Dual Logs

Robust technical record-keeping is vital to the safety of aircraft and the passengers they carry.

“Boeing, the aircraft manufacturer’s use of multiple record-keeping systems to log work during final construction of its 737 Max jets may have played a role in the manufacturing lapse that led to a panel exploding off an Alaska Airlines flight earlier this month.”

How big a deal can panels and plugs be? When they’re being used as synonyms for a door, on a plane no less, they are a pretty big deal. A door plug is a panel that goes in the spot an emergency door would be. When an emergency door is removed to make space for an extra row of seats (you can’t have seats directly in front of a door), the space created must be ‘plugged’. A panel in the shape and size of the emergency door serves that purpose.  A plug.

When that panel gets sucked out midair and almost takes a passenger with it, the consequences, for the aircraft manufacturer as well as the passenger, can be ‘life-changing’. In this case the passenger survived. But only because the plane had not reached cruising altitude. If it had, people would have died. Boeing, one of only two multinational manufacturers of passenger jet aircraft, is alive too but having lost US$32 billion in the last five years, this accident might indeed prove life-changing. 

Part of the reason for this is the alarming number of incidents and accidents that have in recent years dogged the company, of which this was one of most egregious. The question is how could this have happened in an industry where services and maintenance operations are so tightly controlled, monitored and documented. This last seems to be at the heart of the problem.

Meticulously maintained technical records are vital to not just the effective maintenance of an aircraft and engines but also to its safety and therefore the safety of passengers. Detailed, up to date technical documentation enables operators and owners (these could be individuals, airlines, lessors, manufacturers) to ensure the aircraft is compliant with safety regulations, facilitate transactions such as change of ownership and maintain and protect the integrity of financial interests. 

Strict record keeping allows aircraft owners and operators to maximize operational efficiencies and minimize risks. 

What are technical records? 

Technical records are detailed documentation of all work performed or associated with aircraft, aircraft engines and all components. This includes repairs and replacements, inspections and overhaul as well as modifications to any of its parts. These records must be certified and are tightly controlled by relevant aviation authorities. 

Detailed maintenance records” as defined in M.A.614, 145.A.55(c) or CAO.A.90(a) are required to be kept by an Aviation Maintenance Organization, “AMO”,  (respectively Part-M/F organization, Part-145 organization or CAO with maintenance privileges). Maintenance organizations are required to retain all detailed records in order to be able to demonstrate that they maintained aircraft and components in compliance with applicable requirements.

“Detailed maintenance records” as defined in M.A.305(e)(2) or ML.A.305(h)(1) are those records, coming from the AMO having performed maintenance, required to be kept by the owner/operator (or the CAMO or CAO with Continuing Airworthiness Management privileges when required by M.A.201 or ML.A.201) allowing to determine the aircraft configuration, the airworthiness status of the aircraft and all components installed, as well as to plan future maintenance as required by the AMP, based on the last accomplishment. | European Union Aviation Safety Agency

Why is robust technical record keeping vital to the operations of a successful aviation business? 

Robust maintenance records spanning the life of an aircraft or engine are foundational to financial transactions such as changes of ownership, maintenance planning and effective cost management and of course regulatory compliance.

Changes of ownership: the successful sale and purchase of aircraft and their components, whether leased or owned, is dependent on a transparent exchange of information relating to the asset. The more detailed the information – that is the records relating to the maintenance, repairs, inspections and certifications of the aircraft – the easier and faster it is for the new owner or operator to assess the aircraft’s airworthiness: what maintenance it will require, it’s condition and whether it’s in compliance with regulatory requirements. Greater transparency leads to greater trust and leads and enables a smoother, more efficient, faster transaction. 

Lack of documentation or inaccurate, incomplete documentation around maintenance history or regulatory compliance can lead to disputes and questions around the aircraft’s airworthiness. Technical records are often used to evaluate an assets’ condition and overall market value; gaps can reduce its value and marketability. 

Maintenance and Costs: Operators can reduce downtime and improve operational efficiency by following a systematic plan for maintaining assets, particularly by implementing predictive maintenance technologies. This can help

  • Minimize disruptions downtime for equipment 
  • Optimize resource allocation and reduce waste
  • Extend equipment lifespan and reduce the need for premature replacements
  • Improve overall operational efficiency
  • Enhance safety by identifying and addressing potential maintenance risks
  • Reduce emergency repairs and associated costs
  • Increase productivity by ensuring equipment availability when needed
  • Enhance customer satisfaction through reliable and consistent operations
  • Support regulatory compliance and adherence to industry standards
  • Facilitate better long-term asset management and planning

High standards of technical records management enable lessors and operators to put in place effective plans for managing routine and unexpected maintenance and budget accordingly. As records are increasingly digitized, owners and lessors can mine the data being collected to identify hidden patterns and trends that can then enable them to anticipate component life cycles, and proactively plan for future maintenance events. By identifying and addressing problem areas preemptively, this can not only reduce aircraft downtime but also maintenance costs. Inaccurate or ill-maintained records on the other hand lead to higher costs due to unexpected or emergency repairs, unplanned expenses, extended downtimes and missed warranty claims.

Regulatory Compliance: All aviation authorities have strict rules around technical record keeping to ensure the highest levels of airworthiness of all operational aircraft. These must be available and up to date for all inspections and audits. Owners and operators who fail to comply with the aviation industry’s strict regulatory standards put their staff and passengers at risk and may be subject to penalties, have their aircraft grounded or suffer damage to their reputations. Lax record-keeping can result in surprising and serious findings during inspections, which in case of ownership changes can lead to costly delays. Haphazard or inconsistent record-keeping can lead to dangerous miscommunications or oversights caused by confusing or missing documentation.

So what exactly happened to Boeing’s Max 737 at 16,000 ft?

On March 7th, news filtered out that there was a possibility that there was no documentation to explain how the aircraft could have left the factory with four bolts missing on the panel that eventually flew out when the plane decompressed soon after take-off. According to Boeing, “with respect to documentation, if the door plug removal was undocumented there would be no documentation to share.” An interesting way of saying the removal of the plugs was undocumented.

At the time, the National Transportation Safety Board, a regulatory body, had been waiting two months for documents it needed to determine what led to the lapse. 

We leave you with: 

“Boeing’s use of multiple record-keeping systems to log work during final construction of its 737 Max jets may have played a role in the manufacturing lapse that led to a panel exploding off an Alaska Airlines flight earlier this month. 

The twin logs — one which officially tracks actions taken as the plane is put together, and another less formal one — appear to have led to confusion at Boeing’s factory in Renton, Washington, said two people familiar with the incident who asked not to be named while US investigators are still investigating the incident.” | Bloomberg

Photo credit: Daniel

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