Image: Katie Sehl

APEX Insight: With little logistics management and network tooling, it now takes Lufthansa Technik teams days – not weeks – to get an aircraft connected. But to complete the installation with minimal intervention, engineers had to pull a few tricks out of the tool kit.

Passengers tend to think about layovers as a suspension of time, a drawn-out period of dawdling at the airport, or a pocket-change discovery of extra minutes and hours that can be used to buy a little more vacation time. A pause, an interlude, a yellow light on the road home. For maintenance crews working behind the scenes at airports, a layover means go – a get in, get out race against the clock to complete the necessary repairs or installations as quickly as possible so that the airplane can return to the skies. Extra days spent on the ground accrue financial penalties for the airline, which loses another revenue day by having its aircraft out of service.

“There is just a massive amount of complexity that needs to be taken care of.” – Lukas Bucher, Lufthansa Technik

Lufthansa Technik’s Maintenance Repair and Overhaul (MRO) teams are accustomed to managing aircraft layovers like clockwork. Airplanes come into hangars right off the runway, wheels and engines still hot when work begins. But when the MRO arm of Lufthansa Group landed the job of installing hundreds of aircraft with Honeywell-Inmarsat Ka-band connectivity equipment, its efficiency standards were put to the test. “It takes project management,” says Lukas Bucher, head of Connectivity Programs, Lufthansa Technik. But more than that, “It takes what I refer to as ‘complexity management,’ because there is just a massive amount of complexity that needs to be taken care of.”

By spring 2018, around 300 narrow-body Airbus A320 aircraft from Lufthansa, Austrian Airlines, Germanwings and Eurowings will have visited one of Lufthansa Technik’s 10 production lines at one of the company’s base maintenance sites to get equipped with Wi-Fi. With the first installation on a Germanwings A319 in June last year, the MRO team had a luxurious
14 days with the aircraft to work out the kinks involved in getting it online.

After completing its second installation that August, Lufthansa Technik team managers realized that, in addition to getting installation times down, the company was facing another logistical challenge: scheduling airplanes. “We’re working with a live operation,” Bucher says, “and because of emergencies, weather or maintenance needs, you’re always reacting to schedule changes.” Before engineers could even get their hands on airplane number three, the delivery schedule had been revised more than 70 times.

Tooling the Network

As of this past March, Lufthansa Technik had equipped 57 airplanes, trimmed its installation time from 14 days to a lean four days and had 177 scheduled revisions in the books. To accommodate the airlines’ ever-changing schedules, the MRO team developed an airplane-swapping strategy that relies on its network of sites at airports in Berlin, Shannon, Budapest, Sofia and Malta. So, if an aircraft initially bound for an installation in Budapest suddenly requires maintenance in Malta, a team there can be made available to cover the Wi-Fi component, too.

By spring 2018, around 300 A320s will have visited a Lufthansa Technik site to be equipped with Wi-Fi.

“The masterpiece is when you’re able to hold the right material, with the right people, with the right job cards and the right skills and experiences in the right locations,” Bucher says. Two employees ensure that all the sites have a basic material kit – comprising an A320 harness, line replaceable units (LRUs), brackets, sealant and modular components – at the ready.

At an estimated $250,000–$500,000 per installation, and with downtime as one of the essential cost factors, speeding up layover time has been a core element of Lufthansa Technik’s program. Preparation is key: Before the airplane enters a hangar, installation pieces are shuffled, documentation is streamlined, the harness is terminated, wires are preconnected and as many parts as possible are preassembled onto baseplates. 

Connecting the Components

The installation of Inmarsat’s high-throughput Ka-band satellite equipment takes place primarily in three sections of the airplane. On the equipment shelf rack in the aircraft’s bay, three LRUs are installed, along with a Lufthansa Systems BoardConnect server, a modem manager, an airplane programming module as well as other components that are mounted and hooked up by one person in three shifts.

Equipping the inside of the cabin requires the removal of a few overhead compartments and roof panels. Weighing about 4.5 pounds, the bin box, which was designed by Lufthansa Technik engineer Nils Beyer, holds two system relays and the decoder unit, and has the capability of resetting the Wi-Fi system. “The only thing we have to do is drill a hole into the bin, mount it and it’s done,” Beyer says. Only one shift and two technicians are needed to mount the bin box in a front cabin overhead compartment and run the wire harness down to the rear of the fuselage.

From front to rear, four wireless access points (WAPs) are mounted on the roof of the cabin, each taking approximately
20 minutes to install. Much like a router, a WAP distributes the signal from the antennas to passenger devices, each one capable of serving the nearest 50 users. Also inside the cabin is the KANDU, an electrical power source that controls the positioning for the antennas. This unit gets hot, up to 140°F, which is why it’s vented and kept tucked away from passengers. >

Tricks of the Trade

Atop the fuselage is the crownpiece of the connectivity outfit: the antenna and radome – or the “hump,” as industry parlance has it. The 82.6-pound Honeywell JetWave antenna moves at one degree of precision to intercept and receive beams from Inmarsat satellites. Each Ka-band satellite operates 89 spot beams in addition to 24 steerable beams that can connect with aircraft, and because the antenna was designed with a dual receiver, it can connect with two beams simultaneously so that there’s no drop in transmission as it makes the handover from one beam to another. The antenna and the KRFU Ka-band frequency unit are protected by a lightweight fiberglass radome, optimized to withstand lightning and bird strikes.

Early Numbers
Lufthansa’s trial of GX Aviation in early 2017 yielded the following:

  • Penetration rates of usage rose to 35% on certain routes.
  • More than 60 TB of data was consumed.
  • Over 3,800 individual flights operated with GX Aviation.
  • GX Aviation was available for more than 5,000 flight hours.
  • Over 51,000 devices used the service.

Lufthansa Technik’s installation process meets the requirements of ARINC standard 791, but Bucher thinks they’ve done one better – or seven, to be more precise. Typically, mounting the baseplate and antenna requires thousands of rivets to be drilled into the fuselage – nothing that compromises the structural integrity of the aircraft, but it does a lot of structural damage nonetheless, and makes potential upgrades trickier. By redesigning the baseplate and attaching points so that it fits with the existing aircraft structure, Lufthansa Technik technicians can get away with drilling only seven mounting points, avoiding the need for intercostal support pieces. “The beauty of that is there are no additional holes and no additional structure required,” Bucher says. “But if you ‘mis-drill,’ then you have a problem.” To avoid drilling mistakes, engineers use a special tool called a Christmas tree that positions the mounts based on Airbus’ manufacturing fixation points. “From there on, it’s a low-risk job,” he says.

The Daily Mission

Getting an aircraft fully connected in days is a feat – but like a good pit-stop crew in a race to complete all 300 or so Lufthansa Group aircraft as quickly as possible, every task, technique and shift is being scrutinized for time-saving improvements. “We achieved a four-day install for the first time in January, and there’s still more that we can do to get that even faster,” says Bucher.

Out in the hangars Lufthansa Technik crews refer to connectivity installations as special layovers – but they still treat them like they would treat any other layover. “Keep the airplane flying – that’s the mission of the day,” says Benno Lissen, head of Maintenance at the Frankfurt site. “And the mission of the night is to make it clear for the next day.”

“Anatomy of a Special Layover” was originally published in the 7.3 June/July issue of APEX Experience magazine.

Katie is a writer for APEX Media, based in Toronto, Ontario.