Parts shortages and supply chain constraints have affected many segments of the transportation industry as a result of COVID-19, including business aviation. Flight operations need to prepare for contingencies in the event the situation does not improve for some time to come.
One of the most pronounced shortages involves the semiconductor chips at the heart of many modern aircraft systems.
“It seems we went right from the toilet paper shortage in our everyday lives to the chip issue affecting LRUs [line-replaceable units],” said Melissa Raddatz, regional sales manager for the upper Midwest at maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) provider Flying Colours Corp.
“Everything is controlled by computers on newer aircraft like ours,” added Ian Young, chief of maintenance on a large-cabin intercontinental business jet for Executive Jet Management. “All the parts we’ve seen trouble with most often have printed circuit cards; as of now, larger parts are generally more readily available.”
That said, other supply chain difficulties have reared up, and still more might appear in the near future.
“We’ve heard lately that tires will become a problem in the months ahead,” Young said. “One of our local suppliers suggested we might want to buy some tires in advance…. It’s kind of hard to go anywhere without tires.”
“You need to plan your maintenance events much farther out. It also pays to order needed parts well in advance–months, not weeks.”
NATHAN WINKLE President, Thoroughbred Aviation
“We’ve already seen a couple tire manufacturers for large-cabin business jets tell us they ran out of tires, with really no timeline of when it’s going to get replenished,” agreed Nathan Winkle, president and founder of Thoroughbred Aviation and past chair of the NBAA Maintenance Committee. “That’s sort of an odd place to be for owners used to having their aircraft available as on-demand business tools.”
While pandemic-driven furloughs and layoffs across the industry have played a role in these scarcities, Winkle believes COVID-19 exacerbated issues already felt across the industry in its move to “just in time” inventory practices. “We have an on-demand industry, and it just didn’t entirely mesh up,” he said.
Peter Stodolski, assistant maintenance director for a flight operation in the Northeast, agreed that materials and personnel shortages have affected the industry’s ability to return to more normal flight operations.
“It used to take a couple of days to a week to get a battery checked,” he said. “That’s increased to a couple of weeks because there’s just five or six people working as hard as they can in a shop that used to have 10 [employees].
“We’re just in a unique situation in the world as a whole,” Stodolski continued. “There’s times you have to take a different avenue that you’re not accustomed to [in order] to get a part or component that you need.”
Working Together on Solutions
With no clear end in sight for these and other shortages, it’s important that business aviation stakeholders work together to help mitigate the effects of this situation as much as possible.
Winkle encouraged aircraft operators to be sensible about their immediate maintenance requirements.
“You need to plan your maintenance events much farther out. It also pays to order needed parts well in advance – months, not weeks – to comply with inspection, service bulletin and management programs,” he said.
“Repair stations are understaffed, which really affects operations at the shop level. At the same time, we’re losing talent on the maintenance side. It’s sort of this perfect storm.”
Operators also should consider the need to ensure the future availability of high-demand components.
“Once you remove a part, get that core back to wherever it belongs as quickly as possible,” Winkle said. “It’s really becoming critical to return those core units so we can keep parts in the system.”
Stodolski noted that OEMs track availability of critical items and those more prone to high failure rates.
“We try to stay on top of that,” he said. “If we know we’re going to be doing some type of maintenance or inspection, instead of maybe ordering all the consumable items we need for an inspection, say a week ahead of time, we’re now pushing out our order a couple months ahead of time, just so we can let the supply chain work.
“Luckily, we have a lot of operators within a five-mile radius, so we’re all able to network and work with one another to get out of a jam,” Stodolski continued, “and we then replenish their stock once the OEM is able to provide us with the component. That helps keep AOG situations to a minimum, though there are times when we’re working the phones with parts suppliers trying to get items to us as quickly as possible.”
Raddatz also emphasized the benefits of networking. “Call a buddy up at another flight department and tell them you’re in a pinch, and if they can send their part over now, you’ll ship the repaired part to them when you get it back,” she said. “People who aren’t networking or keeping up with relationships may struggle more and potentially find themselves in an unfavorable situation.”
While Raddatz noted most of her customers who have worked in business aviation for some time are understanding of such difficulties, “they also want to see that you’re being proactive and making sure everything’s on track,” she said. “We’re in this weird transition right now, and we’re hopeful we’ll get back to normal sooner than later. But in the meantime, we’re just trying to do the best we can every day.”
Shippers Also Facing Difficulties
As vendors and suppliers grapple with these shortages, international shippers also face challenges in meeting demand, which has yet to ease from the record numbers of packages that have been shipped since the pandemic began.
“Shippers have told me they’re seeing the same [numbers] of packages through the major hubs as around Christmas time,” Stodolski said. “Except [at Christmas] they usually add more people, aircraft and logistics to keep up with that demand; the shippers weren’t ready for the [current] influx we’re seeing.”
“When COVID kicked in, almost immediately we started to see challenges with acquiring parts, particularly from European and other international suppliers,” Winkle said. “For one particular aircraft model, we needed a component manufactured in Europe. Because of COVID restrictions and import challenges, we missed a total of 12 legs on that airplane over eight days – and we’re not alone in facing situations like that.”
Young also experienced shipping difficulties during the last year while waiting for delivery of a new air data computer. “Fortunately, we didn’t have any pending flights, but we still wanted to get it fixed as quickly as possible,” he said. “It took three days to get the computer; the part was available, but we couldn’t get anyone to ship it to us.”
In addition to high shipping demand, customs delays may also add several days to the shipping process, although Raddatz noted a potential workaround for avoiding extended delays when ordering bulk parts.
“There’s a certain price point that, above which, a shipment gets flagged,” she said. “For items like landing gear assemblies, we’ve asked vendors to ship items individually so they don’t get caught up in customs, because each package is under that [price] threshold.”
As with difficulties on the vendor side, patience and understanding of potential challenges faced by shippers may help ease the stress levels for all concerned.
“I’m absolutely guilty of thinking, ‘FedEx guarantees overnight shipping. Don’t they have another airplane they could scramble?’” Young said. “Well, they probably don’t. They’re at their max capacity. It’s good to be understanding of what’s on everybody’s plates right now, not just our own.”
Review NBAA’s maintenance resources at nbaa.org/maintenance.