The systems onboard ageing aircraft in the USA are coming under closer scrutiny, raising the prospect of higher maintenance costs.

In the USA, old aircraft don't die: they get hushkits and a new paint job. In stark contrast to their counterparts in Europe and Asia, US passengers routinely find themselves boarding aircraft that first entered service before Neil Armstrong took his big step for mankind. NASA is reaching out to Mars and beyond; the American public, meanwhile, is shuttled between major business cities in 30-year-old 727s.

Hanging on to older aircraft has proved to be a cost-effective solution for US carriers and cargo operators, especially when fuel prices are so low. Even with Stage 3 noise requirements looming in December, many US majors will hang on to their older fleets of 727s, 737s, DC-9s and DC-10s as a buffer against the next recession. Whether hushkitted or sporting wing modifications that cut noise, these older aircraft are equipped to potentially remain in service well into the new millennium.

An airworthiness directive (AD) that is widely expected to be issued before the end of this year could have implications for the cost-effectiveness of older aircraft, particularly in maintenance terms. As the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) becomes increasingly concerned about the integrity of ageing systems, airlines will be faced with the additional cost during maintenance "letter" checks of having those systems examined and perhaps repaired.

"Until now, the focus has been on the structure side of aircraft," says Dick Horn, vice president and general manager at Timco, North Carolina, - one of Aviation Sales' FAA licensed repair and maintenance stations. "But within the structure you have the systems - bundles of wiring that have been there 20 years or more. Everyone is beginning to ask 'what about the systems that are ageing?' These aircraft have new avionics and hushkits, but the wiring and systems remain the same. And you can never really tell what's in those bundles until you look."

"Looking" - even if there is nothing to find - will be expensive. Horn estimates that a typical D-check could require 2,000 extra man hours and, unlike fuel, the cost of skilled maintenance labour has risen steadily over the past couple of years. "Then it will depend on what you find. If you need to replace all that wiring, then you are into making bundles as opposed to simply replacing a section of wire," says Horn.

He and other maintenance experts suggest long-term planning is the best way to handle the issue. "Airlines need to incorporate this into their letter checks so that any increase in ground time is kept to 20% or 30% versus 50% if you come across a surprise," he says. "With fuel at about 60 cents right now, the economics can still work out." Another maintenance provider agrees. "An ageing aeroplane tells you different kinds of things and you have to anticipate in advance what the aircraft will need to keep the surprises to a minimum. It certainly has cost implications, but more important are the planning and programme management implications," he says.

The maintenance business has boomed in the USA in recent years. Faring especially well are the larger independents like Aviation Sales. At Timco in North Carolina, for example, workloads have climbed from 160,000 - 180,000 man hours per month in August 1998 to 230,000 early this year. The story is the same at UAL Services, which returned to the third party overhaul business in 1997 after a long absence. UAL is one of the few operations affiliated with a US major that now does a significant amount of third party work. Gene House, managing director at UAL Services, in San Francisco, says:"1998 was a very, very good year for us. In 1997 our services business saw a revenue turnover of $130 million. In 1998 it was $200 million. In 1999 we plan on $250 million. We are two years into a five-year plan to grow to $400 million."

While there remains a healthy competitive environment in the maintenance industry, such success can be at the cost of the smaller "one-shop" operators as airlines look to the long-term programmes offered by the larger companies. "What we do is about planning," says House. "It's really preventative maintenance, so that when an event occurs, as much of the work as possible is planned ahead. You have the logistics and the materials available. Doing anything as a result of a surprise will cost more than when it is part of a planned programme.

"Our philosophy is looking not so much at the cost per se for each airplane event, but at the long-term life cycle costs. We compete on a five-year cycle basis. Ultimately, shopping the spot market won't get you that kind of value," he days. However House admits that a delicate balance needs to be struck between the needs of United's fleet and outside work. "We also have to recognise our own identity as part of a very large organism. To do that well, you cannot adapt it to every single need of the industry. We have to meet people on a middle ground that ensures we can meet everyone's needs."

Source: Airline Business