The Fear in Aviation Maintenance

Aircraft maintenance is arguably one of the best managed maintenance practices across different industries.  Aircraft maintenance operations in the US are usually closely monitored by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) which ensures that the maintenance practices are done in a proper manner. Despite this oversight, maintenance errors still occur and have been, on many occasions, stated as the main cause of aircraft accidents.  Knowledge of the factors that contribute to maintenance errors and therefore aircraft accidents can go a long way in enabling the industry regulars to draft precautionary measures and safety protocols to reduce the occurrence of these accidents.

  1. Factors contributing to maintenance errors

Human factors, management factors, and structure factors are the most common factors that contribute to errors during the maintenance of aircraft (Stolzer, Halford & Goglia, 2012). Of the three factors, human factors account for the majority maintenance errors and therefore majority of aircraft accidents.  There are numerous factors that can directly or indirectly contribute to human factors in maintenance errors can be categorized into the three groups of individual factors, job factors and organizational factors. Individual factors are those capabilities and attributes of an individual that may cause the individual to commit an error. These factors include their habits, personal attitudes, skills, personalities and their competence. For instance, if a maintenance officer has the habit of not paying close attention to detail, the officer may overlook a crucial maintenance steps that may later cause the aircraft to crash. Job factors that cause human maintenance errors are the workplace requirements that may not match the capabilities of the individuals tasked with aircraft maintenance. Job factors include environmental and workplace factors. For instance, given the tight budgets that many airlines are forced to operate with, an airline may decide to cut down on its maintenance staff which may result in the few remaining workers being over worked. Overworking the maintenance crew could result in both physical and psychological fatigue both of which can easily trigger the occurrence of maintenance errors. Organizational factors are those characteristics of an organization that greatly impact on the performance of individuals who are employed in that organization.  Organizational factors mostly include the measures taken by the organization to ensure that its workers are safe at the workplace and have good health. For instance, if an organization’s management continuously demonstrates that it cares about the safety of workers, the workers are likely to get more motivated and therefore reduce the occurrences of maintenance errors.

Structural factors that cause maintenance errors are those factors that emerge due to problems in an aircraft’s structure.  As an aircraft continues to be used, the performance of the aircraft’s systems will automatically decline and may even underperform. This decline in the structure of an aircraft can cause maintenance errors especially in circumstances where the maintenance team is unable to detect or properly diagnose the affected areas. The structural failures that could result in maintenance errors can be grouped into the three categories of fatigue, corrosion and aging. Fatigue failure is one of the most challenging problems to detect during maintenance and it is for this reason that, perhaps, fatigue failure is the main cause of failure in aircraft structures (Bier, 2003). The failure of engineers to detect structural problems in the concord plane just goes to show how challenging it can be for the maintenance crew to detect and correct structural failures caused by fatigue in time.  If proper equipment is used by qualified personnel, many flaws can be detected in the frames and skins of aircraft but if these failures are not detected and fixed during maintenance, they could result in a sudden breakage of the aircraft’s structures.  Corrosion is a type of recessive damage that can affect aging aircrafts. Corrosion, just like fatigue, can sometimes be very difficult to detect during aircraft maintenance. Corrosion can result in peeling off or pitting of affected areas in an aircraft. Areas such as the washroom, kitchen, aircraft beams and the oil tank are the aircraft areas that are most likely to be affected by corrosion. If corrosion is not detected and stopped in good time, it could cause some structures in the aircraft to fail. The aging phenomenon of structural failure mostly occurs in organic glass, rubber and other non-metallic materials in an aircraft.  Aging could also occur in electrical wires and this could result in short circuits and fires.

The management factors that could trigger maintenance errors are the characteristics of the maintenance management team that could affect the way the maintenance staff carry out their duties. One such factor is the type of management style that is employed in maintenance factories.  If the management chooses not to embrace the people oriented management style where all employees are given a broad space and plenty of opportunities, the workers could end up not being motivated enough and this could result in maintenance errors (Dhillon, 2010). Also, if the  management does not put in place rules and regulations that are aimed at ensuring the safety of the  maintenance workers, the workers may end up not being motivated enough and this could result in numerous errors, both intentional and non-intentional.  The other management factor is the level of communication that is experienced at the workplace. Without proper communication, the maintenance staff may neither get sufficient technical support nor exchange important workplace ideas with colleagues. These could increase the chances of the workers making maintenance errors.

 

  1. Accidents caused by human errors in maintenance

There are many aircraft accidents that can be attributed to maintenance errors and among these was the 1985 aircraft accident of Japan Airline’s flight 123.  This plane experienced mechanical errors approximately 12 minutes after it took off and crashed about half an hour later.  Investigations that were later carried out to determine the cause of the accident revealed that the aircraft’s vertical stabilizer had been missing and had probably fallen off after takeoff (Griffioen, 2011).  A few years before this accident, the same aircraft has been involved in a tail strike accident that had damaged the aircraft’s back pressure bulkhead. The repairs that had been done to correct this damage did not abide by repair methods that had been approved by Boeing. The bulk head later came off and this caused the aircraft to crash.

Aeroperu flight 603 is yet another example of an aircraft that crashed due to maintenance related failures. Shortly after taking off, the pilots of this plane realized errors in the readings of the basic flight instruments and decided to turn back to the airport. The plane however did not make it back but crashed into the ocean. After investigations, the cause of the erratic readings was traced to a duct tape that had, by mistake, been left over the aircraft’s statistic ports (Griffioen, 2011). This duct tape was placed there by a maintenance worker during routine maintenance and was supposed to have been removed by the worker after he had finished his maintenance procedure.

American Airline’s flight 191 crashed a few minutes after it had taken off after one of its engines flipped and fell off during takeoff. Investigations later revealed that damages that occurred during maintenance were responsible for this accident. While carrying out routine maintenance eight weeks before this accident, the maintenance team damaged the pylon structure of the aircraft. Apparently, the maintenance staff of the airline decided to remove the engine- pylon without first consulting the aircraft’s manufacturers on how this should have been done. The investigations revealed that the maintenance team took a short cut by lifting the pylon using a forklift and devised their own methods of modifying the engine pylon. It is these multiple maintenance errors that eventually caused the aircraft to crash.
These are a few examples of aircraft crashes that resulted from maintenance errors in different airlines.  Even with the numerous precautions that have been taken to prevent similar maintenance errors from taking place, the decision by airlines to outsource maintenance activities as a way of cutting down on operating costs may just expose the airlines to a variety of maintenance errors.  The competitive air travel industry has pushed many airlines to cut down the amount that they spent on maintaining their aircrafts by cutting down on the number of times the maintenance team check their aircrafts. If airlines are to avoid disasters caused by maintenance errors, the airlines need to focus on improving the way their carry out maintenance.

  • Precautionary measures

There are numerous precautions that could be employed by airlines to reduce errors during maintenance and therefore reduce aircraft crashes. Some of the precautions that could help reduce human errors include consulting aircraft manufacturers’ manuals when carrying out maintenance, reviewing the need to disturb normal operating systems to carry out nonessential periodic maintenance and reviewing formally the effectiveness of defenses such as engine runs that are built into the aircrafts’ systems to detect maintenance errors.

The other important precautionary measure would be to seek all types of relevant information on the occurrence of human errors during maintenance procedures in order to avoid the occurrence of similar errors.  While training the maintenance personnel, the two precautionary measures that could be taken include considering introducing crew renouncement for maintenance personnel and providing training courses to all personnel who are involved with the maintenance activities while emphasizing on contemporary procedures (Dhillon, 2012).  There other precautionary measures that could be adopted during maintenance procedures include reviewing maintenance work practices on a regular basis, ensuring that standard work practices are always followed appropriately throughout maintenance and reviewing all documented maintenance procedures and practices on a regular basis.

  1. Safety protocols Assisting in Aviation Maintenance

The international Civil Aviation Organization, a UN agency that establishes and implements safety and quality standards (SMS) across the world, requires that it’s close to 200 member states develop and maintain safety management system programs (Soekkha, 1997). The SMS is a compliance-based safety strategy that provides a comprehensive and standardized framework that the global aviation industry could adopt to promote safety.  The SMS for aviation organizations clearly outlines the responsibilities of airline management with regards to safety. As noted in the SMS standard, the top management is fully responsible for safety programs and must therefore organize, plan, direct and control the activities of employees while allocating sufficient and appropriate resources towards making safety controls effective. An important factor in both safety and quality management is top management’s material and personal involvement in quality and safety activities.  The SMS also specifies that the top management of an aviation organization must further clearly define safety responsibilities throughout the organization.

The SMS program is made up of four pillars namely the safety policy, safety assurance, safety risk management and safety promotion (Ashford, Mumayiz & Wright, 2011).  Under the SMS requirements, the SMS safety policy is expected to clearly articulate the management’s commitment towards implementation of the SMS, management of safety risk, continuous improvement of safety performance, compliance with all the regulatory requirements, and encouragement of employees to report safety issues without fear of reprisals, among other requirements. The main objective of the safety policy is to guide the organization towards a culture that embraces safety in all its operations including maintenance of aircraft.

The objective of strategic risk management is to enable organizational members to fully understand all the risks associated with specific actions so they can develop means to manage those risks to acceptable levels. Safety risk can be defined in terms of the chances of failure and the consequences of failure. Once the risks are understood, a variety of technical, procedural, or human interventions can then be applied to control the risk. When products undergo the design of maintenance stage, thorough risk assessment is required to ensure that new risks are not introduced to the product during the process.

Safety assurance is analogous to quality assurance since they both ensure that the quality of a product or service conform to pre-established standards.  Safety assurance implies the existence of appropriate means to measure and correct quality issues and the need for safety assurance protocols to ensure that certain standards are maintained during maintenance. The key components of safety assurance consist of a system of hazard identification, ongoing risk assessment and the proactive management of risk.

The overall expectation of the safety promotion pillar of SMS is the assessment and improvement of the safety culture (Ashford, Mumayiz & Wright, 2011). The safety culture here can be defined as the product of individual and group values, competencies, attitudes and behavioral patterns that determine the commitment to, and the proficiency and style of the organization’s management of safety. Climate surveys may be utilized to periodically measure the safety climate, compare the results with specific planned interventions or extraneous events that may have unintended consequences on safety culture.  The management’s effort to market success stories, lessons learned and the management’s unwavering commitment towards a stronger safety culture are critical.

  1. Conclusion

The aviation industry may have undergone numerous changes that have made it to be considered as the safest transport industry but the industry is still struggling with accidents that result from maintenance errors. This essay has exploited some of the common maintenance errors, accidents that have resulted from maintenance errors, precautionary measures that could be taken to reduce and possibly avoid these errors and safety protocols that could be used to ensure safety during maintenance. Knowledge about the factors that cause maintenance errors and the ways of preventing these errors could go a long way in reducing aircraft accidents caused by these errors.

 

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