Aircraft IT MRO – July / August 2020

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Aircraft IT MRO – July / August 2020 Cover

Articles

Name Author
Aviation Maintenance and Covid-19 Allan Bachan, VP, ICF and Arun Navneethakrishnan, Aviation Solution Adviser, Ramco Systems View article
Case Study: Using digital solutions to drive efficiencies at APLUS Wilfredo E. Regalado, Director Corporate Finance, Strategic Planning and Information Technology, Aviation Partnership Philippines (APLUS) View article
Real life essentials in five minute case studies: Recommendations to reduce NFF (No Fault Found) rate Leandro Correa, Senior Vice President, Seabury Solutions View article
Digital processes, e-signatures and ETL/ELB promise better ways of doing business in the post-Covid world Kirk Strutt, Senior Product Manager, IFS and Dan Dutton, VP, R&D, IFS View article
Aircraft IT MRO 2020 survey: COVID-19 and the response of aviation IT developers and vendors John Hancock, Editor, Aircraft IT MRO View article

Aircraft IT MRO 2020 survey: COVID-19 and the response of aviation IT developers and vendors

Author: John Hancock, Editor, Aircraft IT MRO

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A comprehensive review of how the sector is addressing the challenges of a pandemic and how it plans to support airlines and MROs in the future

We know that the COVID-19 pandemic has had more impact on commercial aviation than any other peacetime event. And we know that, in any situation, the more information you can have, the better. So, we surveyed the vendors on the Aircraft IT panel to find out how the pandemic is seen from their and their customers’ point of view as well as what the future might hold. Our survey was divided into three distinct parts in order to first obtain a high-level view of how aviation IT developers and vendors are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and the effects that it is having on the management of aircraft fleets. Then to see how solutions are being used during the COVID crisis and how vendors have adapted and, finally, looking ahead, to consider what will be the future for the aviation technology sector following the COVID crisis.

SECTION 1: HOW IT DEVELOPERS AND VENDORS ARE ASSISTING CUSTOMERS DURING THE COVID-19 CRISIS

In the first part of the survey, we wanted to establish a global understanding of how developers and vendors were responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and its fall-out, citing specific areas of activity. So, we asked whether respondents had made any changes or additions to their solutions such as providing support for remote workers, or special offers or incentives for new or existing customers. We also wanted to know whether developers and vendors felt there is anything airlines or MROs could be doing during this pandemic period with which the vendor’s software and/or solutions might assist them.

Responses have ranged from no activity in this regard to the offer of free services during the duration of the pandemic. But it has been encouraging how many vendors have used the time to not only help their clients in the present pandemic but also to think of the future.

At 2MoRO, for instance, the objective during the COVID crisis has been, “… to maintain the continuity of our services. Even if some customers had to put on hold the projects we worked on, we succeeded in providing efficient services, even if we were not working from the same place. This is due to the efficiency of our IT team for deploying home-office solutions very fast so all the coworkers were able to properly work from home.” And, as well as maintaining service, the firm has also looked to the future, leveraging the situation so that, “… due the slowdown of some of our customers’ activities, we were able to accelerate the creation of an innovative learning tool for aviation maintenance jobs that will be released in a few months.”

Also, looking to the future, Comply365 reminded us that, “As we settle into new routines, tighter more cost-conscious budgeting, and downsized resources, airlines will have to comply with more regulations than ever. When heavily regulated companies downsize, no matter what the reason, this typically triggers increased audit activity by the regulators. They’ll need to be sure no corners are being cut along with staff, and the airlines will be required to demonstrate ongoing compliance with existing and new rules. But audit prep is complex, cumbersome and requires employees across multiple departments to spend months preparing, if not outsourcing with an expensive contractor. That’s why taking our approach of always being audit ready reduces the burden on downsized departments, so employees only have to run a report for an audit, rather than manage their day job and prepare for an audit. Standards and regulations are integrated into the Comply365 platform where manuals are authored and revised, so even when a manual is updated, any standards traced to a part of the manual – or manuals – remains intact.”

Infographic from Comply365

Web Manuals struck a similar note in responding, “The aviation industry has been hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 pandemic and are under a number of financial pressures. Ensuring compliance and safety during this time through up-to-date digital manuals should not be another cost to worry about. This is why Web Manuals will be offering this package for free for the next four months, with no contract obligations. The supporting complimentary training ensures that these customers are fully onboarded and can begin digitizing their documents straight away.”

Image from Web Manuals

Also offering free services to support customers and prospective customers is IDMR Solutions. “as soon as the lockdowns started, our customers started working remotely and closing their offices. Consequently, we wanted to do our part in assisting them in adjusting to the new reality. We started offering InForm’s Minutes of Meetings (MoM) module free of licensing and support charges for at least six months. Working from home has many challenges, especially regarding the management and follow-ups of meetings. Often, minutes are just emailed, attachments are lost, shared links are inactive, and following up tasks are forgotten. InForm’s MoM offers a consolidated solution to help our customers stay proactive during this crisis.” IDMR has also extended payment terms for customers.

As well as offering free training, “In our continuous effort to offer customers remote support, Swiss-AS provides a free of charge Virtual Classroom Training session on AMOS… Our goal is to provide an efficient knowledge transfer session and, for customers who are not familiar with this training method, this may be an ideal opportunity to experience a live classroom session with Swiss-AS… In these difficult times when travel is restricted, Swiss-AS can now support customers with enhanced remote training possibilities beyond e-learning and VCT. The following options have been added to the AMOS training portfolio: Virtual Instructor Led Training – delivering content equivalent to the AMOS classroom training; Virtual On The Job training – delivering customized AMOS content based on customer requirements” Swiss-AS also addressed the issue of parking aircraft, “Though completely unforeseeable, the B737 MAX grounding, which caused the short-/mid-term parking of aircraft, had led to software requirements initiated by AMOS customers triggering the development of new features that made AMOS fit for this [COVID] crisis.

Or…

Screenshots from Swiss-AS

“In addition, the pandemic saw airlines/MRO providers convert passenger aircraft to operate cargo missions. Also in this context, the in-depth functions of AMOS (in particular the Configuration Management module which allows complete control of the individual configuration of each aircraft; as modifications are embodied and aircraft missions adapted it becomes ever more critical to certify, track and report on all changes made) helped AMOS customers to manage complex conversion projects that became urgent from one day to another.”

IFS summed up the current challenge and added a note of positivity, “The commercial aviation sector has felt the full force of COVID-19, with airlines dramatically reducing their operations and some even stopping flying completely. But amidst this industry upheaval, there have been countless examples of airlines turning to innovativeness, ingenuity and a shift in operations to respond to market forces. As a trusted partner to airlines and fleet operators, IFS has helped enable agility in operations through our software solutions.” Those IFS solutions cited included Clock Stoppage, an addition to its core product that targets the current reality of aircraft in storage, “The clock stoppage solution will apply deadline extensions to calendar tasks… to allow postponement of some maintenance program tasks as directed by the aircraft OEM and approved by the operator’s aviation authorities while aircraft are under a storage/parked aircraft program.”

Notwithstanding that some airlines have retired older or less efficient fleets a bit earlier, most aircraft currently parked and even some in storage, will return to duty at some point. Aerostrat has a solution for both ends of the process. “Aerros enabled our customers to quickly reflow and create multiple parking and return to service scenarios, as well as simplify the process of selecting which aircraft are the best options for parking.  It accomplishes this by supporting detailed parking options and simulating the effect of those decisions.

This screenshot, from Aerostrat, is of the interface to set a specific aircraft’s utilization

Customers could also easily pick which aircraft would be the most cost effective to park as Aerros forecasts all maintenance requirements, and their repeats, to the aircraft exit date.” Aerostrat was also another vendor that, “… helped our customers whenever needed.  On the business side, we offered flexible payment options as requested [and] provided complimentary planning services due to reduced workforce. We complimentarily trained new users to cover for when the main users were on leave. Aerostrat also waived evaluation fees for prospective customers so they could quickly make decisions at the peak of the crisis”

The focus on managing aircraft into and out of parking or storage, and maintaining their engineering and regulatory integrity during parking or storage is one that several vendors have addressed. “As a result, from the current situation in aviation,” said EXSYN, “we have reprioritized our development roadmap. We noticed that airlines started to have an increased interest in our Process Automation solutions driven by RPA and we have now also opened our data management technology to lessors as part of aircraft redeliveries / hand-backs. In addition, we provide more knowledge insight into how data analytics can be used to support decision making processes within airlines these days. Think of data supporting decisions on which aircraft to reactivate to support operations and which ones to leave in storage.” EXSYN has also embraced the virtual world, “Due to related travel restrictions most of [our clients’] activities have now shifted to virtual co-operations. To facilitate this, we have our virtual collaboration functions integrated with both MS Teams and Zoom.”

Of course, as well as their clients, vendors are themselves businesses with employees and the responsibilities that entails. Typical in responses to the survey was ATP, “… here at ATP, we enacted our company’s internal emergency readiness protocols for all offices and employees globally. These protocols are designed to keep our employees and their families safe, reduce the risk of exposure to any virus or outbreaks within the company, ensure that service disruptions are limited for our customers, and be a responsible global company in fighting this outbreak.” adding, “We also understand the immense strain this is placing on the aviation industry; one we’ve been proud to be a part of for almost 50 years. We will continue to support our customers within the aviation industry throughout this temporary phase of additional caution and have already begun work on ways to support the industry’s recovery efforts once the storm is over.”

Of course, COVID or not, some things have to continue and Ramco has not allowed the pandemic to hinder its continuing development program. “We have released the latest version 5.8.9 [of our software solution] to the market… The new release also encompasses Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning (AI/ ML) capabilities with production-ready use cases around Discrepancy Reporting & Corrective Action, Frequently Ordered Part Recommendation and Auto Codification among others; thus supporting making an Intelligent Aviation Enterprise Application, a reality.” As well as continuing to develop its products, Ramco does also, “provide support to remote workers. Our support team, spread across the globe, ensures support needs are addressed within the SLA agreed.” and is, “working with our customers and prospects on the best way we can help with recalibrating payments, moving to the managed cloud model and migrating to the latest version.” And, as Ramco concludes, “As organizations are returning to operations, safety and health will take priority over other aspects of business.  Ramco’s touchless entry provides the safety assessment by recognizing face & voice and thermal scanning of temperature.”

Image from Ramco

Ensuring that customers have received the same quality of service during lockdown has been an important part of most respondents’ stories. “Earlier in the year, when it became apparent that many people would at some point have to start working from home,” explained Rusada, “we made preparations for changes in working locations and as a result, it has been business as usual for Rusada’s customers. We have also made changes for our own staff that allow them to work more flexibly from home, so in truth our service levels to customers have been largely unaffected. Many of our implementation projects have continued to progress throughout the pandemic with our Client Services teams using services such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams to train users and configure their ENVISION environments… During this trying time we have made it a priority to be as flexible as we can be with customers, new and existing, especially those that have been hit hard by the pandemic, working with them cooperatively to make sure they come out the other side of this in as strong a position as possible.” concluding, “This period of reduced operations for most would be a good time to look at how all aspects of their business are operating and to perform some general housekeeping. A solution such as ENVISION will provide easy access to the data and key information that will support such an exercise.”

Seabury Solutions has also been thinking about how customers still need to work during the pandemic and how to support safe working environments going forward. “Through our global network of offices,” explained Seabury, “we have been able to provide 24/7 support to all our customers worldwide. Increased training of the system has also been offered remotely to our customers who have required it. Additional tools and applications have been requested by our customers throughout this time such as the Operational Oversight Optimization Tool and MRO Customer App. Shorter implementations, training & support have all been provided remotely, so we can enable our customers to maintain managing their operations efficiently. Using Alkym, airlines and MROs now have the ability to create evaluation programs to assess their employees for fitness to work during the Covid-19 pandemic. Examination checklists can be configured and performed for each employee. Results can be recorded and subsequent follow–up actions can be prescribed.

Employee Evaluation Checklist from Seabury Solutions

Following successful completion of the Covid – 19 evaluation, each employee can have a special authorization attached, to their employee record. The user can then use reports/queries to obtain lists of employees who have successfully passed the evaluation.

Employee Authorization from Seabury Solutions

We have already alluded to the fact that, while some developers have been creating new solutions, others have been developing established solutions but some respondents reminded us that the now popular mobile and web-based structures of many solutions are already well-suited to the demands of what we anticipate will be the post-COVID order. “Since our solutions combine mobile device and web functionality, we didn’t have to change anything to allow customers to use the service once COVID-19 had an impact on normal office work. One day the customers accessed the service from the office – the next from home.” was how Nvable put it, adding, “These are not new features, but they are features that allow airlines to be agile in their response to the recent challenges.”

TrustFlight shared that, “we have tailored our services due to COVID-19 in order for operators to use this time as an opportunity to implement new digital processes as well as identify areas to increase efficiencies and cost savings within their business. With reduced flying programs, now is the perfect opportunity look at implementing Electronic Tech Logs in order to reduce cost and increase efficiency. In order to assist operators, we are providing dedicated implementation support including remote training sessions. We are also offering price reductions to enable operators to start the transition with minimal cost until normal flying resumes.”

There are also vendors already offering solutions that could cope well with the current crisis. “We haven’t made any specific changes to our solution that hadn’t already been planned.” explained Trax, “It is a very comprehensive package, and contains the majority of functionality that an airline/MRO would need. As our application is a pure web-based application – it is very easy for customers to use this remotely – all their employees need is a device with an internet web browser. That could be a tablet, phone, laptop, desktop, or device. eMRO and eMobility have been for remote working since day one (complete mobility).”

Image from Trax

“Airlines will be looking at returning aircraft from lease – our new ‘eContent Control’ software provides a complete facility to assist the Lease Return process – allowing leasing companies to have easy remote access to the data to provide faster verification process. All reports and data needed for the return is easily visible and when the aircraft is ready to go, the Spec2500 records transfer takes care of the immediate data return to the lessor.

Image from Trax

Some airlines have assigned passenger aircraft to freight use, sometimes removing and sometimes retaining the seating. In either case, this has meant a change to the operating rules and regulations and, in turn the operations manuals. As Comply365 put it, “We’ve seen many of our airlines…reconfiguring their passenger aircraft for cargo flights in the midst of COVID-19. Others have conducted special missions to repatriate stranded citizens. In both circumstances, updating your operations manuals is a necessary step in the process.”

Looking to one of the practical aspects of addressing the COVID challenges, Honeywell, “has converted one of its Aerospace production facilities in Phoenix, AZ, and hired 500 people to create 20 million face masks per month.” plus, on a very direct matter, “Honeywell Aerospace has been working with its cargo airline customers to enable them to ramp up their operations: from protective equipment to FMS upgrades, from cockpit connectivity to data analytics predicting mechanical failures early. Air cargo has become an important lifeline as the COVID-19 virus shuts down communities and disrupts supply lines worldwide. Cargo aircraft are rushing medical supplies to hard-hit areas, supplementing food shipments and enabling people to stay safe by shopping from home. Some airlines are flying cargo in their passenger cabins due to the demand. Honeywell plays a key role in keeping cargo aircraft flying, and in recent years it has rolled out upgrades that are paying off now in increased capacity.”

Image from Honeywell

Also, on a practical note, “Nighttime is peak time for cargo flights, so powerful and reliable lights are critical for these aircraft. Honeywell’s LED aircraft lights last longer than traditional bulbs, reducing maintenance costs by up to 70 percent. They also reduce fuel burn because of their lower weight and drag. Lab tests show Honeywell’s lights are also brighter than competing LEDs, increasing the visibility of planes in flight and boosting safety on the ground. Because of this, a major package carrier just chose Honeywell for its fuselage anti-collision lights.”

Ultramain has improved its ULTRAMAIN ELB Mobile which, “fully replaces the paper technical log, cabin log, journey log and damage log, including signatures [and] enables flight crews to easily find accurate fault codes, thereby improving accuracy, reducing trouble shooting and simplifying analysis.”

Looking firmly to the long-term, EmpowerMX has launched, “Touchfree Electronic Task Card (ETC), a contact-less solution for companies that are planning to resume post-pandemic operations. In the new reality, paper-based operations will subject multiple users to physical contact with a paper trail, leading to potential increased spread of COVID-19. The EmpowerMX Touchfree ETC is an elegant, mobile-ready solution that works seamlessly with any existing MRO solution to enable operators on the floor to digitally complete tasks without coming into contact with paper. As a fully integrated digital platform, Touchfree ETC offers engineers and field operators the ability to collaborate with remote support using built-in video technology in mobile devices. It can also record these support calls and permanently save them as part of the aircraft’s records. With many MROs launching drone inspections, Touchfree ETC delivers the ability to stream the drone footage directly into the mobile device and onto the task card, as well as photos taken with hand -held devices. This will allow the MRO organization to maintain a single point of storage for all aircraft maintenance activities. EmpowerMX Touchfree ETC is an industry-first electronic task card solution that helps MRO organizations migrate to digital operations in a very short time. Legacy PDF and images that are currently the norm are rapidly digitized with the Touchfree ETC conversion engine, which then makes all data available for any hand held digital device.

Powered by machine learning and artificial intelligence, Touchfree ETC can auto recognize the correct signatories, where they should sign, and if they are qualified to sign, irrespective of the document format. It can seamlessly deliver any technical document that engineers and field service personnel use today – including forms – through mobile devices and can be executed electronically, enabling a fully digital operation.

SECTION 2: HOW SOLUTIONS ARE BEING USED DURING THE COVID CRISIS AND HOW VENDORS HAVE ADAPTED

Our next group of questions were designed to discover how different vendors are applying their solutions in the current circumstances and how the pandemic has influenced the ways in which they run their businesses. There were six questions in this part.

Question 1: Have you seen increased or reduced usage of your software during the pandemic?

While not all contributors could offer a specific percentage to any variations, most seem to have suffered a fall in the use of their solutions across as wide a range as 10% to 80% for those who had figures. Some of the fall was due to operational changes like, “Increased usage by Administrators but reduced usage due to reduced crew member staffing flights.” and, “To the extent there are fewer transactions being conducted by airlines and MROs, there are fewer transactions tracked in the our software.“ or, “ELB software usage is directly proportional to the number of flights occurring. With the grounding of many aircraft this has reduced the system usage by 80%… but we do have increased usage by Military and Cargo customers.” That last point was reflected in several responses, including, “We are seeing significant reduction (More than 70%) in Line maintenance MRO and Airline operators using our software. Defense MRO, Heli operators in EMS and SAR are unaffected and there is no reduction in usage. With major maintenance 3rd Party MROs the usage has dipped considerably during April / May (approx 50%)” And, encouragingly, some vendors saw increases in sectors or even across the board, depending on their solution. Among increased usage reported, was the impact of the shut-down itself, “aspects of our software are being increasingly used for tasks such as parking planes and storage maintenance programs.” but, for most, the parking and storage programs have led to a reduction in maintenance activity. Typically, “With the storing/parking of aircraft less maintenance activities needed to be planned, executed and followed up.” Some respondents were upbeat about the whole thing either on use of their products, “We haven’t seen a reduction in the usage of our software. On the contrary, we have seen an increase in our Distribution Module (+10%) and our Tech Ops modules (+15%).” and, looking to the broader picture, “We have seen a big increase in the requirements for new software. Many airlines seem to be taking the opportunity of the quiet times to review their existing software products.” That last point is very encouraging.

Question 2: Which modules or aspects of your software applications are being most used during this particular period (the last 2 months prior to the June survey)?

Following on from the previous answers, this one offered some interesting insights albeit that, again, the outcomes varied according to the areas of the sector in which the developer or vendor was most involved. Three of the 17 respondents to this question have seen no change, “The modules that were previously used are still being used to the same degree, just with fewer transactions.” but others have seen changes that relate to the altered circumstances. Several reported that, while MRO production was down, planning has seen an increase. “Planning modules are being used more than those related to production.” and, “Engineering and Planning functions… were customers’ focus in the last two months, since maintenance planning could not proceed as planned in pre-Corona-times, but needed to be adjusted to the short- / mid- /long-term storage of aircraft.” There have also been sectors where MRO activities have increased with one respondent reporting, “Engineering & Maintenance Programs modules usage has increased as Tech Ops teams take advantage of some Flight Ops reduction to work on the aircraft.” while another reported, “We have seen increased activity on maintenance program areas due to obvious reasons for adjusting usage-based event triggers.” and yet another, “We see an increase in cargo-specific functionality as cargo airlines are operating at their full capacity.” Also, “We have seen a rise in questions on certain specific topics (e.g. how to manage the storage/parking of aircraft).” In a signal about the longer-term impact of COVID-19, one respondent reported, “The Lease Return functions seem to be the busiest at the moment. Closely followed by our eMobility products.” Also looking to the future, one respondent told us that, “Forecasting and scenarios” have been their most used software applications.

Question 3: Which of your services are in more demand during this period?

Of the 17 respondents who answered this question, nine mentioned training of one sort or another. One was as simple as, “Training and user support.” while another expanded that to, “Customers that reduced operations requested additional training and consulting.” It seems that many or most are using the enforced downtime to good effect. Another reported that they had received requests, “for refresher training on the existing modules.” and another still, “Demand for our services has remained high, particularly for implementations as customers are taking the opportunity to push on with data loading and training of staff.” Of course, training in the current circumstances cannot always be held on-site and so, as one respondent put it, “with the lockdown we now use a combination of video conferencing, email and instant messaging and this has proved very effective.” Also, “Virtual Classroom sessions on specific topics… [plus] e-Learning on all topics, and online consulting sessions (in the context of running implementation projects).” Are being run by one respondent who continued to add, “VILT (Virtual Instructor Led Training) – a new concept was required to ensure the continued delivery of training primarily for ongoing implementation projects. This has proven to be effective and successful with a positive response from the participants.” Training is really looking to the future as the response, “We have seen an increase in the number of operators using this period to better plan new roll-outs by increasing training and working on process changes,” suggests IT developers and vendors are being inventive. Other services in demand have included, “implementation and data management services”, “Support services… to ensure we help customers maintain and shift their aircraft fleet maintenance planning in accordance with a disruption in business as usual” and, “Customers are also leveraging this opportunity to move the latest version of our software [as well as make] requests on the possibility of moving on premises infrastructure to fully cloud hosted and managed models.”

Question 4: How has the COVID-19 experience altered your product plan?

While this question also attracted 17 responses, they were very lengthy, too long to be reproduced here in full. Eight or so respondents said there were no changes planned. The ‘or so’ is because some said no change, only to then list what they were doing, some of which was expected to change to reflect changing times. So, typical responses included, “Our product plan has not changed. We expedited features that would now be more useful to customers and delayed our growth plan due to lower customer acquisition.” or, “Our product plan has changed very little. Implementation of our products increases efficiency by enabling fewer people to do more. Our model fits with anticipated downturns in staffing but heavy demands on dynamic requirements for frontline employees.” and, “It hasn’t altered it as such. Our plan is to allow airlines to adopt our solutions increasingly on a self-serve basis. This year we have introduced a full remote windows deployment solution (where an airline merely needs to sign in to the service to enable the device to be completely managed as part of our solution – allowing a truly flexible deployment experience worldwide whilst allows airlines to retain control.)”

Some have not changed yet but are planning to do so; such as, “We are awaiting the feedback from our customer advisory board members. We do expect there will be accelerated focus on remote collaboration, Digitization, and resource optimization areas.” Others are embracing change, “We see this as an opportunity to invest and move our product forward more quickly and aggressively. The industry is going to change, and suppliers will need to be more efficient to meet these changes.” while others still were already in a change or development process, “the Covid-19 crisis and its immediate need to avoid contact via paper trails and the use of shared computers falls in line with the development focus over the last years. Many MRO software solution providers… have identified business areas where digital processes instead of paper-based processes will ultimately increase the efficiency of maintenance operations.” In a similar vein, one respondent replied, “Well before COVID our product plan was to be able to provide fully paperless software, which we did. All of our implementations are paperless ops implementations. We expect to see an increase in market demand for paperless systems…”

To summarize, IT developers and vendors are not all rushing to change but are all aware that developments over the coming months will require them to review their product plans and be prepared to change them were necessary.

Question 5: Most businesses globally have announced some reduction in staffing and size. Are you seeing the same in the software space? Is your company making any adjustments?

Responses to this question ranged right across the field from, “Yes the impact is felt is our Industry as well. As a company we have reduced significantly discretional spending and staff optimization as well.” to, “No, we continue to add staff worldwide.” with most options in between. One respondent told us that, “Staff hours have been reduced by 20%.” While another explained, “No staffing adjustments are required of us at this time.” One respondent, “did not reduce our headcount, but did cut our hiring plan by 75%.” which seems a sensible position and is shared by another respondent, “… we are not reducing staff. We have put a pause on hiring in Q2 but that’s it.“ Where possible, some vendors have put staff on furlough while others are having more staff work from home. One respondent reported that, “To date, no adjustments have been made in terms of staff reduction though currently around 20% of the staff (in particular those involved in implementation projects that had been put on hold) work short-time. We will constantly monitor the evolution of the pandemic and its consequences on the industry.” That cautious approach, as we’ve already said, seems sensible. Encouragingly, three respondents are continuing to hire during the pandemic… “We have actually still been hiring throughout this period, both in our software development and implementation teams.” and, “we have a constant growth that is likely to continue in the future.” to, “ [We] have taken on extra staff during Q2/2020.” So, it seems that, while not unaffected by the pandemic, aviation IT is not badly damaged by it either.

Question 6: Please share with us any additional thoughts you have regarding the use of your solutions at this time.

The responses to this question again varied making it difficult to identify a theme. One, identifying one of the challenges, explained, “We still have a double difficulty to overpass during this crisis: we cannot implement our solutions on site to our customers, so it delays some of our contracts.” On the other side of the coin, another answered, “This period still represents a unique opportunity to implement process improvements and new technologies where both the regulators are receptive and also there is less risk in implementing these changes due to reduced flying.” Both are correct inasmuch as that times like this do generate both challenges and opportunities. Another challenge was identified as, “The increased difficulty will be to have rock solid business cases for airlines in order to have department managers get approval for the required financial spend.” while another opportunity is seen as, “This COVID-19 crisis has led to some airlines realizing that the expensive IT infrastructure that underpins their aircraft maintenance is simply not agile and flexible enough to support drastic market changes. This could lead to more consideration of displacing legacy systems.” Again, both valid and not at all incompatible. Also looking to the opportunities, “We have long believed that technology has an important part to play in allowing airlines to operate flexibly and allow them to achieve more with fewer resources. Our solutions deliver that. The recent challenges have sharpened the focus on how important those two attributes are for any organization.” Some responses were prosaically practical and there’s nothing wrong with that. “Being a Multiproduct company has given a level of flexibility that allowed us to diversify where needed.” or, from another respondent, “Not only is it more efficient to go paperless, but it is safer and healthier.”

Three respondents looked to the future and realized that aviation will still be around. “The aviation industry will still exist post COVID so software that supports the industry will still be needed. We see a greater demand for systems that support paperless operations, which is all we provide, and COVID will only accelerate that trend.” was one response, while another reminded us that, “MRO solutions are a critical part of the airline operation – even up to the point of returning aircraft – so it is important to keep the services available to customers as and when they need them.” However, perhaps we’ll leave the last word to the respondent who said, “As someone smarter said, Aircraft will continue to fly, that’s what they are designed to do. They might be in different structures (airlines) but they will surely continue to fly. So, solutions which help with optimizing operations – flight/maintenance – will continue to be relevant. We don’t see this as something that reverses trends towards more data and analytics, on the contrary, data and analytics are now seen as something that could “save the world.”

SECTION 3: WHAT WILL BE THE FUTURE FOR THE AVIATION TECHNOLOGY SECTOR FOLLOWING THE COVID CRISIS?

In this section, we wanted to discover some very practical ideas about what the future holds for aviation IT following the current crisis, yes, but also in broader terms. This is a fast moving, nimble and agile sector, so it is not unexpected that developers and vendors in the sector would be able to come up with some great and inciteful responses to this question. As with section one, the material relates to each responding vendor’s field of capability and so each was telling us about how they see the future in terms of their own product range.

As we’ve seen in the previous sections, a number of respondents made the distinction between getting through COVID-19, the adoption of technologies, solutions and processes that will address the issues that this pandemic has raised and the longer-term business imperatives.

Question 1: Will technology need to adapt to meet a new industry post-COVID? For example, do you think touchless interfaces, such as voice interactive functions, will be a focus moving forward?

Everybody responded to this in one degree or another. Honeywell supplied the perfect introduction, “Everything that increases passenger confidence will have to be treated as top priority – from facemasks, to interactions with crew, to boarding procedures (slowed down not to overwhelm ECS for example).” And, of course, the aviation sector as well as aviation IT is, to use the current argot, ‘on it’. There is already a strong focus on paperless and, increasingly, touchless technologies and solutions. As Ultramain put it, “yes, we expect to see technology respond and adapt to COVID. Touchless interfaces will be desirable, no doubt. But even without them, operating with paperless systems where individuals are issued their own mobile devices to use provides an increased level of protection to individual workers.” But there are still some hurdles to be overcome. As Swiss-AS explained, “Whether voice interactive functions are a reliable option in a noisy working environment like the hangar needs to be proven.” This point was also mentioned by Ramco, “Technology needs to adopt and deliver the results in actual operating environments. For example, the ability of voice interactive functions [to function] in a noisy environment and the ability [of those functions] to understand the aviation specific language during conversations.”

There was a frequently voiced theme, albeit from different points of view. Nvable, “Technology will place an increasingly important role in helping organizations operate flexibility, safely and whilst controlling their costs. Strategically this will remain important as fleets return to service and the world cautiously opens up.  This may involve new monitoring of COVID-19 related data (such as passenger test statuses and staff test results) but will also involve the wider adoption of non-Covid related solutions that just improve processes because the priorities have shifted.” and IFS, “COVID-19 and the subsequent social distancing measures are highlighting the importance of technology that can help facilitate tasks such as remote assistance and remote inspections. We see technology that can aid in collaboration, streamline processes, and create business efficiencies being a focus now and moving forward.” So, a mixed bag but all tending to the view that, while the post-COVID world might be different, the sector is equipped to step up to the plate.

Question 2: It is said that this era is an opportunity to accelerate digital transformations rather than slow them down. Do you share that sentiment?

Respondents to the survey generally shared the sentiment. Typical was 2MoRO, “Yes, at our level, as we can’t implement our solutions to our customers, we are able to re-prioritize some of our developments, and for example favor software technological improvements rather than new software functionalities.” Some respondents not only agree but also saw the acceleration as inevitable. IDMR Solutions explained, “We do not doubt that. Digital transformation was ineluctable within the modernization of the aviation industry. Now, it has become increasingly imperative. Until recently, it was difficult for some decision-makers to clearly outline an ROI on digitalization (imagine having to give an ROI on using emails in 1994). This crisis proves that paperless solutions are more hygienic. Thus, the ROI becomes evident when we combine business efficiency with health benefits.” That sense of inevitability born of necessity is echoed by IFS, “We agree that digital transformation is very much a trend for the commercial aviation market. The goal for commercial airlines is to keep customers happy, so ensuring flight delays and cancellations are at a minimum is paramount. But when you consider the number of aircraft airlines have within their fleets – and the variety of models – when mistakes surface, finding out why can be a complex challenge. This is where Artificial Intelligence (AI) in predictive maintenance will be vital.  AI technology has the capability to streamline the time-consuming task of ingesting, aggregating and analyzing raw data transmitted from aircraft.” In fact, a number of respondents noted the drivers of change as well as the trend. EXSYN added, “Yes. Cost savings on airline expenditure will fast track digital transformation of processes. Simultaneously it will weed out any solutions/providers that are not able to deliver this to airlines. [There will be] less acceptance within airlines for nice marketing stories but lacking functionality.” Also considering the drivers of change was Seabury Solutions, “The only way to produce changes in such a short notice as we’ve experienced during this Covid-19 is when all the data is digitally available , processes are digitalized and management understands the value of the availability of data in a digital format to produce significant changes in order to diversify the source of income.” Well, we’ve often spoken of the opportunities that accompany challenges and, it seems, that is the case here.

Question 3: We are all operating in a somewhat virtual world today. The general consensus is that some of this will be normalized and is here to stay. What would you say are the virtual tools in your software or processes and do you think these will be more widely used once the industry emerges from the crisis?

Respondents were generally bullish on this one. Typically, and as a very confident opener, Comply365 told us, “The interesting thing about the Comply365 solution is it is built ground up to support a global, mobile workforce. While other companies are racing to make their solutions adapt to the current environment, our solution is already there. We are seeing more companies find new ways to leverage our platform. Collaboration is built in. Mobile distribution is built in. Global availability is built in. Also, with the increase of usage, our robust platform has proven dependable and reliable.” This was echoed in Rusada’s contribution, “We expect that ENVISION’s mobile applications and user-specific portals will be heavily utilized going forward as many forms of information, such as tasks, directives and feedback, can be communicated virtually rather than in-person. These will reduce the need for physical interactions in the workplace and allow for a more efficient environment.” It was the same with Ramco, “Ramco Aviation solution’s Mechanic anywhere has full-fledged remote collaboration capability. The mechanic on the ramp can chat over voice or video, attach any photos or documents, leverage white boarding function to highlight key points. This paves way for technical support and engineering team to provide required guidance over remotely. As all the data and information is being exchanged over the framework of the application data are stored and can be audited from regulatory compliance standpoint.”

Image supplied by Ramco

IFS’s response took a similar line, “Prior to this pandemic the commercial aviation industry was already operating on razor-thin margins, so we feel that solutions that can bring about more efficiencies, reduce operational spending and increase maintenance savings will be adopted in the long term. For example, airlines will continue to look at maximizing their aircraft turnaround efficiencies, and the adoption of solutions such as IFS Maintenix eLogbook that help foster a connected workforce between pilots and maintenance technicians while reducing paper-based processes will continue to increase.” Ultramain did not dissent from the consensus, “We agree with the general consensus. Virtual tools provided and used in our software start with the fact our software is fully paperless allowing individuals to record and share data in real time. With respect to implementing our software, we have shifted to providing more implementation support remotely using collaboration tools, video training, and cutover support. In fact, we recently saw our first implementation go-live with no onsite support by our staff. It was all provided remotely.”

Question 4: Do you believe that there will now be faster adoption of paperless, e-signatures, and other digital methods for execution?

For this question, it was Conduce who supplied the introduction, “The adoption of paperless e-authorization is moving from a stream to a river and will continue to be expanded in all industries, the current Covid-19 situation is not a significant factor to its expansion.” Offering a similar overview, TrustFlight opined, “Yes, for two reasons: Firstly, as more transactions happen remotely the need for alternate means of signing off/authentication increases. This is true for both remote maintenance sign offs as it is for digital execution of aircraft registration or purchase transactions. Secondly, as regulators have had to adapt to the new world, they are favouring systems which allow for greater oversight and ability to audit without requiring physical presence.” IDMR Solutions responded in a similar vein, “Paperless initiatives were in place pre-Covid, now with the need to physically touch fewer shared objects, work remotely, collaborate online, and still require to provide services, paperless is imperative. Removing the paper format, handled by hundreds of individuals across an organization, stops or slows the spread of a virus, and potentially saves lives. AS well as the need to be touchless, there will also be drivers in the tectonic changes COVID-19 has brought about in the sector. As Rusada put it to our survey, “Yes we do, and particularly for MRO’s, as any contraction in airline fleets will likely be at the expense of older generation, maintenance intensive aircraft. This will add pressure to what was already a very competitive marketplace. To survive, MRO’s will need to accelerate efforts to introduce any measure which will improve their efficiency. ENVISION has already assisted many customers in transitioning to paperless processes and the use of e-signatures for sign-off.

Comply365 came from a slightly different direction but with a similar response, “The adoption rate of new technology is generally tied to a definitive return on the investment. With the financial situation the industry is in, non-essential technology will go by the wayside. Technology that is required for compliance and safety or that helps airlines maintain or increase efficiency without adding headcount will get attention. The success of new technologies that support remote productivity will also be predicated on the ability of aviation regulatory agencies to modernize archaic regulations with provisions for digital execution of required tasks.” Again, while the overall view is in line with the consensus, Ultramain offers another slant, “Yes, for a couple of reasons. One is, it was trending that way before COVID. Another is, that trend will only be accelerated by COVID because paperless operations means operating in a safer work environment.  Mobile devices can much more easily be sanitized upon check in / check out than paper records, which must be used by multiple people.”

Question 5: Do you believe that business analytics, machine learning and artificial intelligence tools will become more pressing and prevalent?

The introductory response here comes from Nvable, “They [business analytics, machine learning and artificial intelligence tools] will become more prevalent but not necessarily due to Covid-19. Aviation has a lot of scope to improve its use of data (particularly in the maintenance side) and the tools of analytics, machine learning and AI will be used as organizations properly engage with deriving value from the data they already have.” A lot of responses coalesced around the reality that business analytics, machine learning and artificial intelligence tools were already growing in prevalence before the COVID-19 issue. But that’s not to say that COVID has not has an effect. Swiss-AS offered a cautionary response, “… competition after this crisis will be fiercer than before.  With the debts aviation companies have accumulated in order to survive this crisis, the need to increase efficiency by saving money wherever possible will be a top-priority. Airlines / MRO providers in survival mode – with only the leanest and financially soundest able to survive on a long-term basis – might not primarily focus on ML or AI or data analytics topics.” Also, in a more cautionary tone, Seabury Solutions, “In the field of aircraft maintenance education, interest in augmented reality and virtual reality is growing. This technology allows trainees to participate more actively in training and to better understand how the aircraft system works, which makes it easier to apply the training to the field. However, in order to apply virtual reality and augmented reality technologies to the field of aviation maintenance, it is necessary to research restrictions and accreditation related to certification and regulation.”

Aerostrat confirmed, “Yes, airlines will need to be more agile to adjust to the fluctuations in demand.  Additionally, as fleets return, there will be more pressure to grow fleets without the addition of headcount requiring process optimization and automation,” adding, “that way there will be less swapping of paper.  Technicians could use one device the entire shift, preventing the spread.”

Question 6: Please share with us any additional thoughts on the post-COVID aviation technology landscape and how your solutions can assist your customers and future customers.

This ‘blue sky’ section garnered far more responses than we have space for so we’ve included a few but readers can be sure that all respondents offered some super insights. Because it’s an open topic, there was less of a theme than with some other questions. 2MoRO can open proceedings with, “During the crisis, we accelerated the launch of an innovative tool, training and skills follow-up oriented for aviation maintenance job.” Conduce also kept a product focus as invited, “Conduce expect that the airline market will substantially shrink, maybe by 50% in the next 2 years. In the Airline world it will be a case of “Survival of the fittest” and only the strongest players will get through this. The most efficient airlines with effective electronic systems such as ELB in place are more likely to succeed.” Looking at the broader picture, EXSYN added, “Voluntary leave redundancy packages at airlines will drive out older generations of staff, increasing the willingness for widescale digital technology adoption with younger generations of engineers. High upfront license fees (capital expenditure) will not be tolerated anymore. Airlines will seek to lease digital technology on a monthly fee basis.” Also looking more widely, TrustFlight suggested, “The biggest change will actually be in the environment in which we operate. This is in two main ways: Covid has forced organisations to react quickly implementing new processes and systems through remote working etc. This demonstrated an ability for both regulators and organisations to move quickly and should accelerate the adoption of technology which was already happening; and during recovery of the industry we are likely to see new carriers starting to emerge and as new operations, these will likely adopt new technologies from the outset reducing the barriers to change that existing carriers have.”  

Some respondents, like Honeywell, are working on several fronts, “We are currently working in three directions: helping cargo airlines connect the world with mission critical supplies, goods, etc.; clean air initiative – help passenger airlines restore passenger confidence in air travel: from face masks to ECS health checks; and to accelerate Data – connectivity is needed not only to be able to react faster (pilots, crew, mechanics, etc.) but also because of passenger expectations, and the speed of changes as a result of the crisis.

But let’s take the closing comment from Ultramain, “Our solutions support fully paperless operations where real time visibility is provided of what’s happening as people do their work. This allows everyone to know what they need to know when they need to know it. Full paperless ops allow a safer working environment with respect to viruses such as SAR 2 and the resulting COVID 19 impact to humans. This unfortunate new world we are all having to adjust to will accelerate the end of the use of paper.”

SUMMARY

One of the astonishing things about this survey was just how much vendors had already clearly been considering the subject of the COVID-19 pandemic, its impact and its aftermath, and how willing they were to share that thinking with our readers. Even within the very large space we have allocated for this survey, we have still had to exercise some editorial control but we believe that the information used has been representative of most or all streams of opinion on each subject. It has reminded us, as if we needed reminding, what a far seeing, innovative and resourceful sector it is in which we work.

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