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Decking out

With flight deck technologies ever evolving, Keith Mwanalushi looks into the growing market for avionics upgrades and cockpit maintenance

Communications, navigation, surveillance, display and Flight Management Systems (FMS) all enhance a pilot’s situational awareness. As aircraft get more sophisticated, so does the technology behind the systems they use. Therefore, the availability of a cost-effective solution that enhances the product life-cycle becomes very important – enhancements that improve avionics functionality, prevent unplanned maintenance costs, as well as increase operational performance.


With technology advances, OEMs tend to increase their focus on what’s new – but what about operators that require a stable, long-term source of support and maintenance for their critical cockpit systems over an extended period of time? In short, it all starts with good MRO.


For cost-effective maintenance, Rockwell Collins says it has developed a wide variety of support packages for airlines or third-party maintenance providers that enable savings to be made on work carried out. “The most popular offering is our dispatch programme (DP100), where the airline or MRO avoids the cost of purchasing spare line-replaceable units (LRU) altogether, giving them stable, predictable monthly maintenance spend rates,” says John Fischer, senior director for commercial services at Rockwell Collins.


Fischer recalls that these programmes initially grew quickly throughout the regional airline customer base and have now become popular across the entire aviation sector. “In the air transport market, we have dispatch programmes established amongst a significant share of Boeing 787 operators and many of the largest new fleets of low-cost carriers.”


Rockwell Collins works with the OEMs to make it possible for airlines to take advantage of the newest technologies via upgrades on their existing aircraft. “These upgrades extend the life, add functionality, and reduce maintenance expenses for the airlines. For example, Boeing 757 and 767 operators can upgrade their flight deck to be similar to that of the 787, 737Max, and 777X display system. The payback of an upgrade like this can be easily compared to the costs of maintaining the current Cathode Ray Tube (CRT)-based systems,” Fischer states.


However solutions are available, even for traditional CRT systems. Sydney-based Thomas Global Systems recently confirmed its long-term support for the FCD-66 CRT-based display, which is the primary flight display used on the Airbus A319/320/321 and A330/340 aircraft.


Thomas Global has supported the FCD-66 display unit for more than 10 years. The company’s long-term support programme is underpinned by its supply of new CRTs and a long track record in avionic displays. The Thomas Global solution is to try to avoid potential display obsolescence or major flight deck upgrades.


“Airlines should be prepared to look at innovative solutions from other avenues, rather than just relying on OEMs and the status quo,” advises Angus Hutchinson, chief executive officer at Thomas Global Systems. “We are seeing that operators, particular those of aging aircraft, are increasingly prepared to challenge conventional thinking, to look at innovative approaches that lower maintenance costs and extend the life of legacy platforms,” he continues.


Responding to how airlines can best prepare for cost-effective maintenance and upgrades of the flight deck, Andy Corea, director of air transport systems at BAE Systems, adds that the answer somewhat depends on the size of the airline and how many aircraft it has. “Basically, the most cost-effective means for an airline to maintain its fleet is to lock into a long-term agreement (LTA) in which the avionics supplier, or suppliers, have fixed prices for the airline customer, with limited year-on-year price escalations of no more than 5%. This is all negotiated when putting the LTA together, but the agreement should include things like rotable exchanges, which cut down on the number of spares units the airline has to purchase. All repair prices should include applicable Service Bulletins and upgrades, along with the incorporation of any airworthiness directives into the products. Customers may also sign up for all-exclusive services similar to what I just described, but instead pay by flight hours on the aircraft. The flight-hour model isn’t always the most cost-effective, but it certainly locks in normal maintenance costs for those customers choosing this option,” Corea explains.


Design has a big impact on the maintainability of an avionics component, and can directly determines its future maintenance costs. Rockwell Collins annually spends approximately $1 billion on research and development, leveraging advances in technology into designs that provide new operational capabilities and higher reliability.


“The new avionics functionalities improve airline operations and safety, while the increases in reliability improve both the operations and reduced life-cycle maintenance costs. In general, the new designs actually reduce part counts while adding functionality,” says Fischer.


He adds that the newest air transport product designs at Rockwell will consolidate complex systems into a single, more reliable product. As an example, he cites a new integrated surveillance system that combines radar, TCAS (Traffic Collision and Avoidance Systems), transponder, and ground proximity warning systems into a single LRU. “You will also find the latest advances in primary flight display technology across air transport, general aviation, and military platforms. The feedback from many of our customers about our latest product lines has been tremendously positive,” reports Fischer.


He explains that for maintainability of Rockwell Collins products, the newest technology and consolidation of the systems drive the development of any new Automatic Test Equipment (ATE) required for test and repair of the products. “Our new ATEs are as advanced as the new product lines themselves. We are able to test these products faster than ever before, even though they are far more complex.”


“Our process emphasises design margin in the application and environment in which our products are to be used,” says Corea. “We use various techniques to attain that margin in a cost-effective manner. When coupled with advanced manufacturing techniques and root cause and corrective action processes for field returns, the design margin means we are able to achieve performance that is best in class. High reliability means fewer removals for our customers, resulting in lower costs to maintain our products.”


Hutchinson feels good design is the ability to manage and mitigate the risk of component obsolescence right from the start. “Whether being built to stand the test of time or being flexible enough to provide efficient upgrade paths, good design for maintainability should always consider the end users’ long-term needs,” he says. >>

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