Lufthansa’s Airbus A321 Sierra Echo flies passengers around Germany and the rest of Europe 167 times in one month. Routine? No way. Maintenance work has got to be planned in and flight schedules have to be changed at the last minute. Lufthansa Magazin accompanies Sierra Echo for a whole month – and gets a behind-the-scenes glimpse of a logistic masterpiece
Everything was just fine aboard Lufthansa Airbus A321 Sierra Echo until just before landing. It had carried 95 passengers from Frankfurt to Munich earlier that morning and was now on its way back. Captain Ralf Lehner had left cruising height and was approaching runway 25R when a yellow warning light flashed on. A display informed him of a defect in the pneumatics on No. 1 engine, which supply air to the plane’s deicing and air-conditioning systems. Captain Lehner radios this information to the Maintenance Control Center in Frankfurt.
It’s no big deal. The plane has three pneumatics systems and only needs two of them at any given time. So the defect has no adverse effect on the current flight. Sierra Echo lands its passengers safely and on schedule at 10:10am in Frankfurt. The plane’s full registration code is D-AISE, but it is always identified by the last two letters SE, which are Sierra Echo in the aviation alphabet. All part of a normal day’s work for Lufthansa – thanks to a complex, but very flexible behind-the-scenes organization that the passenger doesn’t get to see. This coordinates more than 1100 flights daily, plus planning in routine maintenance and repair work – the result being smoothly functioning flight operations even when unforeseen problems arise.
How does this logistic masterpiece work? What happens to an aircraft during the course of a month? And how do they get to repair Sierra Echo’s pneumatics defect without wrecking the flight schedules? The plane is scheduled to fly to Venice, Italy at 12:05pm. This flight will arrive at its destination on time, too – with the help of a very sophisticated procedure managed by the Global Operations Control Center (GOCC) in Frankfurt and the Hub Operations Center (HUC) in Munich. “This is where it all comes together,” explains Rainer Rehwinkel, the man in charge of aircraft deployment in Frankfurt.
His desk looks a bit like a stockbroker’s cubicle with its bewildering mosaic of flat screens covered with green, blue and orange data. These are the flight schedules of the 280 aircraft in the Lufthansa Passenger Airlines fleet, all of which are controlled by Rehwinkel and the people at GOCC and HOC, who are responsible for a daily flight plan covering a distance of two million kilometers and carrying over 160,000 passengers. “Some parts of these schedules are drafted weeks in advance,” says Rehwinkel, “but a lot of the planning is provisional and can still be changed, right up to the last minute.”
The team can even fit uncertainty into its planning, and it proves this to us with Sierra Echo. “We’ll start by trying to fix the pneumatics right at the gate,” says Rehwinkel calmly “That would be the best and quickest solution. Two technicians are on their way over there right now.” This is where the resemblance to a stockbroker’s cubicle ends. The calm atmosphere reigning at GOCC is the diametrical opposite of the chaos on the floor of a stock exchange. There are no hurried actions. Discussions take place in muted tones. A telephone rings. Rehwinkel picks it up and listens closely. “It’s going to take a bit longer than we thought,” he announces. “We’re pulling Sierra Echo out of flight operations.”
167 flights within one month
All it needs is a few mouse clicks to get one of these leviathans rolling across the apron. A replacement machine from Lufthansa’s operational reserve is delivered to the gate, and Sierra Echo is towed away to Lufthansa Technik’s No. 5 hangar. The gigantic hangar can accommodate up to 14 aircraft. Two technicians get to work on the pneumatics system and soon find the culprit – a defective thermostat. That is quickly replaced and the plane is reported operational at 6 pm. Half an hour later it is scheduled to fly to Athens in place of an aircraft that has been grounded because of a defective seat belt in the cockpit.
From A as in Athens to Z as in Zurich – that’s the way it is on Lufthansa’s short- and medium-haul routes. This month Sierra Echo chalks up a total of 102,000 miles on 167 flights carrying a total of 23,263 passengers. On the medium-haul routes it can make at least four flights a day. For example, on April 7 from Barcelona to Frankfurt, on to Berlin, back to Frankfurt and from there to St. Petersburg, Russia. The figure can go up to eight flights a day on the short-haul routes. Like on April 11 from Berlin to Frankfurt, to Venice, Italy, back to Frankfurt, then twice from Frankfurt to Berlin and back, and finally an evening flight to Hamburg.
Like all Lufthansa aircraft, Sierra Echo has a regular checkup program – a short ramp inspection at not more than 48-hour intervals, a detailed S Check weekly and, at longer intervals, the much more thorough technical overhauls specified for all the aircraft in the fleet. The maintenance work is generally done overnight, so that the aircraft can be kept in the air as long as possible during daylight hours. Minor defects, say a defective coffee machine or fold-up table, or maybe a damaged tire, can be repaired on the apron, and the aircraft is ready for use next morning without having to be towed to the hangar.
On April 16, Sierra Echo is once again withdrawn from operations. The left engine is scheduled for replacement. This is a routine action due after a maximum of 20,000 flights, but carried out more frequently in actual practice, for example, when a component is showing signs of wear and tear or if fuel consumption is higher than average. The aircraft rolls into No. 6 hangar at 7 am. The enormous building looks almost deserted this morning. Only two other aircraft are being serviced.
Ready for takeoff – after 50 minutes
Two technicians remove the cowling and disconnect the piping, hoses and cables from the engine. They remove a few components that will be reused in the new engine. Then comes the main event: a heavy-duty traveling winch on a 60-foot high gantry is rolled into position and lifts the two-ton engine effortlessly out of the aircraft. This is a high-precision operation, because an error of only a fraction of an inch could damage both the engine and the plane itself. “Looks pretty spectacular,” says team boss Horst Wilhelm, “but it’s actually a routine job that we do every few weeks.”
The new engine is installed, connected up and then put through a series of tests. It passes all of these and Sierra Echo is once more ready to go. Next day it takes off at 1:35 pm on its scheduled flight to Lisbon. The rest of the month is pretty uneventful, aside from a stop in Rome for a minor engine repair. After a delay of only 50 minutes Sierra Echo is ready for takeoff again – on its next mission for the Lufthansa fleet.