The product support team at Airbus Helicopters has seen the future, and it is all-digital. “We’re making a big shift to a more electronic business model,” said Darren Huski, e-commerce trainer at the company’s U.S. division in Grand Prairie, Texas. Now 79 percent of parts orders are done electronically, through the Airbus Keycopter customer portal, which is available at any time for parts quoting, ordering and tracking and contains other tools to help customers manage their operations.
To help operators use Keycopter more efficiently, Airbus has redesigned the tools as mobile apps, targeting tablet and smartphone users. This includes making all maintenance documents available as Adobe PDFs, which can be stored in the portable device and carried to the aircraft. Updates are much easier, too, and can be done anytime the device is connected to the Internet, with no need for a dedicated company librarian to keep massive volumes of paper manuals up to date.
“We see the future being more app-based,” Huski said. So far, Airbus has fielded eight mobile device apps, for maintenance manuals (Orion), flight logs and logbook (FleetKeeper), weight-and-balance, etc. These apps are already approved in Europe, and Airbus is working on regulatory approvals for North America operators.
Going digital is much more than just providing apps to customers, explained Anthony Baker, vice-president of customer support North Americas. With more customers interacting online with Airbus Helicopters, the company has been able to capture huge amounts of data on customer experiences.
The company hired a data specialist to analyze customer data to find opportunities to make improvements. For example, bird strikes are a constant problem for helicopters, and the analysis showed that one operator had dramatically lowered its bird strike incidents, down to zero. It turned out that this operator had installed Precise Flight’s Pulselite system on its fleet, and this proved effective at warning birds away. Now, Pulselite is certified for 67 Airbus helicopter models.
Airbus is applying data analysis to other areas as well, such as time limits on critical components, which could either be extended or lowered, depending on results of the analysis. In one case, the power-by-the-hour rates for the H125, H130, H135 and H145 were lowered by up to 25 percent and by a full 25 percent for new helicopters during the warranty period. In another case, an expensive and time-consuming 12-year inspection on the H130 was eliminated. The focus is on improving availability for operators. “How we see that data collection is that it improves safety, availability and cost of operation,” Baker said. Another advantage is that Airbus is able to better forecast customer needs.
As part of its HCare technical support and services initiative, which was launched in 2015, Airbus has also invested heavily in spares supplies, adding $3 million in December to its now $144 million inventory at DFW Airport in Dallas. “We’re making a lot of investments in materials and people, Baker said. “For us, it’s worth it.” This includes adding more customer support managers (CSMs) based in Grand Prairie, with customer service representatives backing them up and assigned to particular regions. CSMs also spend time visiting customer locations. “The CSM is the customer voice into the company,” he said, and also works closely with sales managers to make sure customers are satisfied.
HCare includes HCare Infinite fleet availability services; HCare Smart by-the-hour services (ranging from full nose-to-tail coverage to component-, exchange- and repair-by-the-hour); and HCare Easy catalog services such as Easy Repair service commitments and Easy Exchange component pools to ensure availability. Some of these services include penalties that Airbus pays for not meeting commitments to customers. “In the past we had lots of complaints about parts availability,” Baker admitted. “Not anymore.”
Customers with existing aircraft can now buy into HCare Smart at reduced rates for the H135 and H145 and with no buy-in for the H125 and H130. The annual flight-hour requirement was lowered to 100 hours from 150 hours, which makes the program more attractive to corporate operators that don’t fly as often as commercial operations.
Collecting data in the future will become easier for Airbus, with a health and usage monitoring system (HUMS) in the works and scheduled for certification in 2017 on the H145.
Airbus in 2016 split up MRO responsibilities between its operations in Canada (Fort Erie, Ontario) and the U.S. The Grand Prairie facility services gearboxes and larger helicopters, including the H135, H145 and AS365 models, while Canada specializes in the AS350, H120 and H130.
For Airbus-authorized service centers, the company is working with seven to 10 premium facilities that can offer a white-glove service to customers. The premium service centers chosen are already training for the new offering. “We want to make sure they represent the Airbus brand,” Baker said.
Last year, Airbus launched a service center board that evaluates and monitors new service centers, instead of just leaving it to the service center manager. The board includes Baker and executives from sales, training, finance and quality. It not only approves new service center applicants based on a specific set of criteria, but also examines centers that aren’t performing up the expected quality levels.
Airbus customers can now monitor the response to their problems by tapping into the technical inquiry system that runs in the Airbus command center in Grand Prairie. Here, CSMs work from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. (and on call the rest of the time) handling out-of-service reports, tracking orders and helping return AOG helicopters to the sky quickly. Another team in Canada also provides similar services. Technical experts are seated next to the command center and work with the CSMs to solve customer problems, although some of the tech reps are based in the field, as well. A big part of the command center operation is, again, using data to improve support. By analyzing fleet availability, explained director of technical support Larry Huntley, “we share that with the customer so we can improve. It’s not just fixing an AOG, but figuring out how it fits into the big picture.” In the past, although the team hustled to deliver a part to a customer, there was no deep analysis of why that part failed, nor an effort to eliminate that failure. But that has changed, and now such situations are analyzed and improved.
“We still have a long way to go,” Baker concluded. “Support never ends.”