Previously, I talked about what I do at work to give you a taste of this industry. I’ve actually rotated to a different department since then, and currently, I’m at what they call Maintenance Control and Support. This group is in charge of a lot of things, and even if certain items are not under their direct control, they still have to take some part in it, because essentially, we have to have all the most updated information on our fleet. My position is a 9-to-6 job, but we have officers and engineers that do shift duty and there is always someone there to respond around the clock.
The most interesting cases are always the biggest cases – things that might even make the news. Just a few weeks ago, there was a case of intense turbulence at Denpasar that forced the flight to turn back. That was a day of non-stop phone calls an making sure people were okay; that the plane was still in condition to fly back to Hong Kong; things like that. This morning, following the incident at Istanbul airport, we actually had an engineer flying over to report duty, and we had to keep in contact to make sure he was okay too.
Even when the problems are not that huge, there’s still unforeseeable things that happen every day. For example, our subcontracted maintenance workers aren’t there, and we have to call them to come over for support. Or we have nobody driving the airbridge, and we need people to come get it for us. The most common source of delay is flow control – when an airport (usually Beijing or Shanghai, but sometimes Hong Kong as well) stops accepting inbound traffic because there’s just too many people flooding into the city. A delay to one flight will affect all subsequent flights involving the same aircraft, so our maintenance planning has to also be immediately rerouted. If we originally had 6 hours of ground time to do a task, but a 3-hour delay cut that time down to half, then we have to come up with a Plan B.
Whenever there are delays or immediate problems, we should be the ones to contact right away. We can’t actually physically do anything for you (I mean, we’re not going to run over to the airport to fix anything), but we will know to call to get the problem solved. In some cases, it may sound stupid to do things this way. For example, if a plane is delayed in Hong Kong and the engineer already knows who to call and how to do it, then why even call us? But they still should, because it’s part of the information consolidation. Besides, if the plane is grounded at an outstation and there are other factors involved (the most common being no equipment or spares available), the engineer would need to notify us – we are the ones that make continuous phone calls.
The most annoying part about this job, however, is exactly what I said earlier: we can’t physically help you do anything. We can only help you chase people down. For instance, say we have a maintenance operation going on but they don’t have the proper equipment, and we’re trying to borrow it from another company. We call the other company to ask them for it, but we’re not done there. I watch as my coworkers literally make calls every 5 minutes between the engineers (“Have you received it yet?”) and the lenders (“Have you delivered it yet?”).
We are still a small growing company, which means in general, our ground time is quite short. This also means that the maintenance planning has to be very well done. If there was, say, an outbound delay and the defect was deferred but not rectified, we try to switch future flights so that there is enough ground time to handle that defect right away. Pilots may also report errors during flight, or we might get information from our maintenance service providers while the plane is parked at an outstation.
We also keep an eye on an online monitoring system for our planes. Some warnings are not actually real defects, but just false alerts – but how do you distinguish them? To actually perform troubleshooting for each warning message is a huge time investment, so we check to see how repetitive they are. Some warnings come up simply because the sensor is too sensitive – you see it one flight, then it disappears afterwards. Other times, it comes up intermittently. Some defects are seasonal, because the intense Hong Kong summer heat makes looks of devices too sensitive.
Last time, I mentioned that defects can be deferred. However, there is a time limit that comes with that deferral, and we have to make sure these defects are rectified before that time limit is up. The people working at the line aren’t necessarily in charge of keeping track of dates – they already have enough work on their hands to take care of. Instead, that planning is left to us. We are in charge of preparing work orders, and telling them exactly what to do in order to make our operations both legal and safe.
Defects are not always easily fixed. Troubleshooting could take a long time. We also work closely in conjunction with the troubleshooting team to try to find the root cause of problems as quickly as possible. Their experience is a major asset, and they are capable of taking care of most problems. But there are always exceptions and those tricky issues. While the troubleshooting team works hands-on to examine the problem (for example, by replacing individual smaller units to see what works and doesn’t work), we also have engineers as part of our team that combs through the maintenance manual and paperwork to see if there might be anything that helps.
Some defects are repetitive, and it’s also up to us to identify these repetitive defects. Is it repetitive because we actually replaced the wrong part, or is it the vendor that produces bad quality parts? We don’t actually have to make the assessment if its the vendor issue, but we have to point out that there is an issue. In fact, a lot of our job nature is like that. That’s why I say we have to know a bit of everything that is going on, even if we eventually pass the problem onto another team.
That’s most of the technical stuff, and even though it’s completely ad-hoc, I would say there is enough manpower to handle it all (not comfortably, but it’s okay). After that, there’s the admin, documentation, and operation stuff. Most of that is just more information consolidation, and it’s not really doing anything ‘new’. For example, the recent manual I just finished writing for our new Osaka station was based on procedures that were already written. I had to replace some more specific information with the corresponding arrangements in Osaka, but those contracts had already been negotiated and signed by another department. Really, it’s just search and compile. You don’t even have to do the analysis part.
I used to think that it’s busy at line maintenance – and it is, don’t get me wrong. But after being here for two months, I realize that this department is so much busier. Literally everything is your business. When delays occur, the time you use to handle it cuts into the time you needed to complete your documents and reports, and I can see that in how the people are forever working.
I know this is a bit of a boring post because it’s all text and no pictures, and I wish I could show you more, but I’m thinking I’d probably get in trouble for it. So instead, here’s just a picture from the internet of some other Operations Control Center. We only have two personal monitors instead of 6, but there really is a collection of monitors up front to track the current status of our aircraft. There is also a TV constantly open on the i-News channel, so we can keep up-to-date on what’s happening in the outside world. The weather is important too – not just in Hong Kong, but anywhere that we have a station.
I really enjoy this job. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t all that keen at first, but I have been surprised with how much I could learn about this industry despite being so far away from the front line. Working here completely changes your perspective on airline maintenance. You are no longer thinking about whether you can quickly get your tasks done for the shift in front of you, but rather, you have a extensive view of the entire fleet and their respective locations in the world. Your mind is forced to broaden to incorporate things you never even thought about before. The truth is, you come to realize that your previous focus was completely naive and selfish.
So that’s already two months here, and beginning in August, I’ll be back at Line Maintenance. I feel blessed to have gotten to spend time here first though. It doesn’t mean that my duties will be any different when I get there, but I certainly will appreciate things I would not appreciate otherwise!