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Balancing Operational Needs With Maintenance Downtime

By By Todd Vorenkamp | March 1, 2016



Photo courtesy of Metro Aviation

If you travel by air enough, you have probably had the pleasure of experiencing a maintenance delay with an airline. Even though the largest global carriers have factory-supported service centers and back-up aircraft at their disposal, a break-down or unscheduled maintenance need can wreak havoc in operational schedules and inconvenience hundreds or even thousands of customers.

When those same realities arise for a small helicopter outfit with one, two or a few airframes, the impact of an aircraft going down for maintenance can have a crippling effect. Even worse, when a small helicopter operator is just getting its business off the ground, “one catastrophic unscheduled maintenance event could disrupt the entire business and undermine their budget,” said Jet Support Services, Inc. (JSSI) Director of Business Development Kyle Sale.

S&T Services of Austin, Texas, is a single-ship Bell 206 LongRanger operator. Manager Matt St. Louis offered a very real scenario and its impact on a small rotorcraft operator.

“Our pilot starts his day with a preflight of the aircraft and finds a leaking fuel filter housing. In a couple of hours, we are expecting our clients to arrive for a Part 135 flight. We call a maintenance facility and let them know,” said St. Louis.

“They find a serviceable replacement and drive over 200 mi to deliver and install. That is an excellent example of how things can go right and still wrong as the revenue flight had to be canceled,” he said.

The worst part — “The flight was an anniversary surprise for the passengers. That hurts a small operator’s reputation,” added St. Louis. “Having another aircraft available would have allowed the revenue flight to take place, which would have paid for the unscheduled service. No profit, but a balance.”

Photo courtesy of Revolution Aviation

Maintenance is a reality of aviation. There are no maintenance-free aircraft. Helicopters are subject to routine maintenance, scheduled maintenance, preventive maintenance, maintenance to comply with service bulletins or airworthiness directives and, of course, all of the budget impacting unscheduled repairs due to component failures.

Operators large and small have to overcome maintenance challenges. However, for the smaller operators, there is sometimes a need to increase efficiency when it comes to maintaining the aircraft and avoiding downtime due to the fact that standby aircraft are not available.

When asked what his biggest maintenance challenge is, Njord Rota said, “Downtime.” The director of operations for Ravco, a high-altitude and mountain flying school in Leadville, Colorado, added, “Having a small fleet is a challenge to meet customer commitments when maintenance takes excessive time.”

Ravco operates a small fleet of Eurocopter AS350 AStars and Bell Helicopter 206B3s and trains commercial, private and military clients from around the world.

“Maintenance is the greatest challenge and unknown cost driver as a small business,” said Rota. “Unfortunately, you end up placing the success or failure of your own business in the hands of others.”

Planning and organization play a key role in the success of an operation that is constantly trying to balance customer needs with aircraft availability and scheduled downtime.

“With a smaller fleet, we have to make sure that we are not taking on more work than we can perform with upcoming maintenance,” said Alyssa Gulke, office manager for Worland, Wyoming-based Sky Aviation, the helicopter operation of which specializes in firefighting, aerial survey, search and rescue, external load and heavy-lift operations. Sky Aviation calls itself the first civilian operator of the Boeing CH-46E; it also operates Bell UH-1H and Bell 206 aircraft.

“When our schedule is busy, we could easily get into a position where we don’t have an alternate helicopter to use on a job if one needs maintenance or an overhaul completed,” said Gulke. “Other than the challenge of managing the schedule around customer needs and weather, we always have to keep the upcoming maintenance and projected downtime in mind.”

Coordinating Schedules

Revolution Aviation operates a small fleet of Robinson Helicopter R22s, R44s and R66s out of John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana, California. Chief Pilot Mark Robinson said he turns the need for heavy maintenance into a learning opportunity for students.

“One particular challenge is how to coordinate the instructors’ schedule with clients to get the helicopter to maintenance on time,” he said. To meet that challenge, the Southern California school has “the student and instructor fly the aircraft to the maintenance shop so the student can learn, meet and see the mechanics.”

Photo courtesy of Metro Aviation

Revolution conducts minor maintenance at its home airport but hopes to hire full-time mechanics next year to service the company’s seven helicopters and two fixed-wing aircraft and keep up with increasing operational demands. The first maintenance company with which Revolution outsourced “was a disaster,” said Robinson, “so choosing the right mechanic is absolutely key.”

Operators of Robinson Helicopters are not short on praise for the Torrance, California, manufacturer. Responsive customer service, great parts stocks, free online manuals and personalized tech support are just some of what loyal Robinson customers compliment. One operator, however, referred to it as the “Apple computer of the helicopter world.”

Robinsons feature a large number of proprietary parts that are not available through aftermarket companies. Parts usually need to come from the factory and will generally not be available across the ramp or down the street.

Operators of other aircraft source both manufacturers’ and aftermarket parts—whatever is cheapest and most readily available to maximize flexibility and savings. Ravco leans heavily on the aftermarket parts supply for its Jet Rangers and AStars.

“We use a lot of aftermarket support — lower prices, longer time between overhauls, and they have parts in stock,” said Rota, adding that is not always the case with OEM parts.

One operator who formerly flew Schweizer 300s said, “After they were purchased by Sikorsky, parts availability became a challenge — for a while, it was impossible to even get a washer from that company.”

With the exception of operators that own type certificates for an aircraft, overhaul work is almost always contracted either back to the OEM or to a factory-authorized service center.

Robinson schedules a major overhaul for 12 years or 2,200 hours on its airframes. Part 135 operator Centennial Helicopter’s chief pilot, Michael DeMarici, has two options when the company’s single R44 Clipper II comes up on this milestone. He could send the aircraft to the manufacturer in California for a ground-up factory overhaul or give it to a service center closer to his base in Danbury, Connecticut.

DeMarici has done both. The factory overhaul took the aircraft out of service for almost six months; the service center’s turnaround was less than three months.

OEM Pros and Cons

Photo courtesy of Ravco

The advantage of the service center, said Chris Webb, general manager of Minnesota Helicopters, is that there you can choose what kind of elective work will be performed during the overhaul.

Robinson only offers one service package — a full overhaul — and it is incredibly comprehensive. “You basically get back a new aircraft,” said Webb, “at nearly the cost of a new aircraft.” Webb said Minnesota Helicopters outsources all its aircraft maintenance to nearby Quality Aviation in Faribault, Minnesota. But he added he is extremely happy with Robinson’s customer service, saying: “It might be the only helicopter manufacturer that ships 95% of AOG parts truly overnight. Other manufacturers could learn a thing or two from Robinson’s customer service.”

S&T Services’ St. Louis said one challenge is “sourcing the appropriate service center to execute major work. Not all service centers are created equal. I have to balance cost, personalities, upgrading components or not, etc.”

When it comes to powerplant overhauls, DeMarici sends his R44’s Lycoming to Penn Yan Aero in Penn Yan, New York. There he has the option of having an overhaul done, acquiring a remanufactured engine or buying a brand new powerplant. Where he might get an exchange core from Lycoming, using Penn Yann allows him to specify that he gets the same core in return following his overhauls. Penn Yann does “a better job than the OEM,” said DeMarici.

Years ago, Rolls-Royce’s factory service plan gave birth to the term “Power by the Hour.” Today, OEMs like Sikorsky, Bell, Airbus Helicopters, AgustaWestland and MD Helicopters offer fixed price-per-flight-hour maintenance programs. One alternative to the OEM programs is offered by 27-year industry veteran JSSI, which calls itself the largest independent provider of hourly cost maintenance programs for turbine-powered helicopters.

According to Sale, “Hourly cost maintenance programs are a great way for operators to stabilize their maintenance operating budget, be protected from costly unforeseen failures and increase overall residual value of their aircraft.”

JSSI does not own aircraft, nor does it turn wrenches. What it does offer is a “comprehensive financial tool for managing the often unpredictable costs of maintaining a helicopter,” said Sale.

Customers pay a flight-hour fee based on type of aircraft and annual utilization. Funds are held in reserve to pay for all routine, scheduled and unscheduled maintenance, including service bulletins, airworthiness directives, rental engines, component costs and foreign-object debris damage.

The JSSI program is more effective than simply setting aside funds for maintenance, as JSSI assumes the risk for actual costs incurred. To complement this financial tool, JSSI provides clients with technical advisory support. Coverage includes access to JSSI’s worldwide network of MRO and rental pool resources and a dedicated technical advisor that will accompany the aircraft through the overhaul process to represent the customer’s interests.

In addition, customers gain access to a global parts-buying team and to independent product line specialists specific to their make and model of helicopters.

“As an owner-operator, you want your crew to have the best available resources at their finger tips. You want your clients to have a positive experience in a clean, quality maintained aircraft. And at the end of the day, I’d like to see some financial balance,” said S&T Service’s St. Louis.

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