Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is estimated that more than 16,000 passenger jets around the world are grounded. The number of passenger jets currently in service is the lowest it’s been in more than 25 years, and some airlines have had to slash their flight schedules by as much as 90%. To give you another example of the drastic drop-off in air travel, on January 22, 2020, there were nearly 114,000 passenger flights. Just three months later, on April 20, there were less than 27,000. This has undoubtedly caused a great deal of financial strain on the industry, but has also presented a second problem: where can these aircraft be stored, and how can they be kept airworthy during their downtime?
Aircraft that have been stationary for long periods of time cannot simply be started up and sent back into action. Instead, they require a great deal of attention and maintenance to ensure they are still airworthy. After extended downtime, the operational status of airplane control systems, the airplane configuration, and the airworthiness of the airplane must be verified.
Hydraulics and flight control systems must be protected from external factors including weather, insects, and other wildlife. Exposure to humidity can also corrode parts and damage the interior of the aircraft. Furthermore, aircraft must often be loaded with enough fuel to keep them from rocking in the wind and to keep the tanks lubricated. Hydraulic fluids must be applied to landing gear to protect them from rust, and even though they are parked on the runway, tires need attention too. For example, Australian airline Qantas requires the wheels of all aircraft to be rotated every one to two weeks. Additionally, giant silica moisture absorption sachets are also put inside engines to keep them dry, while all external holes on the fuselage are covered to block insects and nesting birds. These are just a few of the measures which must be taken to protect aircraft.
Commercial aircraft are designed to be in nearly-constant use, which is made possible by the adoption of maintenance schedules specifically tailored to maximum utilization of the aircraft. During the pandemic, while many aircraft are parked, airlines still have to adhere to many of these maintenance strategies to ensure the engines, landing gear, transmissions, and other critical components will function properly. This presents the obvious problem of financial expense, but the constant maintenance will also shorten the restoration time needed to bring these aircraft back into service, whenever the time comes. If airlines elected not to maintain their aircraft and simply left them grounded, any or all of the following could happen: critical component mechanisms could lose lubrication, batteries could partially or fully discharge, potable water systems and fuel tanks could become contaminated, and certain systems such as oxygen cylinders, tires, hydraulic systems, and landing gear shock struts could lose pressure.
The airline company is responsible for the continuation of adherence to all airworthiness standards and must ensure that no aircraft takes flight unless it has been maintained in an airworthy condition, any operation and emergency equipment is correctly installed and serviceable (or clearly identified as unserviceable if that is the case), the airworthiness certificate remains valid, and the maintenance of the aircraft is performed in accordance with the appropriate maintenance regimen.
To carry all this out in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, OEMs must tailor their maintenance programs to aim at minimizing the maintenance cost of grounded aircraft. To do this, the maintenance programs they adopt should do all of the following: keep maintenance costs as low as possible until it is decided that the aircraft will be flown, detail the maintenance requirements once the aircraft will be used, ensure the efficient use of technicians (as many airlines have and will continue to have to reduce staff), and optimize the repeatable maintenance requirements. For example, the frequency of inspection of anti-ice systems can be optimized while the aircraft is grounded for an undetermined period of time.
For any model of airplane, the OEM already has the maintenance requirements for its most critical components. The designer community has the responsibility of starting to prepare for another situation like the one the industry is going through currently so they can be better prepared for such a situation next time. This means acknowledging these maintenance requirements and coming up with a maintenance program that can be adopted if aircraft are once again grounded for an extended period of time. It's not just global health crises they should be aware of, there are a myriad of other situations that can force the grounding of aircraft. For instance, in the past, volcanic eruptions have forced airlines to suspend operations and ground their planes. Airlines and OEMs must work together to come up with extended downtime maintenance programs that can be used during COVID-19 and similar situations.
One such maintenance plan is the SLM solution, or Service Lifecycle Management. This program would help OEMs develop appropriate maintenance guidelines for grounded aircraft. This maintenance program enables the designer or service planner to come up with a suitable maintenance program for grounded airplanes using existing maintenance requirements, or defining new ones based on usage, frequency, and other factors. This will further help in forecasting and could be extended to leverage predictive models based on the current experience, so another pandemic-like situation would not be as financially straining on the airline industry.
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