Digital Records vs. Oodles of Paper
I remember my first redelivery. It was a classic Boeing airplane that my airline had operated since new. It was now nearing 17 years old and being redelivered to the lessor, one of the larger, more demanding leasing companies. Although I recognized there were numerous “required” records that had to be redelivered with the aircraft, I had underestimated the sheer volume of these records. Besides the obvious regulatory requirements for record keeping, my airline kept nearly everything. Not pack-rat style, but in the abundance of caution, nearly every record of maintenance was collected in boxes in the hangar vault. This included the full records package for every heavy check, light check, routine check, and inspection. As you can imagine, this added up to a very large collection. In fact, when the lessor saw the five pallets of records boxes, his only comment was “we are gonna have to get a bigger truck.”
Now consider the next operator who inherits these records and has to sift through them to initialize their maintenance program, verify AD compliance, and conform the aircraft to their airline specifications. Often to create the maintenance bridging package to the new operator’s maintenance program, the new operator may have to find a specific task that was performed in the last heavy check to see if it meets the scope and detail of their maintenance program. Unfortunately they have to begin their search as they are told, “It’s in one of the boxes.” It is no wonder inducting an aircraft into an operator’s operation took so long.
Fast forward to today, and the records return process is much different. No longer will the lessor need a bigger truck, quite often the entire set of records will fit in a single envelope. Indeed, with the advent of digital records, more often than not, the entire set of records will fit on a single DVD.
Digital records have evolved over the past decade. Although the advent of scanning records and storing the scanned images on a file server provide quicker access, it also provides an easy method for disaster recovery. Historically an operator would store the paper records in cardboard boxes on warehouse racking in a hangar or records storage facility. In the unfortunate situation of a fire, flood, inadvertent discharge of the fire protection system, or any other natural disaster, the records would be compromised. If the key documents, if not all of the documents, were scanned and saved in an offsite server, the records for the aircraft could be reassembled up to the date of the last scanning. Unfortunately, the scanned images were just “pictures” of the paper copies and not “smart” documents that had key words, searchable content, or other organizing features.
Today’s digital systems provide an operator and lessor with a system where the records are always up to date, have document type recognition, searchable content, and quite often in a format that is easily transferable to a subsequent operator. There are numerous companies that specialize in digitizing aircraft and engine records, each with their strengths, but we will save that discussion for another day.
Now that the industry and regulators are quickly adopting a paperless record keeping system, the next step is to determine what specific records are required to be kept. With the advances and ease of collecting the records produced from operating an aircraft, it is easy to collect nearly everything. Similar to the hard drive on your computer, the bigger the hard drive, the more “stuff” we save. This mandates that a more standardized and universally accepted filing system be adapted. Numerous groups including IATA, ASA, and others are working on standardizing the record keeping system.
In summary, in addition to making the transition of the aircraft records from one operator to another, having a full set of records ensures the aircraft and engines retain their value. Not having traceability on life limited parts, confirmation of AD compliance, approval for repairs, certificates for parts, or other regulatory requirements can significantly reduce the value of the asset. For this reason, as well as disaster recovery, it makes prudent business sense to invest in a smart records retention system.