Grounded no more: The logistics of aircraft maintenance

The delay of aircraft components and replacement parts can mean tens of thousands of dollars in losses for airlines waiting to make necessary repairs, which is why so many turn to specialized logistics providers.

Grounded no more: The logistics of aircraft maintenance

Brian Straight FreightWaves 2019 12 10

aircraft from one location to another seems simple enough, but what if you have
six of them and have been contracted to relocate each without flying them, or
dismantling them for transport? And you have to do it safely and through a
Mideast country known for terrorist activity?

That is the situation staff members
of AIT Worldwide Logistics found themselves in a few years ago when a
U.S.-based industrial conglomerate hired the firm to transport six single-engine
aircraft from Afghanistan to Wichita, Kansas.

“That program that we executed from
Afghanistan to Wichita was one heck of an accomplishment,” Bob McGhee, director
of government and aerospace operations for AIT Worldwide Logistics, told FreightWaves. “We were ahead of schedule; we were under
budget; and we exceeded the customer’s expectations from day one.”

To complete the job, AIT tapped
into its network of providers, locating a Mideast-based service provider that
could secure an Antonov – the world’s largest cargo aircraft. With the airplane
secured, AIT moved to the routing portion of the job, with several options and
their associated risks, including political, climatological and security,
assessed and presented to the customer.

AIT Worldwide Logistics specializes in logistics for global businesses, including the airline industries. These moves can include everything from single components to entire aircraft, as this photo showed. AIT commissioned an Antonov, the world’s largest cargo aircraft, to transport six single-engine aircraft from Afghanistan to Wichita, Kansas, without dismantling the bodies of the plane. (Photo: AIT Worldwide Logistics)

“Multiple challenges conspired to
add complexity to the project with a high risk for skyrocketing costs,” AIT
explained. “The customer wanted to avoid dismantling the aircraft for shipping,
which left very few equipment options. Flying out of Afghanistan is inherently
dangerous, as is navigating the airspace in the region. Minimizing flyover
permits and royalties would prove to be tricky at best.”

The customer picked a safer route
that would be more expensive due to required royalties and flyover permits. AIT
said its negotiators worked with local officials and eliminated or minimized
certain costs to hold down expenses.

Every aspect of this move was
meticulously planned and involved daily conference calls, McGhee said. The
planes were loaded side by side into the Antonov and successfully delivered to

Relocating a plane is but one of
the services that specialized logistics providers fill for airlines and
industrial customers.

Expedited parts delivery service

While airlines can’t do much about
the weather that results in flight delays, they do have control over
maintenance. Maintenance delays, which lead to something called aircraft on
ground, or AOG, have a ripple effect throughout an airline’s network. Late
planes lead to unhappy customers, missed connections and planes out of position
for the next day’s flights.

According to Airspace Technologies,
a logistics firm specializing in the movement of aircraft parts, an AOG can
cost an airline up to $150,000 per hour. The National Center of Excellence for
Aviation Operations Research, in a 2010 study conducted jointly with the
Federal Aviation Administration, said that flight delays cost airlines $31
billion in 2007.

When an aircraft needs a part, the
logistics machine shifts into motion.

Airbus uses barges to transport large components such as this wing section on the Garonne River in France to Toulouse, where final assembly of planes is conducted. (Photo: Airbus)

“There are frequently planned
operations – that is the perfect world for us – but the
vast majority of our aerospace business, whether it’s military or commercial is
on an emergency basis, or in an AOG [situation],” McGhee explained.

AIT is a non-asset-based global
logistics business offering services in air cargo, sea freight, customs, ground
distribution, intermodal and warehouse management. Its aerospace logistics
business is staffed 24 hours a day, 365 days a year with certified
professionals whose job is to get aircraft parts, and sometimes entire
airplanes, to their destination quickly.

“It’s a very fast-paced market and it’s a very high-demand market for getting accurate information,” McGhee said. “We have a 30-minute window to honor all requests and a 90-minute window to [deliver] a transportation plan.”

All team members staffing its
“control tower” are military-certified so they can handle both civilian and
military requests. When an AOG happens, the AIT team moves into action. “There
is no canned response to these things,” Ken Jones, director of government and
aerospace sales for AIT, explained, as each move is unique.

The transport of intact aircraft engines can sometimes be done on in the cargo holds of commercial aircraft. But aircraft often can’t reach manufacturing facilities, requiring the use of trucks for final transport, as AIT Worldwide Logistics did with this Rolls-Royce Trent 800 engine. (Photo: AIT Worldwide Logistics)

How the replacement part is
transported depends on a lot of variables, including what it is, where it is
and where it is going. Some parts can move on commercial aircraft, while others
require a more specialized approach. Take an engine, for instance. According to
McGhee, some aircraft engines can fit in the cargo hold of a narrow-body
aircraft, making a commercial flight a possibility.

“It is very complex when you take
into consideration the size of the engine and the origin/destination plans,” he
said. “That is where the challenges are and where our subject matter expertise
comes into play.”

Customer-focused solutions

Because AIT services are “door to
door,” getting the part on an airplane is only half the battle. “There are
challenges when you have an airplane sitting in a secondary market that [larger
aircraft are] challenged to get into,” McGhee said. If a larger airport is
needed, then truck transportation becomes a requirement. “Having proper
partners … enables us to do that.”

Smaller aircraft parts are a bit easier,
and many actually fly on commercial aircraft. In some cases, they may fly on
UPS or FedEx cargo planes, but McGhee said the flexibility of commercial
aircraft is preferred.

“Nine times out of 10, we’re moving
that small part… on a commercial passenger airplane and the reason we’re doing
that is the scheduling is much more flexible,” he said.

Even when parts move on a UPS or
FedEx plane, AIT handles the “last mile,” preferring to maintain control of the
part to its final destination.

In some cases, a small part may
require a personalized approach. time:matters, a global spare parts logistics
business, told the story of a hand delivery in South Africa using its airmates technology
platform. In the case study, a PRIMUS Aero-managed aircraft was grounded in
South Africa, in need of a control unit.

“The missing control unit was in
the USA, however, not just around the corner from South Africa,” the company
noted. Booked through the airmates platform with the “On Board Courier” option,
the part was quickly located in Addison, Texas. A Texas-based courier picked up
the part and hopped a commercial aircraft to Atlanta and ultimately to Lanseria
International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa, arriving with the part 25
hours after the first request arrived in the time:matters system.

Customs can delay spare part
delivery, although McGhee said AIT works with its local partners to ensure all
paperwork is filled out so delays are eliminated.

“There’s an extensive amount of
data out there that we have to juggle, but we work very closely on the U.S.
customs side [and destination countries to process this],” he said.

Jones added that AIT once had a
delay delivering a part because the grounded aircraft was sitting in a country
that had closed customs while it inaugurated a new king. Generally, though,
delays on the commercial side are minimal while military shipments can get hung
up due to political considerations – which countries’ parts can be flown over
or into, for instance.

The Airbus Beluga – technically an A300-600ST Super Transporter – is a customized aircraft designed by Airbus for its own supply chain. The Beluga is used to transport large aircraft parts to facilities throughout Europe. (Photo: Airbus)

Custom logistics networks

While companies such as AIT,
time:matters and Airspace Technologies provide customized services for
airlines, airplane manufacturers have developed their own networks. Airbus explained in detail on its website how it handles the movement of parts to final
assembly locations.

Utilizing five A300-600ST Super
Transporters nicknamed Beluga, Airbus Transport International moves complete
fuselage sections and wings from production plants throughout Europe to assembly
plants in Toulouse, France, and Hamburg, Germany.

In the case of parts for the A380
aircraft assembled in Toulouse, the Beluga – which are modified planes with
bulbous main deck cargo cabins – represents just one part of the journey.
Trucks and even watercraft are involved in the trip. Production sites
throughout France, Germany, Spain and the U.K. send completed sections of the
A380 to Bordeaux, France, where these large fuselage sections are loaded onto
waiting barges that travel the Garonne River to Toulouse.

Specialized equipment and training

When it comes to transporting
aircraft engines, the companies that handle these jobs have high standards.
International Machine Transport USA, with offices in Blaine, Washington, and
Dallas, Texas, has transported more than 12,000 engines throughout North America.
It requires all its drivers to attend classroom theory, complete field training
including the loading and securing of jet engines and pass a final exam with a
perfect score.

The company also handles helicopter
transport and more and works with a trailer designer to create custom trailers
for specific industries. Fitted tarps and protective padding are standard
elements to transport engines and other parts.

Skylink, which provides over 250,000 different line items for
distribution to airlines around the world, offers five “must dos” when moving
aircraft engines. They are:

1.       Secure the
engine on a quality engine stand

2.       Invest in
good tarps and tarp the engine multiple times

3.       Strap the engine
by the bottom of the engine stand

4.       When
traveling on a trailer, use an air ride trailer for a softer ride

5.       Work with a
trusted partner.

For airlines looking to minimize
AOG, companies like Airspace Technologies and AIT are the backbone of the
maintenance operation, but even those companies require help.

“We are a non-asset based
organization so everything we do is based on our relationships with our service
providers,” McGhee said. “We have very high standards [and global standards that
partners must meet]. The partners we work with have been developed with people
like myself and Ken and other leaders within AIT that have 30- and 40-plus
years of experience working with international partners and know who are the
most reliable to work with. There are companies that are very strong on
regional basis in various parts of the world that we have aligned ourselves
with and that have the same core values as we do.”

Even in the fast-paced world of
on-demand aircraft parts delivery, it still comes back to relationships.