Virgin setting the records straight

Virgin setting the records straight

By Rodney Appleyard

After being forced to fly its aircraft within one hour of an airport at all times, following its admission to regulators that its maintenance records were in disarray, Virgin Blue has set about the massive task of getting its records management house in order. Rodney Appleyard reports

Virgin Blue has been a tremendous success since it launched in Australia back in 2000. So much so, that it has recently prompted Qantas-which initially scoffed at Virgin's plans to launch a budget airline in Australia-to launch a competing low-cost service of its own, namely JetStar.

The problem for Virgin Blue in terms of the mess it has got itself into over its records management, can be largely attributed to that success, which has seen the airline expand at a much faster pace than it first expected.

The original plan was for the fleet to expand by 20 planes in 10 years, instead of the 40 it has increased by in just four years.

Virgin Blue expects its new system to be proficient in accounting for the history and maintenance of each part, from the rotor blades, to the engines, bolts and landing gear. Altogether, there are 367,000 parts on each 737 plane.

It has acquired software from Trax to monitor every component in its planes to make sure they meet the required safety standards after flaws were recently found in the records maintenance system it has been using up until late last year.

The budget carrier hopes this new system will allow it to expand its fleet and put to bed any safety concerns felt by the public.

If the current system meets CASA (Civil Aviation Safety Authority) safety requirements, then Virgin Blue will be given the all clear next month to go ahead with the purchase of the 5 new 737s it requires.

Virgin Blue approached CASA to assess the accuracy of its safety records procedures at the end of 2003. The company was concerned that the state of its safety records would preclude it from going forward with its plans to add five more Boeing 737s to its fleet.CASA confirmed faults in its records management system after Virgin Blue's logs lost track of aircraft parts, including those from engines.

The airline has been working very closely with CASA throughout the implementation of this new records maintenance system. Peter Gibson, spokesperson for CASA, pointed out that Virgin Blue has managed to pass most of its tests for safety since it started using the new system.

"We have received a very good impression of how Virgin Blue has changed its records management system by monitoring its new safety procedures every step of the way. The aspects we assess include maintenance control, air worthiness, the monitoring of component lifespan and evidence that the system can deliver a thorough assessment of overall aircraft safety.

"Virgin Blue's upgrades so far have been completely in tune with the safety requirements necessary for it to go ahead with purchasing new aircrafts. Our auditors have assessed the systems onsite and we have had regular meetings with maintenance control staff so that we all understand how the changes should be incorporated. We have reached many agreements and are happy that the goals are being met."

The choice of the Trax maintenance product could be an inspired one, considering its history in airline maintenance throughout the world. Trax claims to offer cutting-edge technical support, using the Internet to automate, supplement and support the records management process. It also has the ability to provide Virgin Blue with weekly status reports about recently completed modifications. All of the relevant paperwork and images can be scanned into the database and accessed via intuitive modules, so staff can log into each section of the safety process. These modules cover areas such as engineering, production, planning, inventory, quality assurance and technical records.

The Trax Maintenance Product is a solution that can deliver real time analysis of system records from the cockpit of a plane. A pilot can report a defect within the aircraft during the flight and this information is automatically sent to the central database and the screens of maintenance controllers instantly. As a result, verbal and written interpretational errors are eliminated and the length of time it takes to receive information is immediate, whereas most paper-based systems take days to register the defect.

The solution provides better visibility for pilots over the status of each aircraft, allowing planners to base each maintenance repair schedule on real time information. High-end Tablet PCs with plenty of hard drive space can also plug into the Trax Maintenance Product so that data can be entered anywhere.

A whole range of compliance documents are integrated into the database. These include engineering details that can be located in the system by entering in the tail number of the plane. The documents contain vital compliance information and also store details about tasks that need to be carried out for repair purposes.

An authorisation process can be activated within the engineering module of this software, which confirms whether each component is correctly configured. Only authoritative bodies have the right to verify the configuration details.

Revision procedures are in place too, so that the system can be properly interrogated to make sure that every aspect of the component has been properly analysed. Reports regarding compliance can be instantly made available to the Aviation Authorities and management staff.

Once a component has been chosen for possible work, the details of this are then processed through the production module, which calculates when ground time inspections can be made, how much manpower is required to fix the components and what materials are required.

The system is extremely thorough and contains a mountain of important information, which is easily retrieved so that the necessary action can be taken to fix components if they are faulty. It allows the staff to keep constantly on top of all component parts, ensuring that they reach the safety standards at all times.

Many automated responses also eliminate the possibility of human error. These include compliance and maintenance forecasts. Future plans can be made for old components to be replaced with safer, new ones, and inspections, modifications and maintenance requirements can all be scheduled in advance.

CASA spokesperson Peter Gibson explains how Virgin Blue has made great progress with its new system, but still has more to prove before it can receive the green light to go ahead with the purchase of new planes.

"This programme of upgrading is still ongoing with Virgin Blue. The process should be finished during May, and if Virgin Blue does satisfy all of the safety requirements during that month, then we will give them the go ahead to get the new planes. The ball is in their court. They have to prove that the new system can handle the masses amount of data which needs to be analysed with the current fleet and the future fleet too.

"Every aspect has to be covered, for instance, the brake pads need to be checked to ensure that they are in top quality condition. The system has to be robust, because if there are any tiny glitches, then the worse case scenario could happen-a plane could crash. I can't put it anymore simpler than that.

"But we have applauded Virgin Blue with its initiative to start the ball rolling on safety awareness, and for meeting the requirements every step of the way so far."

Trax also offers other features which might put CASA's mind at rest. These include airworthiness assessments; records of pressurised cycles and brake cycles; monitoring data of fluid uplift on each aircraft; picklists of suggested replacement defective parts; service difficulty reports and recordings of defect troubleshooting information.

A full history is kept of all past compliance defects, so that the engineers have more knowledge over the lifespan of components. Visual representation of planes can be drawn up, allowing staff to identify which parts are fully serviceable and which parts need replacing. Templates can be used to add new aircrafts to the fleet, and all its individual parts can be included in the design. This is very useful for Virgin Blue, which is mainly concerned about its capacity to control the safety maintenance records of additional planes. This system allows them to enter in all of the necessary information about these new aircrafts with great ease.

Virgin Blue declined to comment on this implementation at the moment, but judging by the reputation and service provided by Trax, its seems that its safety maintenance records will be in good hands, guaranteeing safer travel on the Virgin Blue planes in the future.

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