ANALYSIS: Tackling the risks posed by lax MRO procedures

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Failure by technicians to follow standard procedures is a central concern in MRO, warns the Flight Safety Foundation.

The Washington-based advocacy group established its Maintenance Advisory Committee (MAC) last year to add the MRO arena to its historical areas of focus: flight operations and pilot training. It determined that in 80% of aircraft accidents where maintenance was a contributory factor, technicians did not follow the procedures laid out by equipment manufacturers in their manuals.

Addressing the staff's failure to adhere to documentation is one of four core themes the MAC wants to address. The others are improvement of training and management; maintaining professionalism and standards; and - in an era of global MRO outsourcing - ensuring quality and oversight.

While maintenance processes have improved in terms of technical quality over recent decades, airlines and MRO providers have not fully incorporated how human factors and limitations can affect the work of mechanics and engineers, says Rudy Quevedo, the foundation's director of global programmes. This view was echoed by industry professionals during the Airline Engineering & Maintenance Safety conference - organised jointly by Flightglobal and the foundation - in London in July.

It is easy to believe that lack of professionalism is the main cause for technicians failing to adhere to the paperwork, but this is not the case, says Quevedo: "There are really a lot of other factors contributing to this behaviour [and] many of them we can correct."

Commercial imperatives play a key role in how technicians conduct their duties. For example, a line maintenance engineer who has been called on board a fully loaded passenger aircraft awaiting departure will likely feel under great pressure to resolve any issues without delay. Using non-essential tools that are not immediately at hand or following a long list of procedural steps might therefore be ignored to ensure expedient take-off.

The growth of commercial pressure was widely debated during the conference. The MRO industry is now "at a crossroads", says Robert Always, president of industry body Aircraft Engineers International and chairman of the UK's Association of Licensed Aircraft Engineers. As cost cuts have led to technicians having more certificates per person while fewer staff are on the shopfloor than in the past, the sector faces a choice of either increasing safety further or following a route that would "put us into reverse gear", says Always.

Quevedo acknowledges the challenges posed by the airlines and MRO providers' relentless drive to slash costs and raise efficiency. But he says that commercial pressures exist in any industry and cannot simply be eliminated: "We have to accept that is part of the [economic] landscape." The response should be to understand how commercial pressures affect safety and develop suitable risk-mitigation strategies, he says.

Other factors contributing to engineers not following procedures include the working environment, weather and fatigue. A technician servicing an aircraft outside in low temperature at night will naturally perform differently than a well-rested person in an adequately lit and heated workshop at daytime. Poor maintenance-manual design may also have an effect on the technicians' work. But if these influences have been identified and understood, they can be incorporated in maintenance procedures and management through, for example, more carefully laid-out instructions.

Quevedo says that human factors are the main area of focus in determining drivers behind technicians' behaviour. Although human factors have long been mandatory part of technical training - which has led to widespread awareness about the subject - there is nevertheless doubt as to what effect this has had on the hangar floor. Michael Kalbow, Airbus's head of maintenance training, says that the industry has not been successful in changing behaviour among MRO staff.

Teaching more soft skills, especially in communication and leadership, could make maintenance operations safer and more effective. Today's training programmes focus mainly on technical skills, such as systems knowledge, tool handling and troubleshooting tactics. But the trainees should also learn how to assert working standards in different situations and not become complacent with growing operational experience, says Quevedo.

A result of today's emphasis on teaching technical skills is that engineers tend to be judged on those abilities when they are promoted to supervisory roles. However, managerial positions demand different skills, including effective communication, upholding work ethics and driving the organisational culture, says Quevedo: "Soft skills should be trained at starting level [for engineers], not at an advanced level [for managers]." This would also help to assess supervisory role candidates for the required leadership qualities.

Quevedo points out that a range of good analysis and advice has already been produced by a number of organisations. "But one of the issues is that we have not gotten a lot of that guidance out to the hangar floor where we see a change in processes and behaviour," he says. "One objective [for the MAC] is to leverage all the work that has been done and develop new ways that these things have the intended result."