October 5, 2022
Did You Schedule Aircraft Maintenance to Prepare for Winter?
AvGeek Safety

Did You Schedule Aircraft Maintenance to Prepare for Winter?

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DALLAS – The winter months come with specific aircraft maintenance requirements that collectively help people stay safe and ensure productive flights.

Now is the time to schedule that upkeep to avoid falling behind with it before the temperatures turn colder. Here are some essential considerations.

Photo: João Pedro Santoro/Airways

Understand It May Take Longer than Expected to Book Maintenance

Scheduling winter upkeep may not happen as smoothly this year as it has in the past. That’s primarily because there’s a maintenance shortage, and attracting more people to the industry means paying them better salaries. But, doing that isn’t as straightforward as it may seem.

As Kailash Krishnaswamy – senior vice president of aftermarket services at Spirit AeroSystems – said, “There is a general labour shortage and the only way to get labour back to work is higher rates. Inflation is definitely a challenge.”

A related issue is that some currently employed maintenance technicians find themselves dealing with pandemic-related skill decreases. When COVID-19 grounded flights, caused lockdowns, and canceled large gatherings, far fewer people traveled by plane than usual. Those factors brought a general decline in air travel and associated maintenance duties.

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) published content about this matter, clarifying that skills degradation can occur when people apply them less often or not at all. Any disruptions in opportunities to apply skills can also prevent people from pursuing career growth opportunities. Plus, as people use their skills less often, the effort required to do those things becomes higher than it would be if those individuals remained proficient.

The overall shortage of maintenance personnel requires people to start planning earlier to ensure their aircraft maintenance needs get met in time. Similarly, the need to refresh skills may mean representatives from companies must set aside extra time to provide training for maintenance crews.

Iberia EC-JDL Airbus A319-111 (De-Icing). Photo: Lorenzo Giacobbo/Airways

Find Adequate Deicing Strategies

Aircraft assembly often involves brazing to join two parts. The approach requires high temperatures and, specifically, a filler metal hotter than 840°F. That high heat can cause oxidation on the metal’s surface. However, oxidation is not only an issue during assembly. It can also create problems related to deicing measures that are instrumental in safe aircraft operations during winter.

The introduction of new runway deicers caused unintended consequences for planes’ carbon brakes. More specifically, aircraft operators and maintenance crews began noticing catalytic oxidation of the carbon-brake heat-sink disks on the aircraft. Thus, aviation authorities in the U.S. revised their maintenance recommendations to advise maintenance professionals to check for oxidation signs when removing a plane’s wheel and tire assemblies.

Besides removing ice from runways during the winter, it’s also necessary to do the same for the plane itself. Experts say some planes need deicing four to five times each day, particularly if they operate in Nordic countries during the winter.

Ice buildup on a plane can interfere with airflow over its wings, hindering its lift potential. Relatedly, the vibrations from an aircraft engine powering up can shake off the ice, causing it to enter the engine. Also, depending on the severity of the ice accumulation, it can add significant weight to the plane, meaning the plane needs a longer runway for a successful takeoff.

The typical process involves applying deicing agents to the plane and waiting 15-20 minutes for them to take effect before takeoff. However, decision-makers continually explore ways to make the process even more effective and efficient. For example, robots can assist with deicing, which saves money and time.

Photo: Sydney Airport

Consider How Advanced Technologies Align with Aircraft Maintenance

Now is also a good time to evaluate whether a company’s winter maintenance routine for its aircraft needs some technological upgrades. How might high-tech solutions improve processes and results?

In one case, Air France KLM conducted a pilot product where aircraft maintenance students relied on a 3D model of a plane created by augmented reality (AR). They could walk around and interact with it. The results showed that this approach cost less and had a lower risk of damage than students using real planes.

Another exciting aircraft maintenance project involving AR allows people to hold an iPad up to a plane and see an interactive display of all its previous repairs. Getting such details is particularly important given how winter storms can complicate maintenance needs.

In one 2022 instance, a taxiing crash made a plane collide with a baggage cart. The cart appeared to get sucked into the plane’s engine as the aircraft made a turn. The affected airline said heavy snow and a slippery taxiway contributed to the event.

Research from a university in the Netherlands also indicated that artificial intelligence (AI) could help streamline aircraft maintenance operations. Current processes involve time-based upkeep or maintenance tasks driven by the discovery of defects. However, using AI could save an estimated €700m per year. The research team envisions a highly automated maintenance-scheduling process that puts essential tasks on the schedule several months in advance.

Such an approach could help maintenance leaders prepare for winter-weather needs as well as any other necessities related to other times of the year. If that happens, it will result in fewer flight cancellations due to unscheduled maintenance. Travelers benefit, and maintenance leaders would see meaningful cost reductions.

Salt Lake City (SLC) Airport overview with snow. Photo: Michael Rodeback/Airways

Stay Mindful of Winter Storage Needs

Traveling in a winter storm by plane is not as hazardous as some people might initially assume. That’s because skilled pilots can often fly above the storms, mitigating most of their effects. Issues can occur when it’s time to land in a winter storm, though, due to aspects like wind gusts and blowing snow.

There are also associated risks with keeping planes stored in cold temperatures, even for relatively short periods. Some planes have associated limitations for starting them in cold weather after more than four hours of disuse.

In such cases, maintenance crews must start the planes every few hours to keep the engines warm. Another option is to move the aircraft into heated hangers.

Failing to consider how cold weather affects plane storage needs could cause preventable delays associated with aircraft maintenance and usage. People must also realize that climate change may mean being proactive about aircraft storage requirements. It has already brought colder winters to Europe, and scientists expect more of the same.

Keeping on top of aircraft maintenance is critical at any time of the year. However, the colder weather associated with the winter months necessitates special considerations. The tips here will help decision-makers handle them with ease.

Featured image: American Airlines N870AX Boeing 787-8 in hangar. Photo: Daniel Gorun/Airways

Emily Newton is a technology journalist. She is Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized, an online magazine exploring the latest innovations.

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