Ever been delayed in an airport because of mechanical problems? We were, over the Thanksgiving holiday. Not all that unusual, I’ll admit, what was interesting about this particular delay was, as the night wore on and the delay grew from an hour to two hours to three and a half, to the cancellation of the flight altogether, to the reinstatement of the flight some four hours late, some systems the airline had worked really well. And some did not. For example, the automated updates to my phone worked flawlessly, better, in fact, than the communication between the mechanics working on the problem and the gate agents not more than 50 feet away from each other. The system that failed was the one the airline uses to manage its spare parts.
When the mechanics finally decided to cancel the flight, they had come to the conclusion that the part they had installed was not going to work, and that a new part was needed, and that part was over 400 miles away in Phoenix. Now, when the airline was facing a canceled flight and was looking at putting up 140 passengers in hotels and paying for meals and a transfer back and forth to the hotel, I figured the damage at roughly $150 per person. That comes to a little over $20,000. Not to mention the loss of future revenue from those unhappy and unforgiving souls we would have sworn never to fly on that particular airline again, at least for a few months. Or the eventual cost of all the bad PR every single one of those people was going to generate when they told their story around the Thanksgiving table. This also doesn’t count the four hours six mechanics and three gate agents spent “consulting” over how to handle the situation. Now, I don’t know what that part cost, but I’ll bet it was a lot less than that sum total.
What could the airline have done differently? For starters, they could have put a predictive maintenance system in place to alert them to the fact that this particular part was going, and needed to be replaced. Such a system would have flagged this part for inspection and replacement before it became a surprise that caused a four-hour delay, and nearly a cancelled flight. That predictive maintenance system, having flagged the offending part, could have also notified the ERP system to have the part on hand, and not at another airport 400 miles away. Parts with a similar life cycle profile would also be identified so that whatever maintenance is performed can be done in the most efficient manner.
As with most industries, it all boils down to a cost vs. risk trade-off. The airlines (and the aerospace industry in general) have high costs because they’re willing to pay for quality, and they can’t really afford to have any risk. But the way they deal with risk often time adds to their costs. Understanding the true long term durability of their parts, and planning accordingly is one way they could reduce their maintenance costs, while still providing a safe, reliable product. But that means they have to change their thinking about no that there are no such things as “spare” parts, only essential ones.
— Frank Priscaro