Internal airline maintenance repair, and overhaul (MRO) organizations are eying a variety of improvements to their enterprise-resource planning (ERP) and/or maintenance-management software packages, with document management edging out several other functions as the most sought-after upgrade, an Aviation Week-sponsored survey finds.

Maintenance executives from 31 airlines responded to the survey, conducted by Aviation Week’s MRO Edition with assistance from the International Air Transport Association. The results show that enhancing MRO IT systems is clearly first in importance, followed by replacing systems, then maintaining existing systems.

Document management was selected as a priority enhancement by 65% of respondents, though it was not a runaway winner. Five other functions—maintenance planning, maintenance execution, supply chain management, e-signatures, and tapping into e-enabled aircraft—were selected by at least 50% of respondents. Supply chain execution and increasing mobile usage, such as via tablet-based applications, were other notable preferences among the 11 possible priorities. Respondents were not limited to choosing one priority.

Opportunities for nimble IT vendors aren’t limited to small or upstart carriers. 

Southwest Airlines—the largest U.S. domestic carrier by passenger count—uses a version of legacy system Maxi-Merlin for its fleet of 136 Boeing 737 Classics and the Trax ERP for some of its 500 Boeing 737NGs. Southwest Director-Aircraft Standards John Brutlag tells Aviation Week that the carrier is evaluating how Trax would scale for the carrier’s full fleet. 

Southwest also is looking at IT changes needed to support the Boeing 737 MAX, due in the fleet in July 2017. Health monitoring will be one big change, but the 737 MAX will interact with Southwest ground stations in other ways. Now that the aircraft’s design has been locked in, the carrier can review requirements more closely.

Southwest is evaluating best-of-breed applications for specific functions like planning and forecasting airframe and on-wing engine work. It’s also eyeing mobile maintenance. The carrier is testing a Boeing application on 12 tablets to see if it can eliminate time wasted in traveling to and from aircraft. 

Southwest adopted Boeing’s Maintenance Performance Toolbox in 2007 and the product serves the airline well for document management.  

“But maintenance rules are very dynamic, so the more dynamic we can be with tech data, the better off we would be,” Brutlag explains. “We’d like a system we can control and change as we go forward.”

Southwest also would like more data from its MRO shop vendors on component history. “This is not an area of excellence at repair shops,” Brutlag notes. “When we exchange between operators, we need the history of components. I’d like to manage by serial number.”

Third-party MRO providers are not sitting still. AAR is testing a mobile business-intelligence dashboard that allows its airframe maintenance customers to see work-card status, work-card details and completion milestones in real-time. The information helps customers know if things are progressing on-schedule or if there are problems. The system has rolled out to a launch customer and feedback so far is positive.

While the tool gives customers work visibility, AAR analysts also use the same data for planning to predict non-routines, trigger part orders and assign bays, labor, supplies and other resources. This predictive business intelligence stretches six months to a year out, AAR Chief Information Officer Kevin Larson says.