As the Boeing 787 nears its service entry, maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) providers are preparing for the arrival of the new-generation aircraft.
For Europe's airline-affiliated MRO powerhouses, such as Air France Industries KLM Maintenance & Engineering (AFI KLM E&M) and global MRO provider Lufthansa Technik (LHT), it is a different experience than with previous models. This time their parent carriers have not ordered the type, and the new capabilities have to be built up without the benefits of an in-house fleet.
Zurich-based SR Technics was overtaken by Monarch Aircraft Engineering as a European provider for Boeing's GoldCare MRO programme last year.
The Swiss firm had decided it was not going to offer line maintenance for the new aircraft, and Boeing consequently took the partnership to Monarch.
The UK leisure carrier cancelled its order for six 787s earlier this month, but said this would not affect its support services for the type.
Across the continent, other maintenance providers are considering becoming GoldCare service centres too.
This might be driven by existing airline customers - who have ordered the 787 and want to maintain their existing MRO partnerships. However, one main reason is the increasing difficulty independent companies face in developing repair capabilities in an environment rife with the growing control of original equipment manufacturers (see Feature P42).
While there is less concern about the technological demands of repairing the carbon-composite airframe structure, MRO providers anticipate a shift towards more intensive line maintenance, large capital requirements to establish new capabilities and new internal processes to keep the aircraft's complex systems software up to date.
IN OR OUT OF HAND
Air Berlin is a 787 customer which, after supporting its existing fleet in-house, is evaluating whether to outsource airframe and component maintenance for the new twinjet, by subscribing to Boeing's GoldCare MRO programme.
Whether the 18 ordered aircraft will warrant the investment to build the required capabilities will partly depend on how much additional third-party custom can be attracted to ensure sufficient continuous workflow, says Tobias Hundhausen, vice-president business development.
He says Air Berlin Technik's composite repair capabilities are limited, and focus mainly on items which can be repaired in the workshop. In future, he expects more large-scale repairs in the hangar and many more composite repairs.
© Air Berlin
787 customer Air Berlin is evaluating whether to outsource airframe and component maintenance for the new twinjet, by subscribing to Boeing's GoldCare MRO programme.
While he is confident small-scale fuselage defects can be fixed with prefabricated repair kits, he is unsure how to deal with large-scale damage.
"This is an area where we still have information deficits, where we depend on the manufacturer's expertise and which we need to clarify in the coming months," he says.
This is echoed by Christian Weckesser, project manager for 787 aircraft engineering at LHT in Frankfurt.
"With repairs beyond a certain size, we fear that we will quickly get to a point where the SRM [structural repair manual] will not be sufficient, and that we then have to talk to Boeing and evaluate the damage together with them. And that will cost time."
Weckesser says he sees no fundamental technical difficulties in repairing composites, given the synthetic fibres and resins have been increasingly moulded into primary airframe structures in recent years - be it floor beams on the 777, vertical and later horizontal stabilisers on Airbus aircraft or complete fuselages for military and business aircraft.
His concerns are for logistics, and the potentially longer time requirements to bring an aircraft back into service.
Expecting that large panels will have to be ordered from Boeing, he questions whether material will be as readily available as is the case with metal aircraft.
Boeing responded that airlines and MRO companies will be able to stock composite panels, but some materials need to be temperature-controlled and have limited shelf lives.
Whether operators and maintenance providers with exposure only to small fleets will invest in such repair material - which might have to be discarded unused - remains to be seen.
As an alternative to bonded composite repairs, operators will have the option to undertake bolted repairs with titanium parts.
Similar to how metallic airframe structures are fixed using sheet metal, it is possible to fasten titanium patches across a damaged fuselage area as a permanent repair. If a composite solution is preferred, it is possible to remove the metallic fix later on and replace it with a wet composite layup, says Ron Murray, Boeing's 787 chief mechanic.
"We really don't envision major-type repairs, other than the usual damages we see on aluminium aircraft today - which can be taken care of with simple materials [prefabricated kits], which the airlines can either have or be readily available from Boeing," he said.
One major bugbear in supporting the 787 will be to keep systems software up to date, says LHT.
Much of the twinjet's equipment and functions are controlled via software programs. These programs are not installed in self-contained components, but run as part of a common core system which works as an aircraft-wide computer network.
Maintaining this system, particularly with updates and modifications, will be a significant challenge.
Weckesser says LHT has benefitted from its experiences with the Airbus A380, which also features a network server IT structure, but he adds that this expertise needs to be further intensified because of more software-controlled components and functions on the 787.
While the replacement of a component can usually be accomplished quickly, it might not be as easy to install the respective software and ensure full operability, says Dirk Winkler, LHT senior sales executive. "The timescales, which the manufacturers suggest to upload new software, do not always match the reality," he says. "We believe that the aircraft will make the dispatch with MEL-relevant [minimum equipment list] items easier during line maintenance operations.
"However, we also believe that if we face a nonstandard problem, the delays and downtimes may be significantly longer than on current aircraft."
Tracking the software updates and configuration status of individual aircraft across a diverse fleet will be a central task in supporting the 787.
This will be further complicated if, for example, an airline contracts separate engineering, line and base maintenance providers which employ individual MRO processes and IT systems.
Software can be uploaded to the 787's computer network by cable connection from a laptop or via wireless link in the airport.
Air Berlin wants to stream software wirelessly, but to reduce risk of complications it will initially transfer software from a laptop, says Hundhausen.
He adds that the choice of connection is only to upload the software on the aircraft's network, but the installation will always need to be carried out by an onboard engineer.
For AFI KLM E&M, one main challenge in servicing the 787 is the high price of components.
The Franco-Dutch company wants to offer operators full-support component MRO packages with access to spare-part pools.
The investment to set up the inventory, however, might necessitate co-operation with external partners, says Marc Roubaud, senior vice-president business development at AFI.
"We are wondering if we can find some synergies with partners in order to finance the spares needed to provide a good component support," he says.
AFI formed Spairliners with LHT as a component support venture for the A380.
The spare-price issue for the double-decker aircraft was exacerbated by its comparatively small global fleet and limited number of operators. Nevertheless, AFI KLM E&M calculated it needs to have at least 100 787s under contract to achieve savings through scale effects.
© AFI KLM E&M
The company wants to provide MRO support for the entire aircraft in the long-term, but because of the service period until the first scheduled overhaul events for the engines and airframe, it will initially focus on components.
Avionics and pneumatics are likely to be among the first product areas for which AFI KLM E&M will develop repair capabilities.
Technical training will not begin until next year, as the equipment will initially be covered by the manufacturers' warranties, says Roubaud.
So far, the company has mainly allocated engineering staff to manage the maintenance operations of early customers for the new aircraft.
As with previous aircraft generations, manufacturers aim to reduce the maintenance requirements for their new models.
Thanks to the carbon fibre construction, Boeing has been able to double the period until the first airframe overhaul from the typical five to six years for metallic aircraft to 12 years on the 787 - significantly reducing the need for conventional base-maintenance work.
Nevertheless, none of the MRO providers questioned were concerned about losing custom.
Experience with the latest aircraft, such as the A380, has shown their sophisticated equipment will require new support tasks and skills.
"Personally, I believe that the efforts for line maintenance will significantly increase, and that this will require significantly higher qualifications," says Winkler. "We will need more qualified personnel. This cannot be handled by any technician any more."