Maintenance Software

 - February 1, 2007, 9:47 AM

In the world of aircraft maintenance software, to say there are options would be an understatement. The gamut ranges from digitally photographing your aircraft logbooks and storing the images for safe keeping to very high end, comprehensive maintenance planning, prediction and record-keeping systems.

Maintenance software can be functionally divided into two categories: “do it yourself” and analyst supported. Steve Zambito has been a programmer for Woodstock, Ga.-based SeaGil Software Co. (www.seagil.com) since the company’s earliest days. He has years of experience with its business aircraft records and tracking software (BART).

Zambito explained that BART is do-it-yourself software. It is a series of integrated software programs designed for use on Windows-based PCs. The BART-4-Windows modules can be stored and accessed with your personal computer or through Intranet and Internet connections. The program also supports wireless technology, making it accessible via cellphone, PDA and other wireless devices.

SeaGil provides buyers with an off-the-shelf software package. The BART software core program costs $4,900 and can track 40 or more different aircraft, though you have to input all the information. Think of it as a spreadsheet program. It has the format and function but there’s no data; that’s what you have to provide. For another $5,000 SeaGil will do that job and then turn it over to you to maintain. From then on it’s up to you to keep it current. BART keeps track of such things as scheduling, log recordkeeping and operation reports, cost tracking and budgeting, maintenance tracking, squawk tracking and inventory/purchasing.

“BART is a real-time maintenance-tracking system you can use anywhere you have your computer because the data is stored in it,” Zambito said. “That also makes you responsible for updating and obtaining Airworthiness Directives, Service Bulletins and so on. You know it was done correctly because you have control. It also gives you the ability to print out logbook entries to put in your own logbooks with official signatures.”

For some, having that level of control is not trivial. One director of maintenance AIN spoke with said he would “never trust anyone to input something as important as an AD note or Service Bulletin into my maintenance software. If some analyst somewhere screws up, my company and I, by name, are still responsible for it.”

BART provides the maintenance-tracking features you would expect. It maintains inspection history, replacement parts and components, overhaul data and so on. It allows the customer to print out reports such as overdue maintenance, forecast maintenance, AD compliance, work orders and a fleet-due report, but it’s worth noting that there’s no system-based trend monitoring or predictive capability. Zambito said that’s in the works for a future version.

Compatibility Issues
Jack Bemeis, president of Continuum Applied Technology (www.corridor.aero) of Austin, Texas, explained the strong point of Continuum’s Corridor software, also a do-it-yourself program. “Let’s say you a have mixed fleet–a Gulfstream and Falcon. Pretty much everyone flying a Gulfstream has it on Gulfstream’s CMP program, but that won’t work with the Falcon so you opt to use the Camp system for it. The problem is that those systems are different, so your mechanics have to learn to use two different software programs.”

Bemeis said the advantage of Corridor is its compatibility. “If you use Corridor, CMP’s record keeping can be loaded into Corridor and you can do the Falcon on Corridor too, so you have one place where you can reference and interact with both,” he said. Corridor can do mixed-fleet cost accounting, inventory and traceability. “While many software packages are primarily maintenance tracking, Corridor also generates work orders,” he said.

When you buy Corridor software you are getting the structure but not the content–for that you have to enter all the data specific to your aircraft and operation. Corridor offers the option of installing the software on your own PC or having it stored by Corridor so you can access it via the Internet. “Corridor is definitely for those who want to control the information themselves,” Bemeis said. One of the key features of Corridor is its modular design. “It is broken into several modules, allowing the user to customize a package that specifically meets their needs,” he said. “Corridor will manage all aspects of aviation service, from work orders to accounting integration and compliance.”

Modules available for Corridor include work orders, line sales and management for FBOs, inventory, rotable management, accounting integration and pricing. The aircraft module tracks the complete history of the aircraft, showing past maintenance, and all transactions relevant to the maintenance of the aircraft. The regulatory-compliance module tracks compliance with SBs, ADs and life-limited components and inspections. It tracks compliance for airframe, engines and propellers. There are also quite a few other modules of interest to FBOs.

Ken Gray, president of Camp Systems (www.campsys.com) of Ronkonkoma, N.Y., explained the value of his company’s analyst-supported maintenance planning, scheduling and resource software. “Most people don’t understand the effort required to keep the aircraft in compliance with manufacturer recommendations and the rules of the airworthiness authority,” he said. “Why would someone spend $6,000 to $9,000 for Camp software when they can buy an Excel spreadsheet for $50 and do it themselves? The answer is there are upwards of 2,000 components on the typical corporate jet and each one has its own schedule, manufacturer’s recommendations and so on. Here at Camp we have dedicated maintenance experts assigned to each type of aircraft and all they do everyday is focus on what’s happening to their specific aircraft type.

“The difference between an expensive and an inexpensive program is the amount of work you agree to take on yourself,” he said. “And I’ll tell you what–if you decide to do it yourself you’re eventually going to miss an AD, AB or something and it will cost you more to do maintenance in the long run when that happens.”

Gray noted, “We’re the oldest in the business; we’ve been around since 1965. We have the expertise and it’s reflected in the numbers.” He said there are approximately 12,000 business aircraft in the U.S. today. Of those, about 3,400 are on Camp. Another 1,500 aircraft are Gulfstreams on that company’s CMP program, which started about the same time as Camp. Another 1,000 aircraft are on Bombardier’s Simms program and about 3,000 on Cessna’s Cesscom. One of Camp’s competitors not on that list agreed that these numbers are probably pretty accurate.

Back on Track
“When you add that up, about 75 percent of the market uses one of those four products,” Gray said. “We all have one thing in common: we provide the data and keep track of what to do. The difference between a logbook, whether it’s electronic or simply paper, and Camp is the difference between being merely historical and being predictive. It’s nice to be able to use a computer to keep a logbook,” he said, referring to the companies that offer only an electronic version of a paper maintenance logbook. “The point is, the real reason for putting records on a computer is the computer’s predictive and planning power.”

Addressing companies that offer a limited analyst-supported program, Gray pointed out that any given airplane is not exactly the same as another of the same model. He stressed that if somebody is keeping track of the latest information on your particular model and downloading it into your software, it might or might not apply to you.

“Take something as common as a generator. There might be more than one generator approved for use in your aircraft. You can’t catch things like that with blanket coverage of a given model,” he explained. “We track down to the individual components of your aircraft and let you know when there are issues about any one of them. We can do that because we have 140 people dedicated to our program. When you buy an off-the-shelf software solution you haven’t bought the people who solve the problems and, believe me, that’s the critical component. The airlines have a raft of full-time employees that do nothing but that.”

Gray stressed that an aircraft owner has five basic responsibilities: safety, compliance, resale value, judicious use of company time and efficient use of capital. “We’re expensive, to be sure, but the Gulfstream program is even more expensive than ours. If you want to talk about cost, then talk about the cost of missing something required.”

After many years of using paper cards to update its records, Camp Systems has now gone to a Web-based system. “You used to send in cards, we’d update the system with them, then we’d send out the paper reports to you. It could take weeks of turnaround time. We had to overnight information to you if you needed it on the road,” Gray said. “Today you can get information instantly, including task cards for service checks, anywhere you have Internet access. That’s what a Web-based system buys you.”

Camp also has a method to index every handwritten word in an aircraft’s existing maintenance log and make it computer searchable. In addition, if you have a borescope photograph, a yellow tag, a video or anything else, Camp can copy it in a file and attach it to the electronic logbook. “Not investing in maintenance-tracking software is a false cost saving,” Gray said. “If you don’t make the investment now, you’re going to pay the price in resale when a prebuy is done.”

Gray said there are four common misconceptions that operators have when it comes to maintenance software. The first is that setting up a maintenance schedule for an aircraft comes from a single document source. Maintenance schedules and inspection requirements come from multiple document sources, such as airframe, engine, APU and propeller manufacturer manuals, as well as appliances, SBs, service letters, engineering orders, ADs and FARs. In some cases, publications contradict one another. Researching them all and entering the data into the software is an enormous job.

The second misconception is that once the maintenance schedule is established, it is fixed. In reality, the work does not stop with the creation of the basic program. There is a constant flow of revisions from all the sources. In addition, SBs and ADs have to be monitored and cross-referenced.

The third misconception Gray spoke of was that all aircraft of a specific model are created equally. Within an aircraft model’s publications are countless variations of maintenance tasks to be performed, as well as the requirements for when those tasks need to be done.

Part numbers play a significant role in determining requirement intervals. For example, a change of one starter/generator can alter the requirement intervals of the three maintenance tasks that have to be performed regularly. If you’re flying a three-engine aircraft, that’s nine intervals that can change.

The last misconception is that you take a part off and you put one on. It sounds simple, but it isn’t.

Consider what needs to be tracked with the replacement of an engine fire bottle:
• Replacement of the fire bottle itself, including part number and serial number recording.
• The hydrostatic check date.
• The weight check date.
• The insulation test.
• Inspection of the powder condition of the three cartridges.
• Record the life limit of the green cartridge.
• Record the installed limit of the green cartridge.
• Record the life limit of the red cartridge.
• Record the installed limit of the red cartridge.
• Record the life limit of the yellow cartridge.
• Record the installed limit of the yellow cartridge.
“Two aircraft each with two engines create 44 items to be accounted for,” Gray said. “So what are you doing in your spare time?” The point he makes is that do-it-yourself software can be a far more daunting task than is initially apparent.

More Than Just an Electronic Logbook
Tim Carr, president and CEO of Logbook Organizer (www.lboinc.com), Sacramento, Calif., claimed his company’s software is very user friendly. “Once you see it you’ll be a believer,” he added. “Yet it still performs all the necessary and expected functions. We even track premature failure of components. We’ll point out when you’re having premature problems with a given component.”

Carr admitted that his company’s name is misleading. “It really doesn’t describe what the system does. We have a complete maintenance-tracking system, not just electronic logbooks,” he said. “What I’m trying to do is network the entire world through the Internet system so anyone using Smart (system maintenance aviation record tracking) will be able to transfer anything between companies, overhaul facilities, manufacturers and owner/operators.”

For example, Carr said Smart has a manufacturer’s module that provides for the OEM to get an aircraft into the system right from the beginning. “OEMs haven’t been very receptive to the idea,” he said. “Many of them have their own software systems but what if, as an operator, you have three different aircraft? Your mechanics have to learn three different systems. Everyone can use this system for all their aircraft.”
Carr did say that some engine OEMs, such as Rolls-Royce, have been talking to him about Smart because they like to be able to track their engines. “Even component manufacturers are showing an interest,” he said. “They see it as a way to keep track of their components out in the field. With Smart, if there was a component-related problem the component manufacturers could immediately locate any unit on any aircraft or in any part depots anywhere.”

Smart is a Web-based aviation maintenance-tracking system that includes an electronic logbook, work orders, tracking of all spares and the ability to assign spares to separate owners. “Our library system includes ADs, SBs, modifications, alerts and inspections,” Carr said. “We get them and then direct them to whatever component you might have that is applicable. We can even attach it to your spares. Once it’s there, it will show up as a “due item” when appropriate. All FAA forms such as the 337, malfunction defect report and service difficulty reports are also in the library.”
One aspect Carr believes is very important is that everything is transferrable. If an airframe is going to another facility for heavy maintenance, the customer can transfer the records to that facility in advance and they can do a maintenance projection on it so parts can be ordered in advance. It’s like handing the facility the paper logbooks, but it doesn’t get access to your company information, only to the records specific to the aircraft itself.

Filling a Void
Rick Heine, president of Flightdocs (www.flightdocs.com) of Babylon, N.Y., said, “We did a tremendous amount of due diligence about three years ago before going into this business. We found that Camp was the industry leader and had a major market share, but it was paper-based. Well, my background is in data management and I’ve also got aviation in my blood, and what we discovered was that in the year 2000 there were no tracking systems out there that did what the industry needed. I thought it odd since I’ve been putting electronic record systems together for years. We found operator/owners and Part 135 guys were using paper-based systems supplemented with Excel spreadsheets, with maintenance manuals all over the place.”

Heine said he knew of a company named DoberDocs that had a comprehensive system for maintenance tracking that also tied in logbooks. “They took actual logbooks, ADs, yellow tags and all, and scanned them into their electronic logbook in a manner that met the nine federal government requirements [see sidebar],” he said. “I felt that DoberDocs lacked a few things, so we bought the rights to the DoberDocs maintenance-tracking software and enhanced it by doing such things as making it Internet accessible. It’s a true Web-based system, not ‘Web enabled.’ The difference is significant because our html-based system allows quick access and quick retrieval and is easier to enhance.”

According to Heine, FlightDocs is a complete maintenance-information system, including current maintenance data, projected data and historical data in one program accessible anywhere in the world via the Internet. “If you can use Internet Explorer, learning to use FlightDocs will take you about 15 minutes,” he said. “Our goal was not to make mechanics change the way they work but to give them a tool to make it more efficient.

“For example, we can give parts-reliability analysis,” he explained. “People have clamored for years they want to know what parts they’re using every year. We track that information so you can negotiate a better deal by telling the dealer you want a volume discount based on a known annual usage rate. And we can tie all our information back to the company’s financial program, making financial budgeting much simpler and more accurate.”

Heine said the company’s analysts are all A&P mechanics, pilots or former FAA inspectors. “It’s important for us to have experts on staff to make sure your maintenance data is handled properly. When we get notified of incoming ADs and SBs, for example, we contact our customers and ask if they want us to enter them in the tracker. We don’t just put it in; we give the customer the option of how to handle it, and then we’ll do what’s appropriate. We’re not simply maintenance tracking; we’re a maintenance-information system.”

Heine also pointed out that FlightDocs is hosted by IBM rather than resident in servers located at the company’s facility. “IBM is pretty much bulletproof,” he said. “When you log into FlightDocs you’re actually logging into IBM’s data center. It’s much better because they know how to keep the system up around the clock and have the security and support to do it.”

Dennis Steinbeck, director of Denver-based Avtrak (www.avtrak.com), also offers an analyst-supported system. “We actively manage a master-compliance database,” he said. Making his case that an analyst-supported system might be a better option for the end-user, he talked about the complexity of tracking dual intervals.

“There are thresholds for when you have to do some inspections, such as every 300 hours or 12 months, whichever comes first. If you’re doing your own data entry in a do-it-yourself program, you have to keep that very straight,” he explained. “Even more complicated are the programs that have tolerances such as every 300 hours, plus or minus 20 hours. Let’s say you go 10 hours over, to 310, before you do the inspection. The trick is you have to remember to set the next due time correctly. It isn’t going to be 300 hours later. The 10 hours you went over doesn’t become the zero point, the next inspection is 290 hours away. It can get complicated, and I think it’s best left to those who do it all the time.”

According to Steinbeck, Dassault has selected Avtrak for tracking newly delivered Falcons. The first two Falcon 2000EXs were delivered to two of Avtrak’s customers. “We’re actively working with Dassault to be able to provide it feedback on parts-reliability data for fleet-analysis purposes,” he said.

Avtrak has three options available. About 60 percent of its customers are enrolled in the bronze program, in which the customer has direct control over the updating of their program. When doing an inspection or any other maintenance, the customer must update the system and can then instantly print out the logbook entry.

About 35 percent of Avtrak’s customers are enrolled in the gold program. Avtrak assigns an analyst to oversee the customer’s aircraft personally. The analyst coordinates the maintenance and then updates the data in the computer system. When customers do something, they fax the documentation to Avtrak and their data is updated.

“It is important to understand that we will not update a system unless we know it has been documented properly as having been done,” Steinbeck said. “That is valuable when it comes to resale because it’s a guarantee that everything has been done as reflected in the logbooks. At the end of the day, the tracking system isn’t what matters; it’s what’s in your logbooks.”

Nine percent of Avtrak’s customers are in the platinum program, in which Avtrak serves as the director of maintenance for the customer’s flight department and coordinates everything. Steinbeck said Avtrak’s prices are 30 to 80 percent less than those of comparable analyst-supported services, depending on the options the customer selects.

Whether you prefer to maintain total control or you believe someone else can do a better, more reliable job of keeping track of all the minute details is largely a matter
of personal opinion. What isn’t is the future of computer-based maintenance systems. They offer options to the user that have never been available before, and they are definitely here to stay.