Don’t Start Your Airline’s Electronic Documentation Journey Until You Read This

GE Aviation’s Digital Group

It isn’t always easy to get buy-in when you’re implementing a major technological change. Sometimes, it’s a question of explaining your vision. Not everyone in your organization can weigh the risks of maintaining the status quo against the benefits of progress, and so you have to make your case clear. At other times, the issue is even more fundamental: people can’t even agree on the definition of what you’re putting into place.

I found this out a couple of years ago when I embarked on Copa Airlines Technical Operations’ eDocs transformation journey. I’ve outlined our journey in hopes of helping you on how to be successful in your own electronic documentation initiative.

Better Documentation, Reduced Costs

The eDocs program was motivated by two primary concerns: improving documentation availability and readiness. As an airline, everything we do requires a lot of documentation. I’m talking technical manuals, mechanical and repair records, flight logs, and pilot reports.

Many of these documents require signatures, and all of them need to be archived. Working on paper was no longer cutting it. There were two issues: access and storage. In the event of a problem, you don’t want to be going through binder after binder looking for a solution. When re-delivering an aircraft to a lessor, not finding a proper record can force you to install a new part or do a repair or maintenance procedure again. Easy access to routine and unscheduled maintenance protocols makes it easier to keep planes flying safely without having to perform unneeded work that causes unnecessary wear on components.

eDocs makes it easy to search for and retrieve documents in a timely manner, but they also represent significant cost savings. We have tons of records, and we are adding at least 72 more aircraft to our fleet and re-delivering back to the lessors a few too. These new airplanes will generate even more records, and we already have an external warehouse where we house paper documents, as required by regulators.

Implementing eDocs will not only streamline procedures but will make it easier to train the additional personnel required to keep our new planes in the air. On top of freeing up funds that would have gone into archiving paper, we’re also looking at reduced maintenance costs.

Are Your Stakeholders Onboard?

The first thing on my agenda when I started planning the eDocs program was a stakeholder analysis. This is a standard procedure when you’re using PMI (Project Management Institute) principles of project management or Lean Six Sigma. I cannot stress this enough: If you don’t understand the needs of your various stakeholders, you can’t move forward.

If you don’t understand the needs of your various stakeholders, you can’t move forward. Start with stakeholder analysis.

When you’re conceiving a project, the sky’s the limit. You want to adopt best practices and implement the best tech, but you have to consider the needs of everyone who will be affected. In Copa’s case, some of our aircraft are leased, and so I had to talk to our lessors to integrate their concerns into the scope of this project. I also had to talk to our various vendors and shops to understand how our eDocs initiative would affect them.

Another consideration is the fact that Copa Holdings operates three separate airlines and our Tech Ops team maintains all three fleets. This meant talking to a lot of people, including outstation staff, contractors, pilots, and cabin crews.

Finally, I had to talk to our own team. Tech Ops has four internal divisions: Maintenance, Airworthiness & Regulatory Compliance, Supply Chain, and Engineering & Planning. I needed stakeholder buy-in from everyone affected by the project, but I also had to understand the needs of my own people working on the eDocs initiative. What conditions would ensure their success? How could I help them bring the project in on budget and on time?

Four Projects, One Initiative

Once we’d completed the stakeholder analysis, we started to look at the four key elements of our initiative: our base project, our engineering documentation project, our mobility project, and our electronic logbook (ELB) project.

The base project covers e-signatures, e-manuals, and e-archives. The biggest hurdle here was regulator approval. We had to ensure that our documentation procedures complied with the regulations in place in the various jurisdictions where we do business. We also had to comply with the policies and procedures of our various internal and external stakeholders.

This aspect of the initiative was motivated in part by the fact that our technical records software was failing. Our old solution was crashing at least twice a day because it was so out of date. At the same time, we’d been using this system for so long that it didn’t make sense to roll out a new solution universally. As a result, we only implemented e-signatures for non-routine maintenance to start.

The engineering documentation project is an extension of the base project and covers task cards, electronic engineering orders (Eos),  and engineering change request authorizations (ECRAs).

The mobility project became a responsive design project. Initially, we were looking at implementing a cross-company device, but we realized our pilots were already using iPads and were probably reluctant to give them up. As a result, we ended up focusing on making the app available everywhere and at all times. This meant concentrating on a product that was device independent and cloud-based, and which could operate with the available means of communication, be it Wi-Fi, cellular, or satellite.

The final pillar of the initiative is our ELB project. Again, the biggest constraint here is still the available means of communication. We operate in countries and airports where Wi-Fi, cellular, and satellite communications are spotty. Access and bandwidth are essential, but they aren’t always available.

Rules and Rulers: The Best People and Practices

Before we launched the program we laid out some ground rules. Our goal was to establish a clear roadmap that would lead to the successful completion of our eDocs transformation. With this in mind, we set out seven rules to govern the process.

The first was avoiding customization. Simply put, we wanted off-the-shelf software. Customizing an app now means having to customize it again when there’s a major update (which can be as frequent as every year!), and we wanted to avoid incurring future costs and delays. We decided to construct reports from the database in order to avoid many customizations.

The second rule was choosing the common good over individual needs. For example, we couldn’t prioritize a solution that engineering wanted if it made things much tougher for the mechanics. We needed something that worked for the company though, not for everyone.

The third rule was adopting industry practices and processes. Our eDocs implementation needed to respect the aviation regulations and procedures used by our various partners across Latin and North America. 

The fourth was implementing a transformation initiative that took into account the entirety of Copa Holdings’ operations, including our three airlines, the regions we serve, and the outstations involved.

The fifth, sixth and seventh rules are a bit of a bundle. They are: making decisions in a timely manner; asking questions when necessary instead of making assumptions; and fulfilling our commitments. This last set of rules allowed us to deploy Maintenix in 15 months and AirVault in less than three. The resulting openness and determination empowered us to work with GE Aviation, IFS, and all our internal and external stakeholders successfully.

The final ingredient was finding the best people. I asked for Copa’s rock stars, and I got them. You can’t have rules unless you have rulers who can enforce them. Our team understood the structure we put in place, and more importantly, we all recognized there were things that we didn’t know. As a result, we learned how to pivot when the change requests came in.

For any successful implementation: find the best people and provide a rigid framework—but give them room to be flexible when the unexpected happens.

To sum up, find the best people, provide a rigid framework, but give them room to be flexible when the unexpected happens.

Standardize and Integrate

The first system we implemented gave us control over aircraft maintenance program. Like I said, we chose Maintenix, an off-the-shelf solution, to avoid customization costs, complications, and delays. Previously, things were a bit of a mess. We were using an MRO system we’d inherited from another airline for our fleet of Boeing 737NGs and another homegrown solution for our Embraer 190ARs.

Maintenix allowed us flexibility for fleet maintenance operations, but we also needed a remote archive solution to replace legacy archive system. We chose and implemented GE Aviation’s AirVault solution and have already completed the forward side of the integration. We can now send information from Maintenix to AirVault at the push of a button.

IFS and GE are working on a backward integration. Soon, we’ll be able to pull documents from AirVault into Maintenix, and it’s going to be seamless. I’m starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. The nightmare from our old solution is coming to an end.

Manage Change and Keep Your Team Happy

There was a lot going on during the eDocs transformation process, and this is why we brought in a full-time change manager. He wasn’t part of the Tech Ops team, but he answered to us. A good chunk of his responsibilities was promoting change to our team. He made the posters, sent out the emails, and provided the training platforms. He helped create a cohesive team by providing a common vision.

There was some resistance at the beginning. His area of expertise was IT—not Tech Ops—but he was able to bridge the gap between the two and to communicate everything everyone needed to know.

Another aspect of managing communications was the way we parceled information to our executive team. Simply put, they didn’t need to know everything. We relayed our successes and our progress, but we asked them to refrain from micro-managing our daily operations or the way we handled human resources.

One of the most important things you can do when you’re working on a high-pressure project like this is to keep your people happy. It doesn’t matter if you spend $200 on the food they want for a meeting. They work better on full stomachs, especially when their meal comes from their favorite restaurant or caterer. You’ll gain a lot more in productivity than the money you’ll save by ordering sandwiches instead of sushi.

They specifically asked for some relaxing activities, and the money invested for that was the best money ever spent. Sure, they’d relax or play for a couple of hours, but they’d come back happy and work another six or seven hours after the break.

Don’t underrate the importance of your employees’ happiness. A happy team is a productive team.

When we finally went live, I asked the core members of the team to put in one last weekend of overtime to make sure everything went smoothly. They’d been on the project for the past two years, and I’d pushed them to their limits. For that last team effort, we booked rooms at a nearby hotel for them and for their families. If they needed a break, they could cross the street and spend some time with their kids and their spouses.

Putting your people first is always the right thing to do. They’re already dealing with a lot of pressure, so don’t add to it by ignoring their personal and psychological needs. After all, a happy team is a successful team.

Change Initiatives Pay for Themselves

Implementing Maintenix and AirVault not only helped us streamline our documentation procedures, but also saved Copa Airlines a lot of money. It was more cost-effective to replace our aging software than to keep it. We no longer have to pay internal resources to maintain these apps. We now have support contracts with IFS and GE Aviation. This means we no longer have to pay a fee to a third-party consultant on a per-case basis every time we have to escalate a support ticket for obsolete software.

You could say that the upgrade paid for itself. 

We were able to reallocate the funds we were spending on supporting obsolete software and on archiving physical documents. But most importantly on adapting and escalating our Aircraft Maintenance Program. This is the kind of savings that allowed us to build a new three-bay hangar in Panama in order to save even more money.

We’re in This Together

If there’s a final bit of advice I can offer to project managers and change managers it is this: Even the playing field. Stop thinking in terms of the hierarchies and the differences within your teams. You are all in this together.

This may sound silly, but it worked for us. We made t-shirts for everyone on the implementation team. We all wore the project logo with pride. If you were to have seen us in action, you couldn’t tell a project manager from an analyst, or an accountant from a senior executive. You wouldn’t have known if someone were with Copa, GE, or IFS. We were all on the same page. The project was the main thing.

This simple hack enhanced our sense of unity. I’m not asking you to do the same thing, but I’d like you to consider new ways to bring your people together. There are so many tools that can help you streamline your business practices and procedures, but everything starts with stakeholder buy-in. The sooner you get it, the better.