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Should Your Maintenance Department Go Digital?

Maintenance is the fulcrum on which business aviation balances; it’s a vital element of how planes are bought, sold and safely piloted without incident while carrying passengers and valuable cargo. For at least the past decade – and probably longer – maintenance operations in the business aviation community have been facing a looming question: Should we – could we – go digital?

It’s a heavy query, with devoted adherents on both sides, analog and digital. With few, if any, regulations pertaining to digital recordkeeping, it’s a bit of a wild-west environment. For the older generation of maintenance professionals, digital recordkeeping has been unfamiliar territory, where the specters of every lost or corrupted file lurk, surrounded by the dreaded glow of a blank blue screen.

Experts in the field, however, are clear in their recommendation: Do yourself and your team a favor and embrace it. Karl Steeves began his career as an engineer, working in automotive and software engineering before earning his commercial pilot’s license and later founding TrustFlight, which provides digital workflow solutions to the aviation industry.

“One of the reasons we started the company is that we wanted to be able to use data to better inform how aircraft are maintained, and how aircraft are operated. And we quickly realized that data wasn’t really available in any good form, or any good quality, because everything starts from a paper process,” Steeves explained. “It’s almost akin to the ‘90s when you went into a business, and they were still using typewriters. It was a good sign of inefficiencies in an organization, as everyone was moving towards having computers; I think it’s a similar thing.”

Safety and Efficiency

“There are a lot of workflows that are still heavily supported by a paper process and hence, a tremendous amount of time absorbing redundancy,” said Rhiannon Silvashy, chief revenue officer at Vessel Vanguard. “How do we make it safer for aircraft to transport passengers and cargo? How do we reduce downtime and increase visibility and communication? How do we make it easier for our aviation professionals to do what they do best without exploring the option of implementing a digital solution?”

Silvashy, who kicked off her professional career in marine and then made the move to aviation with Flightdocs / ATP, has spent more than a decade in aviation bringing digital efficiencies to the day-to-day workflow of maintenance and flight professionals.

“I can pull up logbook entries, to-do lists, on the phone or on a computer while I’m in the cockpit. I don’t have to come to the office or make 25 trips between this building and that building.”

Gustave LaRoy Aviation Maintenance Manager, Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories, Inc.

For Gustave LaRoy, aviation maintenance manager at Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories, Inc., searchability is key. “That’s a huge upside to it, the searchability of data, being able to look at years’ worth of records at the speed of a computer,” he said. “You can pull up the engine data, you can pull up the maintenance issues, the squawks, the faults, the exceedances and analyze it all within minutes.”

Advocates also tout the timesaving attributes of digital recordkeeping systems, especially when an aircraft is AOG and every minute counts. “I can pull up logbook entries, to-do lists, on the phone or on a computer while I’m in the cockpit,” said LaRoy. “I don’t have to come to the office or make 25 trips between this building and that building.”
Throughout her career Silvashy has heard plenty of horror stories of operators who relied on paper records and ended up in a compromised situation.

“It is not uncommon to hear of an unfortunate situation where [paper] logbooks go missing, directly and immediately affecting the value and safety of that aircraft. One extreme example involved a disgruntled employee who took the aircraft logbooks and had a bonfire on the beach,” she said. “How do you prevent that? How do you recreate those records? You control what you can and implement a solution to support you and the asset.”

Digital vs. Electronic

Searchability, and the recreation of data, rely on a digital record; not necessarily, an electronic one. “There’s a distinct difference between a digital record versus an electronic record,” Steeves explained. “A digital one is one where you’ve just sort of scanned a bit of paper, but an electronic record has underlying data within the record … which can be moved within systems or interpreted by a bit of software,” he said.

If an operator wants to avoid the worst-case, burned-records scenario, where should they start? “Their focus should be to be patient. Have a plan. Understand the needs of the department,” said LaRoy.

“This new generation is starting to ask some really good questions: ‘Why is there so much paper … and do we really need it anymore?’ I love this question and the opportunity to bridge generational workflows and mindset.”

Rhiannon Silvashy Chief Revenue Officer, Vessel Vanguard

“In the maintenance world, we have industry giants who have been in aviation for 30-plus years that are hardworking, dedicated, intelligent and have a tremendous amount of knowledge – masters of their craft,” Silvashy said. “We also have the up-and-coming, new-to-the-industry professionals, that were born into the digital world and do not know any different. This new generation is starting to ask some really good questions: ‘Why is there so much paper … and do we really need it anymore?’ I love this question and the opportunity to bridge generational workflows and mindset. If a flight and maintenance department can start exploring the option of going paper-less, that is a step in the right direction in my opinion,” she said.

Steeves said he’s seeing an overwhelming percentage of digital converts. “We’ve seen it a lot. In all cases, we’ve seen it as soon as you implement it, and, you know, maybe a week or so [of] people using digital systems, it’s very hard for them to go back and they can never see – or never imagine – what the world was like before,” he said.

Misconceptions

It would be unwise, however, to assume adopting digital maintenance solutions is a magic bullet. “It’s not an overnight fix, and that’s one of the big misconceptions out there. If I decide to go more digital, we’ll just make a decision on a software solution that we like and feel best with, and then we’ll be good,” Silvashy said. “That’s probably going to take nine to 15 months to implement and get buy-in from your team.”

Steeves warned against setting expectations “so high that you think it’s going to be 100% flawless and work well. The reality is there’s going to be things that you didn’t expect to happen, or that you have to figure out along the way. That’s normal, and that’s just part of the process of implementing a new system.”

Employee education is key to successfully implementing a new digital system, LaRoy said. “You know, we’ve all seen where you don’t have that competence to get in there and look. You get scared, ‘I don’t want to screw anything up, I’m not going to use it,’” he said. “Get the proper training, give yourself the confidence, spend a lot of time in it getting muscle memory – so when things happen fast, you’ve done it before,” he said.

In Silvashy ’s opinion, there’s no better move an operator could make for their maintenance team. “It’s for the betterment of every single individual in business and commercial aviation,” she said. “At the end of the day, it preserves the value of the aircraft, it protects your owners, it protects your passengers, and it makes your job easier.”

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