System speeds aircraft maintenance

Adding technology to its scope of competencies, Air Canada has jointly developed a wireless e-Toolbox system with IBM.

The e-Toolbox has been designed to facilitate aircraft maintenance by providing wireless access to electronic documents and the Air Canada maintenance systems to the airline’s line mechanics. Line mechanics are in charge of repairing and servicing aircraft between flights and at the end of the day. They are responsible for quick fix items such as tire changes and audio system adjustments – tasks that often require trips between the aircraft and the shop.

Because any time delays could negatively affect flight schedules and impact Air Canada’s customers, the line mechanics are under pressure to complete their jobs quickly and efficiently. According to Alice Keung, Air Canada’s Montreal-based CIO, e-Toolbox helps to solve this problem.

“Our parties that provide maintenance are under increasing operating pressure. Airlines are under scrutiny to provide on-time performance, and with aircrafts running on tight schedules, there are shorter times for mechanics to do their job,” Keung said.

The e-Toolbox allows the maintenance staff to complete their tasks in a quicker timeframe while maintaining a rigid focus on safety.

Lois Brown-Saint Surin, innovations services principal with IBM for Air Canada in Montreal, said that the development team worked closely with line maintenance staff in order to ensure that the applications within the e-Toolbox made sense.

“We wanted to figure out how we could leverage technological innovation on behalf of the maintenance crew to help them from a productivity standpoint, and give them everything that they needed at their fingertips,” she said.

With the e-Toolbox system, the line maintenance workers are able to source information necessary to complete their tasks without having to leave the plane. This includes information such as maintenance and troubleshooting manuals, parts availability and arrival and departure data.

The system works on a ruggedized laptop computer, which has been beefed up to withstand Canada’s cold and snow. Some laptops have been mounted in trucks, turning them into mobile offices. Others are carried onto the aircraft, hangar or gate and are able to access information via an IBM HTTP Server into a Web portal and then delivered over a secure 802.11b wireless LAN.

Because the line maintenance staff range in skill and comfort levels when it comes to technology, a short learning curve was mandatory. According to Brown-Saint Surin, the acceptance of the technology by the staff was beyond expectation.

“They soaked it up. The average learning time for the system was 10 minutes – they loved it,” she said.

Keung said the staff was so excited about using the wireless solution that they continued using it once the pilot project was finished with.

“They didn’t want to return the device or stop using the solution,” Keung said. “It was fascinating to see how excited they got.”

The test period enabled Air Canada to determine whether or not this was a viable business case, and according to feedback it seems as though it was. The pilot project took place over one month at Montreal’s Dorval Airport for Air Canada’s A320 fleet, and the company is currently considering implementing the e-Toolbox on a permanent basis.

According to Keung, Air Canada is also looking at ways to expand the e-Toolbox concept within and outside of the company. Other areas within Air Canada that could benefit from the solution are engine maintenance, logistics and heavy maintenance, she said.

“We are also looking to market the solution to other airlines,” Keung said.

The e-Toolbox system came out of a commitment between Air Canada and IBM to innovate technology use within the airline industry. Other endeavours between the two organizations has been the development of the wireless mobile kiosk for Air Canada, which is now being marketed to other airlines.

“Innovation is important to Air Canada. They’re in a leadership position in areas like the wireless and common use kiosks, which are being marketed to other airlines, and now they’re in a leadership position with this,” Brown-Saint Surin said.