Reliability lessons from the aircraft industry

Training, discipline, and maintenance keep things flying along


If there's one situation where we expect total reliability, it's when we're about to board an airplane. Aircraft reliability is a function of an organizational culture that supports people working in a disciplined way to perform many different activities: preventive, predictive, and planned maintenance; scheduled maintenance on a routine and scheduled basis; trending identified potential failure modes; extrapolating a forecast failure date; and completing a quality repair before a failure occurs. A closer look at aircraft reliability provides a good example of a proactive culture in pursuit of continued and constant reliability.

Preflight checklists

The beginning of each flight is a study in the reliability effort of the aircraft industry. A glance into the cockpit upon boarding will confirm the focus on reliability. The first officer will have already completed a visual walk-around of the aircraft to verify proper lighting and look for loose panels and rivets, discrepancies and malfunctions of the landing gear and tires, fuel and hydraulic leaks, and other obvious defects.

The pilot and first officer will be performing the preflight checklist in a concerted and participative partnership. This checklist is designed to ensure the safe and reliable operation of the aircraft for the initiation of the flight, since it is considerably easier to repair a malfunction of an aircraft system on the ground.

Starting with the first test flight after it rolls off the assembly line and continuing for the rest of the life span of the aircraft, this is the beginning of the aircraft reliability effort. The preflight checklist inspections are performed without fail, prior to the aircraft moving from its parked position. The checklist points are verified individually, and any deviation from prescribed function is corrected before flight.


The flight crew is trained extensively on these procedures and then tested routinely to ensure continued mastery of the process. This allows consistent response to an unexpected system failure in a safe, controlled, and accepted methodology. Aircrew training is routine, recorded and verified through hands-on, demonstrated skill testing. Aircraft handling skills are trained in specific aircraft simulators to ensure ongoing competency and capability of the flight crews. The entire crew is trained and tested in the application and function of defined emergency procedures to ensure passenger safety and welfare.

Tracking data over time

Then we have the many things that we, as passengers, do not see and may not be aware of. Each aircraft has a phased inspection that is time-based, with specific inspection points and requirements, influenced by manufacturer testing and historical data. Data has been gathered, analyzed, and dissected to ensure that you, the passenger, get to your chosen destination safely and on time. Routine repairs are recorded, with any information that was discovered on the work order retained for analysis and data mining and trending. Software systems have been developed to utilize this information to enhance aircraft reliability and safety.

Inspections for compliance

The programmed preventive inspections, including the preflight walk-around and the preflight cockpit checklist, were developed from the historical data recorded, analyzed, and critiqued over time, from the repairs and investigations of failures. There are specific points that must conform to specific standards for the aircraft to be judged airworthy and safe. This data is recorded in a database for retrieval to enable consistent reliability and to develop techniques to improve on the existing reliability.

The programmed preventive inspections are designed to catch the small problems before they become large and possibly uncontrollable problems that result in a crisis. Each preventive inspection work order defines specific equipment assets of the aircraft to be inspected and measured against specific data specifications, and either accepted as within the reliability parameters or rejected as being out of the reliability parameter specification. Based on the specific aircraft criteria, a rejection can result in the grounding of the aircraft or possibly the grounding of all aircraft of that specific model.

Phased inspections are based on time and observation. Given standard utilization, the phased inspections are performed at a specified time interval. The more detailed and intense inspections will require the aircraft to be stripped of things that make the flight comfortable and attractive, reducing the airframe to almost a skeleton.

This allows the use of inspection techniques for nondestructive testing methodologies to detect wing root weaknesses; frayed electrical, instrument, and control wiring; weakened, cracked, or deformed hydraulic hoses and pneumatic tubing; loose rivets; and many other components that may indicate impending failure.

The engines are removed, dismantled, measured, weighed, and inspected to ensure there is no deviation from design in any manner of measurement, and reassembled within the design parameters. Most commercial aircraft are designed to have sustainable flight with half the engines working. However, no one wants to experience this situation, even though in the aircraft simulator these problems are induced and the aircrews tested, trained, and practiced in keeping the aircraft in the air. Hence the extensive attention to detail in the overhaul of aircraft engines!

Importance of reliability

All aircraft manufacturers and airlines are in the business of making money. The media is quick to publicize news of any aircraft that does not reach its intended destination. Most of the people I know will choose to fly on an airline that utilizes the most reliable aircraft. They will choose an airline with reliably excellent equipment and mediocre personal service and comfort over an airline with excellent service and personal comfort and mediocre reliability.

Aircraft reliability and safety have improved over the years through open and honest communication, functional cooperation in sharing newly discovered problem information, and cooperation in sharing gained knowledge of existing problems pertaining to reliability and safety. Each manufacturer protects its proprietary information to maintain a competitive edge, which is understandable, since they are in the business of making money to remain in business.

Now imagine where the aircraft industry would be today without the level of partnership necessary for effective communication, cooperation, and coordination of safety and reliability. Should any one manufacturer be perceived as lacking reliability, the human mind will consider all manufacturers suspect. The human rationale expects reliability and safety, either consciously or unconsciously, and a level of communication, cooperation, and coordination is necessary to the overall success of the industry.

Imagine the partnership of trust that must exist in the competitive world of aircraft manufacturing to keep the passengers safe. Extrapolate that into the industries and manufacturing that provide service and comfort to customers, without the intensity of safety that the aircraft and automotive industries have to face. What might hinder the partnership of the people within the company? Why is there not a very high level of partnership for success? Can your organization develop into a highly reliable function, built on the partnership of the people within the organization?

Reliable equipment promotes safety. A proactive culture promotes reliability. Identification of small discrepancies, before the small things become catastrophic, is a function of a partnership-based, proactive culture. In pursuit of excellence, a proactive culture has partnerships built on trust, defined responsibilities, and accountability throughout the organization. No one person is proficient and competent at everything. We all have strengths and weaknesses. An environment based on pursuing excellence maximizes everyone's strengths and provides the opportunity to strengthen the perceived weaknesses within the organization.

To continually improve reliability, and therefore safety, certain elements are necessary:

  • A process methodology to plot, define, order, and trend the history of the equipment failures and costs

  • Work orders with a unique identifier, tied to a specific piece of equipment or asset

  • The proper discipline to utilize this system and methodology, made possible by employees who personally own the responsibility for capturing accurate and realistic data.

  • The proper management of this data system, through the use of realistic and truthful KPIs.

This data system will support these work habits:

  • Preventive maintenance work orders will be automatically scheduled in a time frame determined by reliability engineers during the design of the preventive maintenance inspection.

  • The work orders will be equipment- and/or asset-specific, with detailed parameter information included in the work order requirements for job execution.

  • Any out-of-tolerance discovery will be captured on a unique repair work order traceable to that specific asset.

Attention to detail and trending the information gathered in the preventive and predictive inspections, along with the well-defined programmed maintenance of aircraft worldwide, are what enhance the reliability of the aircraft we travel aboard. Regardless of where the aircraft is based, there really is no difference in the requirements involved for safe and reliable flight or the level of attention to detail. The preventive and predictive maintenance inspections are done at the required intervals based on best practices in the aircraft industry.

From the mining of the raw materials to the operation of the aircraft in flight, people are paying attention to the intricate details necessary to maintain a very high level of reliability. This high level of reliability reinforces our confidence as we board the aircraft. Seeing the flight crew in the cockpit performing the checklist and knowing they have the requisite attention to detail and training and capability makes for a relaxing flight.

Does your industry require the level of attention to detail that permits your equipment to start when it is supposed to, to deliver the product that it is supposed to, and to shut down as it is supposed to? Are your preventive maintenance inspections done on time and at the correct intervals, utilizing your machine and resource hours appropriately and effectively? Does your industry perform the applicable predictive maintenance inspections, using the appropriate technology and trending the data in a manner to minimize an uncontrolled failure?

In aircraft terminology, an uncontrolled failure is a crash, which is decidedly not a good thing. If you are managing your productivity, an uncontrolled failure of a piece of equipment can be a safety incursion, and quite a financial loss. We are all in the business of continued and reliable production, regardless of what we produce. When the lack of reliability affects our production, we lose customers' trust, confidence, and business.

Learn from the reliability of the aircraft industry and improve your reliability by building a partnership between the functions of your business. Create a proactive culture that supports people working in a disciplined way to follow best practices and reap the benefits of improved reliability and safety.

A planning and scheduling subject matter expert with Life Cycle Engineering (, Al Emeneker has over 30 years of experience in the maintenance, repair, and reliability fields. Al can be reached at

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