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Grounded no more: The logistics of aircraft maintenance

Timely delivery of aircraft parts is the difference between getting flights in the air and tens of thousands of dollars in lost revenue

Fuselages are not easily transported due to their size. Airbus, which manufactures its fuselages in facilities throughout Europe, transports them intact on truck and barges to locations in France and Germany for final assembly. (Photo: Airbus)

Moving aircraft from one location to another seems simple enough, but what if you have six of them and have been contracted to relocate each without flying them, or dismantling them for transport? And you have to do it safely and through a Mideast country known for terrorist activity?

That is the situation staff members of AIT Worldwide Logistics found themselves in a few years ago when a U.S.-based industrial conglomerate hired the firm to transport six single-engine aircraft from Afghanistan to Wichita, Kansas.

“That program that we executed from Afghanistan to Wichita was one heck of an accomplishment,” Bob McGhee, director of government and aerospace operations for AIT Worldwide Logistics, told FreightWaves. “We were ahead of schedule; we were under budget; and we exceeded the customer’s expectations from day one.”

To complete the job, AIT tapped into its network of providers, locating a Mideast-based service provider that could secure an Antonov – the world’s largest cargo aircraft. With the airplane secured, AIT moved to the routing portion of the job, with several options and their associated risks, including political, climatological and security, assessed and presented to the customer.

AIT Worldwide Logistics specializes in logistics for global businesses, including the airline industries. These moves can include everything from single components to entire aircraft, as this photo showed. AIT commissioned an Antonov, the world’s largest cargo aircraft, to transport six single-engine aircraft from Afghanistan to Wichita, Kansas, without dismantling the bodies of the plane. (Photo: AIT Worldwide Logistics)

“Multiple challenges conspired to add complexity to the project with a high risk for skyrocketing costs,” AIT explained. “The customer wanted to avoid dismantling the aircraft for shipping, which left very few equipment options. Flying out of Afghanistan is inherently dangerous, as is navigating the airspace in the region. Minimizing flyover permits and royalties would prove to be tricky at best.”

The customer picked a safer route that would be more expensive due to required royalties and flyover permits. AIT said its negotiators worked with local officials and eliminated or minimized certain costs to hold down expenses.

Every aspect of this move was meticulously planned and involved daily conference calls, McGhee said. The planes were loaded side by side into the Antonov and successfully delivered to Wichita.

Relocating a plane is but one of the services that specialized logistics providers fill for airlines and industrial customers.

Expedited parts delivery service

While airlines can’t do much about the weather that results in flight delays, they do have control over maintenance. Maintenance delays, which lead to something called aircraft on ground, or AOG, have a ripple effect throughout an airline’s network. Late planes lead to unhappy customers, missed connections and planes out of position for the next day’s flights.

According to Airspace Technologies, a logistics firm specializing in the movement of aircraft parts, an AOG can cost an airline up to $150,000 per hour. The National Center of Excellence for Aviation Operations Research, in a 2010 study conducted jointly with the Federal Aviation Administration, said that flight delays cost airlines $31 billion in 2007.

When an aircraft needs a part, the logistics machine shifts into motion.

Airbus uses barges to transport large components such as this wing section on the Garonne River in France to Toulouse, where final assembly of planes is conducted. (Photo: Airbus)

“There are frequently planned operations – that is the perfect world for us – but the vast majority of our aerospace business, whether it’s military or commercial is on an emergency basis, or in an AOG [situation],” McGhee explained.

AIT is a non-asset-based global logistics business offering services in air cargo, sea freight, customs, ground distribution, intermodal and warehouse management. Its aerospace logistics business is staffed 24 hours a day, 365 days a year with certified professionals whose job is to get aircraft parts, and sometimes entire airplanes, to their destination quickly.

“It’s a very fast-paced market and it’s a very high-demand market for getting accurate information,” McGhee said. “We have a 30-minute window to honor all requests and a 90-minute window to [deliver] a transportation plan.”

All team members staffing its “control tower” are military-certified so they can handle both civilian and military requests. When an AOG happens, the AIT team moves into action. “There is no canned response to these things,” Ken Jones, director of government and aerospace sales for AIT, explained, as each move is unique.

The transport of intact aircraft engines can sometimes be done on in the cargo holds of commercial aircraft. But aircraft often can’t reach manufacturing facilities, requiring the use of trucks for final transport, as AIT Worldwide Logistics did with this Rolls-Royce Trent 800 engine. (Photo: AIT Worldwide Logistics)

How the replacement part is transported depends on a lot of variables, including what it is, where it is and where it is going. Some parts can move on commercial aircraft, while others require a more specialized approach. Take an engine, for instance. According to McGhee, some aircraft engines can fit in the cargo hold of a narrow-body aircraft, making a commercial flight a possibility.

“It is very complex when you take into consideration the size of the engine and the origin/destination plans,” he said. “That is where the challenges are and where our subject matter expertise comes into play.”

Customer-focused solutions

Because AIT services are “door to door,” getting the part on an airplane is only half the battle. “There are challenges when you have an airplane sitting in a secondary market that [larger aircraft are] challenged to get into,” McGhee said. If a larger airport is needed, then truck transportation becomes a requirement. “Having proper partners … enables us to do that.”

Smaller aircraft parts are a bit easier, and many actually fly on commercial aircraft. In some cases, they may fly on UPS or FedEx cargo planes, but McGhee said the flexibility of commercial aircraft is preferred.

“Nine times out of 10, we’re moving that small part… on a commercial passenger airplane and the reason we’re doing that is the scheduling is much more flexible,” he said.

Even when parts move on a UPS or FedEx plane, AIT handles the “last mile,” preferring to maintain control of the part to its final destination.

In some cases, a small part may require a personalized approach. time:matters, a global spare parts logistics business, told the story of a hand delivery in South Africa using its airmates technology platform. In the case study, a PRIMUS Aero-managed aircraft was grounded in South Africa, in need of a control unit.

“The missing control unit was in the USA, however, not just around the corner from South Africa,” the company noted. Booked through the airmates platform with the “On Board Courier” option, the part was quickly located in Addison, Texas. A Texas-based courier picked up the part and hopped a commercial aircraft to Atlanta and ultimately to Lanseria International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa, arriving with the part 25 hours after the first request arrived in the time:matters system.

Customs can delay spare part delivery, although McGhee said AIT works with its local partners to ensure all paperwork is filled out so delays are eliminated.

“There’s an extensive amount of data out there that we have to juggle, but we work very closely on the U.S. customs side [and destination countries to process this],” he said.

Jones added that AIT once had a delay delivering a part because the grounded aircraft was sitting in a country that had closed customs while it inaugurated a new king. Generally, though, delays on the commercial side are minimal while military shipments can get hung up due to political considerations – which countries’ parts can be flown over or into, for instance.

The Airbus Beluga – technically an A300-600ST Super Transporter – is a customized aircraft designed by Airbus for its own supply chain. The Beluga is used to transport large aircraft parts to facilities throughout Europe. (Photo: Airbus)

Custom logistics networks

While companies such as AIT, time:matters and Airspace Technologies provide customized services for airlines, airplane manufacturers have developed their own networks. Airbus explained in detail on its website how it handles the movement of parts to final assembly locations.

Utilizing five A300-600ST Super Transporters nicknamed Beluga, Airbus Transport International moves complete fuselage sections and wings from production plants throughout Europe to assembly plants in Toulouse, France, and Hamburg, Germany.

In the case of parts for the A380 aircraft assembled in Toulouse, the Beluga – which are modified planes with bulbous main deck cargo cabins – represents just one part of the journey. Trucks and even watercraft are involved in the trip. Production sites throughout France, Germany, Spain and the U.K. send completed sections of the A380 to Bordeaux, France, where these large fuselage sections are loaded onto waiting barges that travel the Garonne River to Toulouse.

Specialized equipment and training

When it comes to transporting aircraft engines, the companies that handle these jobs have high standards. International Machine Transport USA, with offices in Blaine, Washington, and Dallas, Texas, has transported more than 12,000 engines throughout North America. It requires all its drivers to attend classroom theory, complete field training including the loading and securing of jet engines and pass a final exam with a perfect score.

The company also handles helicopter transport and more and works with a trailer designer to create custom trailers for specific industries. Fitted tarps and protective padding are standard elements to transport engines and other parts.

Skylink, which provides over 250,000 different line items for distribution to airlines around the world, offers five “must dos” when moving aircraft engines. They are:

1.       Secure the engine on a quality engine stand

2.       Invest in good tarps and tarp the engine multiple times

3.       Strap the engine by the bottom of the engine stand

4.       When traveling on a trailer, use an air ride trailer for a softer ride

5.       Work with a trusted partner.

For airlines looking to minimize AOG, companies like Airspace Technologies and AIT are the backbone of the maintenance operation, but even those companies require help.

“We are a non-asset based organization so everything we do is based on our relationships with our service providers,” McGhee said. “We have very high standards [and global standards that partners must meet]. The partners we work with have been developed with people like myself and Ken and other leaders within AIT that have 30- and 40-plus years of experience working with international partners and know who are the most reliable to work with. There are companies that are very strong on regional basis in various parts of the world that we have aligned ourselves with and that have the same core values as we do.”

Even in the fast-paced world of on-demand aircraft parts delivery, it still comes back to relationships.

Brian Straight

Brian Straight leads FreightWaves' Modern Shipper brand as Managing Editor. A journalism graduate of the University of Rhode Island, he has covered everything from a presidential election, to professional sports and Little League baseball, and for more than 10 years has covered trucking and logistics. Before joining FreightWaves, he was previously responsible for the editorial quality and production of Fleet Owner magazine and Brian lives in Connecticut with his wife and two kids and spends his time coaching his son’s baseball team, golfing with his daughter, and pursuing his never-ending quest to become a professional bowler. You can reach him at [email protected].