 2023 to 2025,” maintenance training consultant Geoff Hill told CAT. Indeed, the British School of Aviation reported an increase in inquiries about enrollment since the pandemic outbreak.
MTX training specialists have also been responding with innovative approaches. Although current regulatory requirements preclude type-ratings without certain hands-on training, some authorities (FAA, EASA, GCAA, CAAC), have accelerated approval of distance learning courses – for which they have historically given little or no or credit.
"At the very beginning of the crisis, it became obvious that we had to quickly adapt and react to offer suitable maintenance training solutions to our customers," said Christian Delmas, Head of Worldwide Maintenance Training for Airbus. In a short time, the Airbus Services team managed to develop the concept: from the course programmess to NAA approvals.
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University transferred all of its Level 1 and 2 courses to online in only three days, deferring in-person lab work to its summer session that starts June 30.
AETC’s McGuire said online learning has increased dramatically. Before Covid-19, there were only a handful of online programmes; now, 75% of operating schools have online or hybrid learning programmes, some including virtual-, mixed- or augmented-reality.
Flightline Training Services in Canada developed VR Practical Training using a combination of 3D, 360-degree and still photography, as well as remote training.
Rolls-Royce is expanding its VR training programmess with distance learning for business aircraft engine repairs, the latest offering an instructor-led course on their BR725 engine.
Lori Brown, Outreach Chair for ICAO’s Next Generation of Aviation Professionals (NGAP), a professor at Western Michigan University, and a frequent speaker at the CAT-organised World Aviation Training Summit (WATS), advocates training using the Microsoft HoloLens technology.
“Instructors can be anywhere and trainees can bring extremely realistic holographic images of say, a B787, A380 or turbofan engine directly into their home, training facility, school, university, or anywhere else training is taking place, which allows them to interact with the object to learn and practice procedures, preflight actions and other information needed to operate or maintain equipment.”
NLR in The Netherlands developed a HoloLens-based demonstrator for KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. “We want to integrate HoloLens throughout the MRO chain and to use it in the everyday performance of maintenance”, says Anneke Nabben, NLR training specialist. “Using augmented reality for every repair could help ensure the correct procedural steps by visually projecting the action that must be performed on the aircraft.”
In a policy brief, ATEC encouraged the FAA to change its training requirements to competency-based. Schools are “mandated to teach 60-year-old technologies and obtain FAA approvals to modify curriculums and operating procedures. The long-outdated rule is creating an increasingly inflexible framework, hindering innovation in aviation technical education, and continually increasing new hire training costs for employers,” the brief stated.
The short-to-medium term maintenance outlook will ramp up very slowly as the airline industry begins opening up again. Geoff Hill advised: “This provides an opportunity for airline maintenance training organisations to seek and develop innovative training solutions to build high-quality technicians, reducing pipeline lag. It also provides an opportunity for NAAs across the world to work together to mutually recognize technicians’ licences and ratings, improving mobility and increasing the size of the recruiting pool for MROs.”
Part of CAT Magazine's Restarting The Engines series.