The aircraft technical log is the last known status of the aircraft in terms of its current flying hours, current maintenance state (including the carrying of any acceptable deferred defects that may affect the aircraft in operation), the fuel and fluids status for the aircraft at the point of departure, and includes signatures of engineers and pilots that have signed for certain events having been completed on the aircraft turnaround to release the aircraft back into service. The electronic techlog (eTechlog) is an electronic replacement for the paper-based logbook and can be operated on a large range of portable devices.
Though a quickly growing market, eTechlog has still not yet been widely adopted by the world’s airlines. There are several reasons for this. First, the business case is not always immediately obvious and the cost savings are perhaps not as overt as with EFB. Second, eTechlog has an impact on many different airline departments and it can be difficult for these siloes to come together in consensus. Third, the technical logbook is as important as the flight data recorder (FDR) and is therefore highly regulated. Nevertheless, the advent of the iPad – though not a panacea to all electronic processes – has helped spur adoption, while understanding of the benefits surrounding eTechlog is growing and competition is hotting up.
The benefits of eTechlog are numerous and include:
- Improved data quality. Paper-based technical logbooks consist of handwritten notes. Moving to eTechlog ensures that there is no debate around what has been written and mistakes associated with transcribing these notes are eliminated. With eTechlog, information can be captured in legible free form or better still, using pre-defined text entries to remove any element of doubt.
- Central booking staff are no longer required to manually enter logbook entries into back-end systems thus reducing administration costs.
- Costs associated with the purchasing, storing, handling and transportation of paper are eradicated.
- Data is transferred automatically to airline maintenance operations control centres via on-ground networks or IFC. This provides engineering and flight operations with real-time analysis and control. Traditionally, paper logbook pages are faxed/scanned back and this makes it difficult to guarantee the timely and accurate delivery of technical data.
- No more compliance issues around lost logbooks, or logbooks on the wrong aircraft.
- More efficient maintenance actions. By having access to consistent and accurate data, there is less likelihood of parts being wrongly replaced. Longer term analysis of data can also reveal trends that indicate when and why a defect may occur allowing shop visits to be scheduled accordingly.
- For mobile eTechlog solutions (i.e. those that are not permanently mounted or installed), supplemental type certificates (STCs) are not required, which represents another large cost saving.
- With in-flight offload of information, initial troubleshooting can begin immediately and labour/parts sent to the arrival airport to carry out any remedial action, potentially preventing or minimising delays for a faster turnaround.
Currently, there is a debate around whether there is a need to offload eTechlog data during flight. One school of thought suggests that any serious problems arising mid-flight are best tackled by the pilot who should not otherwise be concerned with entering the details of the problem in eTechlog. On the flip side, there is a strong argument for data to be sent in real-time. As mentioned in the last bullet point above, the possibility of having aircraft turned around quicker is compelling. The increase in aircraft equipped with IFC is driving the desire to send eTechlog data in flight. Though ACARS can be used, there is some trepidation around the cost and somewhat limited nature of this transmission medium. Another benefit of using IFC is that logbook data can be stored on the on-board server meaning a master copy is essentially kept on the aircraft at all times.
Despite these benefits, some airlines remain convinced that the paper-based logbook is quicker and more efficient. The challenge for industry participants is, therefore, to try and convince airlines that there are tangible cost savings to be had by implementing eTechlog. Companies interviewed for out recently published report “How the Connected Aircraft Fits into the Internet of Things” indicated that a typical ROI is in the region of 18 months, sometimes less. Conduce, one of the leading vendors in this space, claims relatively accurate data from an undisclosed airline customer shows cost savings over a five-year period are around €3-5 million. Of course, actual savings and business benefits of adopting eTechlog vary greatly and are dependent upon several factors specific to the airline. As an example, an isolated maintenance delay for a large airline consisting of 500-600 aircraft would have much less of an impact than it would on a much smaller airline with say, 20 aircraft in the fleet. Ultramain, another key eTechlog solution provider, has developed a free app called eJustify, which aims to walk airlines through how, exactly, eTechlog can be beneficial.
It should be noted that there are two distinct methods to delivering eTechlog. The first involves software loaded onto a dedicated device that is used only for this purpose. Conduce is a proponent of this approach and installs its eTechLog8 application on appropriately approved Windows tablets, which are completely locked down and managed by the company. They are supplied with a Certificate of Conformity and treated in the same as any other aircraft component and so become aircraft-centric and tail-specific. For others, eTechlog is one of many EFB applications. As such, they are pilot-centric in their use and are issued directly to the pilot who takes it on and off the aircraft.
As eTechlog adoption gathers momentum, we are likely to see a shift towards more and more solutions transmitting data during flight over IFC. Additionally, eTechlog will morph into a much more advanced solution that combines data from a myriad of onboard sensors and components. Such a scenario might see a level of communication between previously disparate aircraft systems that allow for certain logbook entries to be completed automatically, without any input from the pilot except for his or her approval. This would further reduce the pilot’s workload, ensure even more accurate data entry as well as reduce so-called no-fault found (NFF) errors.
This last point is particularly important as NFF part replacements cost airlines millions of dollars every year. For the uninitiated, NFF refers to a situation where a part is replaced to repair an apparently failed piece of equipment. When the part is returned to the factory for quality analysis or for repair and re-certification, diagnostic tests do not detect any problem. Although a rare occurrence, engineers sometimes replace a part but are unable to update the information in the technical logbook. As such, the team at the next stop may still see an action indicated in the system and replace the part again, unnecessarily.
Apart from Conduce and Ultramain, other notable vendors in this space are NVABLE and CrossConsense.
Paper log books aren’t just the preserve of the cockpit. Crew members use cabin logbooks to record any defects they encounter in the cabin. This can include things like faulty in-flight entertainment (IFE) systems, lightbulbs that need replacing and even broken or dirty seats. These paper write-ups are handed to the pilot who then enters into the technical logbook any defects that are airworthiness related and reports them to maintenance via ACARS.
As is the case with the paper technical log, issues with illegible handwriting and manual data entry are not uncommon, while the reporting phase often happens during the aircraft’s descent when pilots are busiest. eCabin logbook is faster, more accurate, more reliable and more efficient. Additionally, devices hosting eCabin logbook software can be linked to eTechlog hardware via connectivity such as Wi-Fi Direct so that defects are automatically recorded in the latter. However, several airlines have opted for standalone eCabin logbook before embracing eTechlog, which is a broader application, and this is reflective of a phased approach to connected aircraft applications more generally.
The capabilities of the eCabin logbook will continue to expand in future. Sensors in the cabin will doubtless be able to self-report defects and record them automatically. Cabin crews would simply review entries for approval rather that reporting them manually. As with eTechlog, analysis of cabin defects over time may well reveal patterns that result in improved ability to predict and respond.