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CASE STUDY: Virgin Atlantic uses an electronic record system for lease requirements and returns
Author: Lee Butterfield, Head of Aircraft Programmes and Asset Management, Virgin AtlanticSubscribe
Lee Butterfield, Head of Aircraft Programmes and Asset Management at Virgin Atlantic explains how a digital records system has brought efficiency to M&E and has made lease returns so much easier
As with any case study, readers will first want to know something about the subject of the study. In this case, is the airline Virgin Atlantic, a medium sized transatlantic carrier that has been flying for nearly forty years. The fleet of 41 aircraft includes a mix of Rolls-Royce powered Boeing 787, and Airbus A330 and A350 types; and they all have individual ship-names. It is also the youngest fleet in the Transatlantic market with an average aircraft age of 6.2 years: apart from a few CEO aircraft which are being phased out, our aircraft are predominantly next generation which are more efficient. We also flew the first 100 percent, no blend, Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) transatlantic flight in November 2023 with a Boeing 787. The main base of operations is Heathrow Airport from where the airline serves destinations across the USA as well as the Far East and Middle East, a broad range of destinations.
Virgin Atlantic has had a great and valued business relationship with flydocs right from the software developer’s inception in 2007 to where flydocs is today, using the platform for storage of all of our electronic documents, for lease return transactions where our lessors also interact with the product. Using the flydocs application has really aided the smooth return of our aircraft with all aircraft going back on time and all user queries answered in detail. We’ve also been part of the ongoing development of the solution; when flydocs have been trialing new systems or improvements to applications, Virgin Atlantic has helped on the testing journey and helped to embed those as well.
We renewed the contract with flydocs three years ago and also the involvement of Lufthansa Technik, and can say that we like the people at flydocs and find the business easy to work with.
HANDLING DOCUMENTS BEFORE FLYDOCS
Prior to the implementation of flydocs, record keeping at Virgin Atlantic was all manual; our records consisted of the paper dirty fingerprint copies only and many of the boxes were held in a safe facility. Demonstrating compliance was very challenging, with trying to retrieve specific records both time consuming and costly. Because of that, preparation for lease hand back needed to start many months out.
As an example, looking at the Boeing 747s that we returned during Covid; after twenty years of service, the paper records for those aircraft amounted to about ten tonnes of paper going back with the aircraft to the owners. Utilizing the flydocs platform those paper records were scanned into flydocs making them accessible through the desktop. But the lessor still needed the paper records at return and the actual paper was shipped back to the lessor by sea in shipping-containers. Prior to the introduction of flydocs, during the lease return process, or even at annual records inspections, we would have been leafing through paper records, all of which would have had to come on site at the end of lease when the lessor would have access to go through them. The team would then be sorting through physical boxes looking for individual records. As a future next step, we’re evaluating and working with our lessors with a view to moving over to full electronic records to support returns in the future: we’re not quite there yet but the basis of our returns process at the moment is the flydocs system. So, if a certain job card is needed or a dirty fingerprint for a repair that’s been done, we can access that all through flydocs and produce those documents as scanned whereas before it would have all just been by accessing the physical paper records.
THE BUSINESS CASE FOR FLYDOCS
Everything is moving towards paperless now, and with that in mind, we’re about to introduce a new TRAX eMRO M&E system which will come online next year. That will allow us the option to go completely paperless in Engineering and Maintenance. We won’t be producing paper job cards as it will all be done on tablet devices. So really, the flydocs approach was ahead of its time in terms of the drive towards paperless. It doesn’t mean that we don’t keep the paper records because we still do but look forward to a time when we are completely electronic. However, when we’re going through those returns transactions and queries are coming in from the lessor, it can all be dealt with electronically.
Essentially the business case was all about efficiency: it was built around improved asset management and the compliance benefits realized through digitizing our records. Preparing records for lease returns, would be reduced from months to a few weeks with additional cost saving on lease returns through the ability to remotely interrogate the records. A digitized system would also create efficiencies allowing us to reduce cost and complexity in our processes. All of that made for a strong business case.
The technical team from flydocs came into the business here at Virgin Atlantic and worked with our IT teams to integrate the flydocs platform with some of our existing compliance systems. Then, starting with our oldest fleet of Airbus A340s, they began the massive task of scanning and uploading documents from the present day all the way back to birth. flydocs links compliance data with the maintenance records and this allows us to retrieve specific information at the click of a button. The system also has additional functionality for tracking repair mapping which has been an industry issue for many years. With flydocs being a cloud-based platform, records can be uploaded and retrieved from anywhere around the world. It assembles the records in such a way that, come lease return, the process is massively simplified, presenting extremely accurate and comprehensive records.
We have local office instructions and Engineering Department procedures that outline how the returns process works, interactions with the lessors, the timelines and, prior to the implementation of flydocs, that will have all been a manual process. Those instructions and procedures had to be updated as did our relationship with the leasing company. One of the first things we do now, when we engage with a lessor and as we get towards an end-of-lease process, we outline the flydocs platform for them, how we use it, why we use it and to confirm that they are happy to accept flydocs as the medium in which queries can raised and answered. How that works is, the lessor will ask a question, that goes into flydocs and is assigned to the appropriate team member who will identify the document that the lessor wants and send that back for their assessment and approval. All of that is documented and so, as mentioned above, procedures had to be re-written but essentially flydocs simplified the process. In terms of every day processes, the use of flydocs was written into our current procedures. The actual process changes were minimal but included such things as tracking repair records, which was an industry-wide challenge at the time. When it came to aircraft lease returns however, it transformed that whole process from start to finish.
The main challenges were from an IT perspective, getting the different systems talking to each other. This took several weeks to overcome with both Virgin and flydocs teams working closely together. After that, the challenge that followed was the scanning of all the historic records onto the system and filing them correctly. This was undertaken by the flydocs team. In all it took around eight months to set up and load the many years of historic records for 44 aircraft onto the system. Departments such as Airworthiness Records, Aircraft Acquisitions and Returns, IT, QA, and Procurement were all involved in the project.
WORKING WITH FLYDOCS
It’s great working with the flydocs team and we have a really good commercial and working relationship. There are well-established communications channels with various functions such as flydocs Support. If there’s any technical problems with the system, we usually know about it before it happens when, say, there’s going to be an outage. Commercially, we have a very long-standing relationship so when it comes to renegotiating the contract or even down to detailed points around how things are working, there are well-established processes for handling that.
With the initial implementation, there was an element of on-site training from flydocs initially in a classroom. But most of what training happens now is bespoke for individual needs and online; we don’t train everyone on every aspect of flydocs which would be unnecessary. Different functions in the airline use flydocs for lots of different things such as, as a document repository for maintenance technicians’ approvals while others just input and update records whiles others again, in asset management, will be interrogating those records and sharing them with lessors. As we bring new users on and depending on what they’re doing there is training but, rather than do the training piecemeal, if we have X number of new people join the team who need exposure to one or another element in the system, flydocs will deliver virtual training online plus written procedure notes are shared. It’s a mix of online training and guidance material and there is very little need for face-to-face training as it’s mainly incremental training these days.
In summary, the flydocs team was extremely professional, knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the project. Any issues we found along the way with integration were dealt with swiftly. Training still took place and, later, online courses became available. As flydocs is used to different degrees by almost every department in engineering, training was made available to all. There is obviously some baseline training required, see above, but once you’re into the system, it’s very straightforward having been refined over years of service to make it simpler to use. If anybody in our team does have an issue, they can simply tell us and we’ll direct them to the right person in flydocs, there’s nothing else that we have to do.
flydocs is a very intuitive system compared to other systems we have used where training can be cumbersome on an initial and recurrent basis. The platform being intuitive was actually part of our decision to select them as a supplier. It meant training was far less onerous and time consuming. People saw very quickly how it saved them time and how it improved their ability to do a great job. As the platform transformed how people can get information at the click of a button, instead of trawling through boxes for many hours, there was clearly a very positive response from our teams. As stated above, the use of flydocs was written into our procedures. Although I don’t recall there being any change management issues, with any new system introduced to the business, we would always need to demonstrate regulatory compliance. With any new platform that is proposed, Virgin Atlantic follows an established and recognized change management and risk assessment process.
We have a very structured process for introducing new software and, as far as the regulator is concerned, we will always keep them appraised of any major changes we are making to our systems. Whether they would need to sign that off or approve it, we find that, given the close relationship we have with our regulators, we would always inform them. Whether they would then want to come in and see a demonstration of the system before we implement it will be decided on a case-by-case basis. Depending on the outcome of that analysis will dictate the level of involvement, if any, from the regulator. They can monitor that through our safety and security action groups because we’re very open with our regulators and they come in to our monthly meeting where implementation of a new system would be tracked as a management of change item. Albeit we keep our regulators up to date with any changes undertaken within the business where appropriate, there was no formal regulatory approval needed to move to flydocs. We worked internally with our own Quality Assurance department, and they completed audits on flydocs and the platform.
As an example, the new M&E program that I mentioned earlier has now been running for a couple of years. All of the scoping out, risk assessment, stakeholder analysis, process mapping, user acceptance testing is undertaken as a very formalized and managed project in itself. We would also run systems in parallel while a new system is being introduced just to check. You can do all the testing you want but until you actually press the button and run it live, you’ll never quite know. That happened with the old system while the introduction of flydocs was in progress.
For an IT-related system there were very few problems experienced while implementing flydocs. From previous experience, we thought the set up would be far more challenging. Being a cloud-based system helped enormously. We sent RFPs to a number of document management companies, some with platforms far more established than flydocs. But today, 15 years on, there is no doubt we made the right choice for Virgin Atlantic.
OUTCOMES AND FUTURE PLANS
We have gained significant savings in time and effort to store, maintain and interrogate records. The efficiencies that a system like flydocs brings to the business can be a double-edged sword. Any business would adopt ideas and systems that will help to save costs and cut overheads but that will also often mean less people are needed, something that needs to be factored in, planned for and handled carefully. Plus, of course, in a sector where labor is at a premium, there might well be other opportunities for personnel to move to. But Virgin Atlantic has been as efficient as possible and is always looking for new opportunities in our applications. So, we’ll always be interested in innovative businesses such as flydocs who can support our growth and sustainability of the business.
We treat these relationships as partnerships as opposed to traditional customer supplier arrangement and, in that, we look to our work with flydocs as a partnership. We’re very open about what we’re doing in our business and look to our partners to support that. We continue to work closely with the flydocs team to assess system enhancement and work together on developing the systems.
flydocs are looking into artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), and we’re very much on board with that. Taking a partnership view of our relationship, we’d be keen to see how we can support flydocs but also what the benefits would be to our business in doing that. For us, further automation and the efficiencies of AI and where that could be built into the current applications would be of interest. Where there are still manual processes within the platform, we’d be interested to know how we could automate that and get AI working for us and predicting outcomes, for example, plus making recommendations, and just making the whole end-of-lease transaction smoother through the use of technology. I foresee more advances and I understand that will be coming from flydocs.
To summarize, if you asked me what was keeping me up at night, it wouldn’t be flydocs; the system works, we have a good relationship, it’s intuitive. We’ve gone through multiple asset returns, mid-term inspections, annual inspections and it’s all gone seamlessly. The fact that we don’t talk about the system is a compliment to it because it simply does what we wanted it to do when we took it on board. We look forward to growing with flydocs and to seeing future innovations in the product because, like everything around aerospace technology, it’s ever evolving.
In closing, I would like to thank Rick Daniels, the manager who was in place when flydocs was first implemented. Rick’s input to the interview was a great source of information for events that happened at the time.
With over thirty years in commercial aviation spanning across airline, MRO and supplier environments. Lee started his career in maintenance in 1990 and has progressed through many roles within the industry. His experience in leadership roles started in 2007 at LHR and has progressed through people and operational focused roles, to his current position of Head of Aircraft Programmes and Asset Management.