Overcoming Aviation Labor Challenges Through Technology


Harnessing tech for aviation efficiency

Konstantinos Varsos and Nicolas Sentuc

27 min read

There are technologies currently available that are not as challenging to implement as one might think. The key is to be aware of these capabilities. Many practical technologies exist that airlines can leverage without encountering the significant adoption barriers associated with more invasive technology updates
Robert Mather, Vice President of Aerospace and Defense Industries

In this episode, join Nicolas Sentuc, principal, and Konstantinos Varsos, partner, from our Transportation and Services Practice as they welcome Robert Mather, vice president of Aerospace and Defense Industries at IFS. Together, they explore the pressing challenges faced by the aviation industry, including the global supply chain and skilled labor shortage.

Plus, they also discuss:

  • Valuable insights on the pivotal role of technology in overcoming these obstacles. Robert talks particularly about how organizations can enhance workforce efficiency through mobility. By providing technicians with the necessary tools and information, they can effectively address maintenance needs while remaining at the aircraft.
  • The immense value of technology-based training and support solutions in bridging the skill gap for new technicians.
  • How augmented reality and remote support are just a few examples of the innovative approaches discussed.
  • The potential of these technologies, emphasizing the importance of collaboration between business units to fully harness their benefits.

This episode is part of the Oliver Wyman’s Velocity podcast series, covering innovation and the evolution of the transportation, travel, and logistics industry. We explore new mobility’s role in changing how people and goods move around the globe, across the country, and in their cities and towns. Oliver Wyman’s Transportation and Services Practice prepares our clients for the future of mobility — whether by air, land, or sea.

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Nicolas Sentuc

Rob, it is great having you on the show last year. Good opportunity to catch up with you today. We wanted to meet today to talk about your perspectives on how the industry has changed. We know IFS serves a lot of clients in a lot of different sectors. I wanted to get a sense of what are some of the challenges that you are hearing from your clients today?

Robert Mather

Well, it has changed. You mentioned that we serve a lot of different sectors, right? The problems that they are facing are a little bit different depending on which segment we are talking about, whether we are talking about defense forces or defense contractors or manufacturers in A&D, MROs (Maintenance, Repair, and Overhaul), airlines, and air operators. I will say that there's kind of two things that are almost universal.

One is the global supply chain challenges. We all know that we had all sorts of supply chain challenges brought on by the pandemic, and they just got worst, thanks to the conflict in Ukraine being exacerbated with different political embargoes, making those supply chains even worse. And then the other one would be the skilled labor shortage. A lot of industries are facing a skilled labor shortage.

It is particularly painful for the airlines and MROs when it comes to licensed technicians. It is a topic that has been brought up for the last couple of years. It was the number one challenge facing our customers last year. And it is still the number one issue facing them today with supply chain challenges coming in at number two.

Konstantinos Varsos

How are they dealing with this in terms of technology? What are the things your customers are asking for?


I think about the technician shortage, people are trying to do more with less. So, trying to find efficiencies where they can enable their workforce to be able to accomplish more with who they have today.

If we dig into those threads a bit, some of the themes coming up at the conference were around hiring and retention, and we are facing a generational shift in the technicians there. We talked last time about some of the turnover where a lot of the senior technicians were taking early retirement or buyout packages to control costs through the early stages of the pandemic.

What that means is the workforce is newer, right? And they are trying to get people in from different schools, make sure that the education and training pipeline is coming through. But one of the things that is interesting when you are talking about attracting and retaining younger workers is they do not want to be using old technology and they do not want to be just doing the same old paper processes. They are used to doing everything on their phone. If you are telling them that they cannot do that anymore, that is not how they typically want to work. That is an interesting point.


Robert, it is interesting to hear the sort of technology solutions you are specifically looking into, to help address those items.


I mentioned the idea of gaining efficiency from your workforce and I've seen some organizations talking about sort of scheduling optimization to be able to make sure that you're assigning the technicians in the most efficient way possible so you're not wasting time between tasks or you're organizing the tasks that they're executing in such a way as to be more efficient, like keeping them in the same proximity to location on an aircraft, for example, not wasting travel time, making sure that they have the next task up ready to go. But there is another angle that you could look at it, too, which is utilizing technology to make an individual technician more efficient by speeding them up or changing the types of processes that they are using and enabling that through the use of technology.


Do you have specific examples that you have been looking into?


Mobility is a is a big part of it and mobility is nothing new. People have been talking about mobility for a long time. But when you are what you are talking about with mobility, you can again, you can look at it from two different angles. A lot of organizations might think about going mobile as just digitizing their existing processes, putting manuals on an iPad, having somebody sign off a PDF version of what is still amounts to like a paper task card.

Like your iPad, that leaves a lot of the promise of mobility on the table. What would you do to unlock the power of mobility? You really need to look at it from a different angle in terms of how mobility can unlock efficiencies within my organization and how my organization can support mobility. So, for example, if you are going to real-time data entry, what that means is upstream in your organization, you can make decisions based on real-time data so you can be more strategic in responding to things as they occur out on the floor.

And that allows you to be more efficient holistically. But if you are also supporting those processes from other parts of your organization, let us say supply chain, what you can do is keep the technician working. The common phrase is hands on metal, right? You have the technician for the aircraft, and we must ensure they are working continuously.

So, number one, we talked about tasks like those, elements that are common, but that all goes out the window. If they must climb down from the aircraft and go to a kiosk to enter a part request or themselves go to the window to get a specific part from the warehouse. If you can empower them with mobility, they can be on-board the aircraft.

They can request a part, see the status of that part, and pause that work while they are awaiting that part. Flip to the next task. Start executing that while they are waiting. Meanwhile, supply chain, if they're integrated into the process, can trigger the fulfillment of that part, and send a runner out to the aircraft at much lower cost or more plentiful resource and get that part into the hands of the technician so that they can work without spending any nonproductive time to get that part in the first place.

And what that means is that technicians and have not been wasting time directly getting that part themselves or requesting it from off the aircraft, but they have been able to work on something else in the intervening period. What would have been a waiting time previously is now productive time.


What do you think has been one of the largest barriers or challenges to having a greater mobility rollout at your point? I think we have seen a lot of our clients on our end moving away. Their primary focus has been moving away from paper and effectively digitizing the paper processes, but they have not necessarily considered it from a new, purely digital perspective.


Well, I think first, organizations previously have made the business case around getting rid of paper. There has been a cost associated with the storage of paper records, the generation of paper records, all that stuff. And they have said, isn't it great if we do not have this warehouse? Let us just get rid of paper from that perspective. But that is a very limiting perspective. It does not show you the power of efficiency that you can gain by really pushing the mobile to the next level.

The other part of it is that it is hard to do. You must get different teams in a room and agree. The scenario that I described does not work if you have not included the supply chain in that scenario. You must set up that part of your organization to do that material fulfillment. If you get an electronic request, and if it just goes into a queue and somebody in supply chain puts it in a bin and leaves it at the window, you have still lost a bunch of that potential efficiency for that technician, right? It is a big transformational change to really unlock the full power of mobility, and that is a tall task.


What other technologies are you all looking at? Beyond the paper and beyond the mobility part?


When we were talking about mobility just a second ago, we talked about the power of paperless records and real time information and the idea of making the technician efficient from the time that they are spending. But you can expand on that more. We talked about the supply chain part of the organization, but you can go into, for example, the engineering support processes and a tool that you can use to do that, which you can trigger from your mobile devices is augmented reality. So let me frame that for a second. When most people today think about augmented reality, they are either visualizing like an engine with all these pop ups in holograms around it that are providing you information or like a control panel, like in Minority Report, where you are pointing at things in the air and interacting with it.

That is still a way away from being able to do that. There are augmented reality technologies available today that can really make a difference. The first use case is training, and that is pervasive, because in the context of training, you can make scenarios in the virtual or augmented world that would be cost prohibitive to do physically or potentially dangerous to do.

What it allows you to do is run people in their training courses through a variety of scenarios, building that experience quicker and broader than you would have otherwise been able to do. From the mobility and the engineering support angle, there are technologies that you can use. Like if you can just do a zoom call or any kind of video call, you are interacting with somebody with a simple application of applied augmented reality. You can use the camera on your existing mobile device, and you can interact with the person on the other end to highlight things or send documentation that applies and that you are showing them in real time. You can overlay the camera on to a blank canvas so you can point to things with your finger.

The augmented reality sends that information to the technician. So, what you are doing there is augmented reality is improving, fostering communication so that the support experience is better. And when you are utilizing that camera, it is much better for the support engineer on the other end of that line because they can tell you to move it around and show them what you are seeing.

In fact, during the pandemic, the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) approved virtual inspections as part of the recertification of the 737-Max. They were allowing some of the inspections to occur remotely. If that is a use case, that is possible, I do not think it is too far a stretch to carve out some of the maintenance inspections and have those be able to be supported remotely.

Sometimes you need somebody to be in there, but like there's scenarios where it is just a visual inspection where you open a panel. You are seeing the same thing with your eyes as you are with the camera. There must be some scenarios we can do there. And then that has massive implications for your organization in terms of how you can restructure, because then you can have a central group of support or in this case, inspectors, that are constantly doing the high value tasks.

You are not re-tasking them with lower value tasks. You are maximizing the use of your inspectors because they are fielding calls from all over the place. And it changes your staffing model because you no longer must staff as many types as possible of skills out at an outstation. You can have some of those skills centrally controlled and they can serve a whole bunch of different outstations without having to hop on the next flight out either.


Rob, this is fascinating. I know we have talked a little bit about mobility and augmented reality, especially helping the folks on the front line. Anything else that you think could be beneficial or that you are looking into?


Well, since I keep talking about mobility and technologies that reinforce mobility, I got another one for you. Lidar technology is becoming more pervasive out there in the world. If you drive a Tesla and have the screen beside you and it shows you the objects you are driving beside the other cars on the road, it is through lidar. People think about it in terms of the sort of those big vehicles and sensors there, but it is already being in use in lots of different applications in aerospace.

So, for example, dent mapping. There are devices where you can hold up a scanner to the aircraft and it will accurately map all the dents and defects on the skin of the aircraft. They even take similar sensors like that and mount them on drones, and you can fly them around the aircraft, and they can do a 3D model of the aircraft and determine anywhere where there are deviations from the smooth profile that you would be expected. And that makes dent mapping hugely more effective. When we talk about the sort of practical technologies that are also immediately available that we can sort of unlock today, if you have the latest iPhone or iPad, you already have a lidar in your pocket. In fact, I made my boss upgrade my phone so that I could do demonstrations with a lidar.

So, I have a new phone now, but you can use the lidar to take measurements. So, for example, we have integrated that into our mobile app for our technicians so that rather than having to get a ruler, a tool that is approved, but really if you are trying to use a ruler on a curved surface, your accuracy is not so great.

You can use the lidar on your phone to take the measurement. One of the things that that allows you to do is transcribing a measurement, it opens it up to transcription errors, it opens it up to the idea that you are registering the tool, the measurement on the tool elsewhere, and then you just inputting it somewhere else.

In this case, you can save the actual measurement, it is a photograph contextualized with the measurement against it that is now embedded in the system. You have a complete record of what was measured in that context for the ability to evaluate later or judge changes in measurements over time. The sort of granularity of the digital record is, is much better in that regard.


In terms of the adoption from airlines and MROs, do you think that they are ready for this type of technology or are they already using them?


Yes, they are in drones that are in operation right now.

But I think a part of what I might try to get across on this is the idea that there are technologies available now that are not a bridge too far. You do not need a massive implementation project if you have already rolled out iPads to your technicians for one reason, you have the capabilities of that device available to you today. You just might not know about it. Right? There are a lot of practical technologies that airlines can leverage without some of the massive changes in adoption barriers that we think about when they are taking on some of the more invasive technology updates, I would say.


Based on what you have described, it seems like you get pretty, significant efficiency gains just from the time saved. Do you have any numbers or perspectives on what to expect?


The challenge is that it varies based on what your baseline is, right? So, an organization that is coming from an old legacy system and paper processes is going to have huge efficiency gains. An organization that is coming from a modern system and making small changes to their processes is not going to have as monumental gains as the other organization.

There is still going to be significant, but it is harder to measure, or I would not say it is harder to measure. I should say it is a smaller incremental change because they have already got some of the base level efficiencies under their belt.


Right. And I guess on top of that, you are also still seeing you would still be seeing all the benefits from cleaner data captured at the source rather than introducing manual errors from, you know, transcription.


The more you can help the technician with pre-population of information through integrated processes or provide checks at the point of entry, the better your data quality is going to be for sure.


I know we have talked a lot about of the solutions that you are looking into from a technological perspective to support labor shortages. What about in the supply chain side?


Well, that is a good question, Nick. If we stay on the theme of mobility, then mobility can also have a real impact in supply chain, just like you can enable your technicians on the mobile device.

You can enable your storeroom clerks and storage supervisors to be more effective inside the warehouse. So, things like mobile pick lists or being able to do proactive stock counts while you happen to be at a particular location that are coming due. You get more accurate stock data on the fly rather than just having to do it periodically.

When you do, a massive count can have significant benefits to an organization. Whether that is just enabling mobile devices on browser or a mobile app to help in the warehouse, you can get significant gains there. If on the other hand, I was trying to talk about some of those other technologies that are readily available but are not being applied today.

I have an example in supply chain to give. Have you ever gone to a grocery store and a hardware store lately and you see the little electronic shelf labels? Most people think about it in terms of it just updating the price of the item. It saves time and they do not have to print the labels and put the new price in there that is on sale. You can change the label, and whether it is on sale or not anymore. But those devices are much more interactive than they are used most of the time. So, for example, we have a retailer back home in Canada where I am from, called Canadian Tire.

If you look up a part in one of their terminals, you can say go and it will start flashing on that label and you know where that part is, and you can go down the aisle and pick up that part. You can do similar things like that in the warehouse. When you are going to go pick up a part, you can send a signal to the label for that bin, and it can start flashing so the store clerk does not have to navigate or know where that bin is. They just go to the one that is flashing over there, and they are there for sure in the right bin. They are not going to pick the wrong thing. The other thing that you can do with it when you increase the level of sort of integration of those devices is you can actually have prompts on the screen that say, hey, you're supposed to pick this serial number, go grab it from the bin, and you can hit a button on that label and it will actually do the transaction for you.

We talked about how mobility can be empowering in this case, but you can forgo the mobile device in that case and have the storeroom clerk physically interacting with the warehouse itself at that point without a mobile device and still be able to get those kinds of efficiencies. That is something you walk in front of the store every day without even noticing it.


Rob, thanks so much for joining us again today. This is a great conversation. Fascinating stuff. Really interesting to see how the technology's evolving and I think with the challenges that we are seeing in the industry today, we may be seeing faster and faster adoption over the next couple of years, as

It is my pleasure, Nic. I really appreciate the opportunity. And as a fan of technology, I hope that we can accelerate some of this adoption and try to address some of the challenges that we have in the marketplace with technology.