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Owner-Operators Can Look to Flight Departments for Maintenance 'Model'

There's a lot that owner-pilots can learn from how flight departments operate. They can emulate their safety standards: recurrent training practices, standard operating procedures, operations manuals, safety management systems and so on. But there are other areas where operators of light business aircraft (LBA) can look for guidance. Maintenance is one.

It should be a given that aircraft owners will accept nothing but the strictest standards of safety when it comes to maintenance. But there are strategies used by flight departments that increase the efficiency of maintenance – and lower its costs. Some of the takeaways could serve as a model for a small company or individual aircraft owner's best practices.

Choosing a Service Plan

Of course, optimum maintenance procedures for a new aircraft under warranty are already clearly defined by the manufacturer, with life-limited parts specified and service intervals recommended. Even a second or third owner can benefit from the clear definition of service requirements, despite the fact that he or she is now paying for the work. At least the schedule is well established.

These days, it's safe to say that most business jets no longer under warranty are still operating under some form of maintenance service plan. The operator pays a fixed monthly fee (and usually an hourly fee based on hours flown), and the service provider is responsible for maintenance, scheduled or unscheduled. These plans may cover engines only, or the entire aircraft, its systems and accessories. The plans are offered by the original manufacturer or a third-party maintenance provider and come with varying levels of coverage, with correspondingly tiered pricing. The idea is that the operator can accurately budget how much he or she will spend annually on maintenance – with no surprises.

Don't look for such programs for an aging piston single or twin, but there are elements of these programs that any aircraft owner can tap to ensure that the airplane is well cared for; costs are minimized and the maintenance tracking is efficiently recorded and followed.

Best Practices in Tracking

Eli Cotti, NBAA's director of technical operations, said that best practices in maintenance tracking for a light business aircraft consist of almost infinite scenarios. The operator should answer some key questions on maintenance – even before purchase. "Who will do it? How will I keep track? What is the aircraft's mission?"

For many aircraft operators, the answer to the first question is also the answer to the second. If you're lucky enough to have at your home airport a knowledgeable maintenance shop that has extensive experience with your aircraft type (or at least is familiar with it), then you're already ahead in the game. The shop probably will be familiar with the various maintenance-tracking software programs available for your make and model. Of course, how complex those spreadsheets are depends on the complexity of the aircraft and its systems. The logbooks and maintenance manuals alone could provide sufficient guidance for aircraft up to and including some high-performance singles and light twins. But even at that level, basic off-the-shelf maintenance-tracking software could simplify the task – particularly for older aircraft with multiple modifications and upgraded parts and systems, said Cotti.

At the turboprop level, most often the original manufacturer has maintenance software available that will track service intervals, life-limited parts, service bulletins, maintenance directives and, naturally, airworthiness directives. But there are "orphan" aircraft and older models for which some of that data is not readily available. Turbo Commanders, Mitsubishi MU-2s, Piper Cheyennes, even early jets such as JetStars, Sabreliners have owners' organizations – in some cases supported by the original manufacturer or its follow-on company – that are dedicated to ensuring owners have the best information on maintaining their aircraft.

Picking a Maintenance Provider

Cotti says an aircraft owner needs to do some soul searching when it comes to how involved he or she will be in maintaining the aircraft. "For some pilots, just trying to keep up with navigation databases is enough. Owner-pilots of light business aircraft need to decide how much of their 'airplane' time they want to spend on maintenance management, how much they should devote to flying, and how much they spend operating their business. Then they must determine when it's time to outsource to a specialist." Another instance where outsourcing is appropriate, said Cotti, would be an aircraft owner stepping up from a complex, high-performance single to a turboprop or light jet. The local shop might find itself in over its head on maintenance issues.

The "specialist" could simply be the manager of the local shop. Or it could be the manager of another shop that specializes in the aircraft type. There would likely be a combination of some work done at home base, some performed at the specialist's shop and some accomplished at home base with advice from the specialist. The maintenance specialist could also be an independent advocate, who reviews maintenance bills and provides advice and counsel when it comes to deciding on maintenance procedures. For example: Should you opt for a factory overhaul, or would an aftermarket overhaul facility be a better choice? Answers to questions like this depend on the operator's specific circumstances, and any number of variables could enter into the equation.

That's why Cotti recommends due diligence when it comes to choosing a specialist or a third-party maintenance advocate. "It's all about building relationships. Due diligence and word of mouth are some of your best tools in choosing where to outsource your maintenance management."

Some owners have a passion for watching over the maintenance of their aircraft. Others would prefer to trust its upkeep to an expert. "In the end, it boils down to a business decision," said Cotti.

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