Summer 2019

Rushlift extends partnership with Virgin Atlantic

Rushlift GSE is providing Virgin Atlantic Engineering with a ‘fail-safe’ system for checking out and recovering tools as part of a wider leasing arrangement

Rushlift GSE, part of Doosan Industrial Vehicles UK, has acted as a partner to Virgin Atlantic at the carrier’s three UK stations –­ London Heathrow, London Gatwick and Manchester airports – for many years. In fact, it has been supporting Virgin Atlantic Engineering in Britain for the last six years, ensuring the smooth running of the airline’s GSE fleet as part of a leasing and maintenance agreement.

Therefore, when Virgin Atlantic Engineering wanted to find ways of adding further accountability of tooling ownership and use to the more than 350 engineers it employs across those three gateways, it turned to Rushlift. The tools, used in maintenance hangars and ramp areas, have historically not perhaps always been returned to their appropriate storage location, so there was room for improved accountability and the efficiency that would bring.

Partly as a response to new guidelines introduced by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), and partly because the management and control of tooling used in aircraft maintenance has in the past been a manual process that was not always overly reliable, Virgin took the decision to automate its tool checking-out and recovery procedures as much as possible about two years ago.

“Over the years, the industry has put in place a lot of processes and paperwork in this area,” says Andy Currey, tooling & GSE manager at Virgin Atlantic Engineering. “When an engineer signs out an aircraft under a Certificate for Serviceability they are taking full responsibility for ensuring that all tools used to maintain the aircraft are accounted for.

“That is a large responsibility for an engineer, especially when you consider that you could have 20 or 30 people working on an aircraft over anything from 24 hours to several days, depending on the checks.”

Virgin Atlantic Engineering wanted a system that would automatically record and monitor the issuing of tools, logging each tool or kit to an individual engineer and then registering its return at the end of a shift – modernising the process by moving away from manual, paper-based systems, with individual engineers taking ownership of their own tools.

The answer

Following what was described as an extensive market research and subsequent tendering process, the solution adopted by Virgin encompassed high-quality Snap-on toolkits, leased and maintained under a contract through Rushlift GSE.

Of the 172 tool kits supplied across Virgin’s three UK airport bases, 13 of them were Snap-on’s Automatic Tool Control (ATC) toolboxes, assigned for use in airport hangars. There are more than 1,000 tools in each ATC box. The rest were mobile tool kits for maintenance activities in ramp areas and were dedicated to various trades and trade-specific tasks, such as mechanical, avionics and in-cabin technology servicing and repair.

The automated checking-out and recovery technology ensures that any engineer wanting to open an ATC toolbox must first pass the barcode of his/her security pass over the scanner. As a result, the system can track every tool that is taken out and who has taken it out by date and by time.

Visibility and accountability have thus been dramatically improved. “The system keeps me informed as to who has which spanner or pliers, when they took it, on which aircraft they are working and when it is returned,” Currey notes.

The cost of acquiring the necessary equipment for Virgin Atlantic Engineering’s engineers would have meant a capital investment of about £1 million – so, it elected to lease the tools instead. This approach also allowed it to offset the risk of any potential technological advances that might leave their engineering tools behind. If technology takes a leap ahead at some point in the future such that a whole new range of tools is required, Virgin can simply upgrade.

“We didn’t want to be caught out by changing technology, so leasing the equipment through Rushlift GSE, a partner we trusted and have been working with for over six years now, was clearly the best option,” Currey insists. “We lease our ground service equipment from Rushlift under a full maintenance contract and therefore, it was a straightforward task of adding to the contract.”

He adds: “We’ve got a fantastic relationship with Rushlift GSE – and it works extremely well.”

Rushlift steps in

Rushlift operations director Tim Willett recalls the background to the Virgin decision to expand its partnership with Rushlift into aircraft tooling. While the project dates back a couple of years now, because the extensive selection process took about a year, it was only about 12 months ago that the expanded partnership involving the Snap-on kits with automated tracking of tool removal and recovery really went into operation.

The EASA changes certainly provided an incentive, Willett believes, observing that Virgin has always been quick to adapt to such changes in guidelines, which are likely to lead to new legislation at some time in the future anyway.

While some engineers might perhaps be expected to be slightly resentful of a system that ensures they look after their tools, there has been little evidence of that, he observes. Meanwhile, the fact that Virgin Atlantic Engineering is leasing the equipment means not only that it saves up-front capital costs (these sorts of tools are expensive, and certainly those of the quality of Snap-on) and hedges against future technological breakthroughs, it also means Virgin can concentrate on its core business of flying aircraft.

Rushlift is now (March 2019) onto Phase 5 of its roll-out of the full programme for Virgin Atlantic Engineering. The latest phase saw the addition of kits that check over aircraft surfaces to ensure that no damage has been sustained – a particularly important process given that the composite structures of new aircraft such as the B787 and A350 don’t always show evidence of damage to the naked eye.

In the wake of the introduction of this aircraft tooling lease and tracking programme for Virgin Atlantic Engineering – the first of its kind for Rushlift – other airlines have contacted Rushlift to discuss similar projects for themselves, Willett confirms.

Moreover, while this aspect of the partnership with Virgin relates to tools and kits for aircraft servicing and maintenance, there is no reason why similar tracking capabilities could not extend to the equipment used for GSE maintenance. “This is certainly a system that could be rolled out right across the [aviation] industry,” Willett considers.