As the annual Aviation Maintenance Conference was winding down in Memphis on Wednesday evening, a panel on intellectual property turned a somewhat subdued meeting of minds into an outright battle between operators and avionics manufacturers, with big names like Delta, American Airlines, Japan Airlines and FedEx accusing suppliers of performing unauthorized repairs on their parts.
What’s more is that the operators say they’re seeing this problem crop up frequently and told the audience that they have nowhere to go to ask questions about this.It got heated, so read on.
First of all, here’s the situation: The operators say they are giving their parts to original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) of avionics components for repair and report seeing strange documentation in teardown reports that can't be demystified due to "intellectual property" policies. Because some equipment manufacturers now also function as part-145 repair stations, the manufacturers are able to use their classified engineering intel to provide unwarranted “product upgrades” that the operators say they never asked for.
These claims came from the above-mentioned operators, with representatives speaking directly to the avionics suppliers and other airlines during the panel. Plus yours truly reporter girl, of course.
The idea is that the OEMs who designed and manufactured the original parts are now making fixes and product “upgrades” to them without telling the airlines what they’re doing, citing intellectual property as a reason to keep the repairs a secret. This is causing operators to throw a fit for many reasons, the most important being that they don’t know what modifications are being made to their parts. To put it simply, operators say that OEMs are doing making repairs to their parts that aren’t in their component maintenance manuals, which is a big no-no.
Now, you readers are inquisitive, and probably want some concrete examples of what was brought up in the meeting. I’m going to leave that up to Marcus Gilbertson, an engineer at American Airlines, to explain:
“Our example is the 737 preselect indicator, which is used for fuel quantity. American started getting teardown reports from the OEM stating that they were doing an internal [repair] to our units. So I called up their product support and asked them if I could see what was inside this [repair]. The product support gentleman told me he could not release it to me but directed me to the repair station manager, who also said that this was intellectual property and this was an internal repair that the OEM was not going to release to the airlines because it was for customers that decided to have the OEM repair the unit there....”
And he concluded:
“This is an example of one of the teardown reports that we were receiving from the OEM, and it stated that the circuit card inside the 737 preselect indicator needed to be modified per [the internal repair].
Mitch Klink, AMC chairman and project engineer at FedEx, then presented to the Federal Aviation Regulations to the audience to clear up any confusion and wrap up the panel. He left the audience with an anecdote that he is willing to make a voluntary disclosure to the FAA if he finds that a supplier has performed unapproved procedures on his components.
“I’m not going to jail,” he warned. “If I’m going, I’m taking you with me.”
To be fair, a few OEMs rebutted, stating that they were looking into the issue. But ultimately, the avionics companies were the ones with their tails between their legs as the conference wrapped up.
I'm curious to see if these operators hold to their word, or just posturing. If they do, expect a firestorm very, very soon.