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By replacing paper-based processes with advanced document management and scanning systems in its maintenance division, the UK airline has boosted productivity, efficiency, security and customer satisfaction – while also attracting new business. Planning manager Adam Trotter outlines the high-impact strategy.
In the age of smart, connected technology, paper-based processes are often held up as an illustration of all that’s inefficient and anachronistic. Often, though, a legacy paper process is so ingrained, business-critical and subject to compliance regulations that, at least in the short term, it can’t be eliminated. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be improved on dramatically with the help of digital technology, as UK-based short-haul airline Flybe found when its aircraft maintenance division adopted a DocuStore document management system from workflow specialist InSite, based on state-of-the-art Fujitsu scanning technology.
Aircraft maintenance, of course, is not just critical for the business – it’s critical for the safety of passengers. Every check or repair must be carried out to the precise manufacturer’s specifications, certified, logged and signed off in granular detail. As Adam Trotter, planning manager at Flybe, says: “We’re regulated by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and every aircraft has to have a complete set of records for every maintenance event performed to ensure integrity and safety are maintained.”
Maintaining the fleet
The airline currently has a fleet of 76 planes, mainly De Havilland Canada Dash 8 Q-400s, all of which have to have a full set of maintenance checks (known as “C checks”) after every 8,000 hours in the air. That’s roughly once every two or three years – and a full C check typically takes 20-30 days. Flybe also has to carry out daily checks on aircraft and ad hoc repairs where a problem is serious enough to ground the plane.
The company has five maintenance bays at its Exeter Airport base in southwest England, and a steady stream of aircraft to maintain throughout the year. When it has the capacity, it also maintains aircraft for third-party customers. “We also have sub-bases at Birmingham, Manchester, Southampton, Edinburgh, Glasgow and various small satellite bases across the network. These pick up the overnight maintenance and any aircraft-on-ground (AOG) requirements,” says Trotter.
The line stations typically have four or five staff carrying out essential checks and light maintenance, while the main Exeter base deploys around 100 engineers per shift who handle the C checks and bigger jobs, such as landing gear and engine replacements, or other inspections that require cabin removal.
When an aircraft comes to Exeter for its periodic C check, Trotter’s department produces a work package consisting of 400-500 task cards which specify requirements for individual checks. “For example, one card might relate to an inspection of the lower wing skin. The engineer will perform that task and then certify the card, which is our proof to the manufacturer and the regulatory authority that we have maintained the aircraft correctly,” he explains.
As part of the process, Flybe is required to keep a scanned copy of all those records and their associated documentation and certificates. This means it has to process around 500 pieces of paper for every C check, often more. Previously, the team would certify all the task cards and then send them to a third-party scanning service to be digitized – a process that took around 30 days and involved the physical transportation of the documents.
In mid-2015, the company decided to trial an in-house scanning solution from document workflow specialist InSite, comprised of the DocuStore document management system and a Fujitsu N7100 scanner located in one of its maintenance bays. A key requirement was that the process of physically scanning the documents should not be onerous for the engineers. That meant the kit needed to be rugged enough to withstand the physical environment of a busy aircraft hangar and capable of quickly handling the various, often fragile, documents that needed to be scanned – without being in any way fiddly, or subject to paper jams.
The N7100 smoothly scans up to 25 double-sided document pages per minute, handling different paper thicknesses with ease, meaning the maintenance team doesn’t have to worry about damaging documents. Its robust build, compact footprint and built-in networking meant it was ideal for the tough physical environment – and there was no need for any additional computer equipment taking up valuable space in the bay.
The scanner automatically encrypts data before transferring it, ensuring the security of sensitive data and easing GDPR compliance. And combined with the powerful DocuStore document management system, which automatically ensures documents are legible, correctly oriented and filed in the right place in the system, Flybe quickly saw the benefits and moved to a full implementation. “After six months, we purchased another five scanners across all of our bays at Exeter and did a full roll-out in early 2016,” says Trotter. “We’ve been using it in earnest ever since.”
At the end of 2017, the company also rolled out a major new maintenance system, AMOS from Swiss-AS, which used task cards of a different format. They tweaked the system to ensure DocuStore could still recognize and file everything correctly, by ensuring unique QR codes were printed on all task cards. “Since then, the division has processed more than 132,000 work orders and task cards through the DocuStore system without any problems,” says Trotter.
Less time, more satisfaction
The most notable difference is the dramatic reduction in the time it takes to sign off all the documentation after a C check and return it to an internal or external customer. Trotter is clear about the advantages: “Previously it took around 30 days to get the work pack back after it had been sent to the scanning company. Now, the physical work pack and scanned copies are returned on average within 24 hours, which is a huge improvement.”
A further benefit of this is increased flying time for aircraft. Airline maintenance operators have a regulatory requirement to ensure all documents are certified, scanned and cleared in accordance with regulations within 30 days of an aircraft being released back to service following completion of maintenance. Previously, the extensive paperwork meant that at the end of a C check, engineers would have to prioritize getting the documents off to the scanning service over releasing the aircraft, to ensure they met the 30-day requirement. This could delay the release of an aircraft from the bay by up to a day, which over the course of a year equates to a fair amount of lost flying time as well as taking up a bay that could be used to service another aircraft.
However, Trotter says the benefit of this increased flying time for aircraft isn’t as commercially significant as the dramatically faster turnaround times for documentation. “Being able to return a work pack and electronic records to a customer within 24 hours of completing the work is rare in our sector and it’s proving a huge selling point. We’re attracting significantly more external customers to use our third-party maintenance services as a direct result,” he says.
The system has also improved staff satisfaction and allowed engineers to concentrate on assuring an aircraft’s airworthiness over stressful admin and paperwork. It has enabled more flexible working too. “Approving documentation can now all be done remotely via a desktop app. For example, a bay manager running checks can access the system and approve documents from anywhere,” says Trotter.
Crucially, the DocuStore system also gives Flybe a full end-to-end audit trail for all maintenance operations. “I can see who’s done what at any point and track them down if there’s ever an issue. And again I can access the full audit trail from anywhere,” says Trotter.
Currently the Flybe sub-bases use photocopiers to scan papers into the DocuStore system. Trotter says that there’s scope to replace these with Fujitsu scanners in the future. There’s also the potential for even more granular reporting to improve strategic business insights. “We use it to measure card closure rates and report on the Docustore rejection numbers every morning at our daily ops meeting. So the next step might be to generate reports that tell us, for instance, who’s closed the most cards in one month. At the moment, though, it’s meeting all our needs,” he says.
Trotter believes Flybe will be in a position to move to fully electronic records at some point, but the complexity and expense of such a change means it’s unlikely to happen for a while. He says: “We don’t currently have 400 iPads lying around to issue to engineers. That’s a major change management project that would involve significant spend and we’re at least two years away from that. There are only one or two airlines in Europe that have gone fully digital, and our current system already puts us well ahead of most of our competitors.”
• In 2020, Flybe will become Virgin Connect, following a buy-out led by Virgin Atlantic.
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