What do people do early in the morning at Zurich Airport? The answer is obvious: board the first flight and fly away. However, I have other plans for this particular day: I have been given permission to visit SWISS Line Maintenance to interview Guido Zurflueh, SWISS Lead Engineer, and I will accompany Marco Kuenzler, SWISS Licensed Aircraft Engineer, as he goes about his work.
It’s still pitch black at 04:30 in the morning. But even at this early hour, Zurich Airport has already been “awake” for a while. So has Guido Zurflueh, SWISS Line Maintenace Lead Engineer, because the first aircraft of the day will soon be landing and taking off. In his Line Maintenance vehicle, Guido picks up cameraman Adrian Bretscher of Hangar Group Entertainment and myself at the security gate at Zurich Airport. Guido is used to rising early, including on weekends and public holidays, or working late into the night. Shiftwork is a fact of life in Line Maintenance and requires a flexible attitude toward time on the part of those who work there. Shifts are geared to the departure and arrival time of aircraft. As we drive across the apron and through the airport tunnel, Guido comments: “You need to have been bitten by the air transport bug and be fascinated by the complexity of the sector business and the material you work with. In addition to having talent and considerable knowledge, you also have to enjoy the work you do.”
The first SWISS aircraft of the day arrive just after six o’clock, coming in from such places as Hong Kong, Singapore, Johannesburg, Montreal, Mumbai, Delhi and Dubai. This explains why Guido’s shift starts at five o’clock, 40 minutes before the Line Maintenance workers to whom he and another Lead Engineer will allocate the aircraft. The early shift consists of two groups of 6-8 mechanics for the long-haul fleet. Another 8 to 10 mechanics are assigned to short-haul aircraft. The late shift consists of 10 to 12 mechanics divided up in groups to work on long and short-haul aircraft. Each one is a qualified and licensed aircraft mechanic.
On arrival at the SWISS Line Maintenance office Guido checks the maintenance management system to see what work is required per aircraft and to catch up on work in progress handed over from the night shift. With typical efficiency he soon has an overview of what needs to be done and assigns his team members to the various aircraft that need attention. As Lead Engineer he takes into consideration their specific skills and level of training and also coordinates duties for jobs that arise on short notice.
Subordinate to the Lead Engineer is Marco Küenzler, a member of the SWISS Line Maintenance team since 2012. Prior to the start of Marco’s shift I ask Guido a few questions about his own function. He informs me that a pre-requisite for the position of Lead Engineer is the ability to remain calm and maintain an overview of all the aircraft undergoing maintenance work. In difficult situations, it is essential not to let the whole set-up collapse like a house of cards. As he puts it succinctly: “The airplanes must always be safe to operate and, ideally, ready to take off on time. Unnecessary delays are to be avoided. SWISS stands for quality. The company works to meet that benchmark around the clock for every aircraft.”
Guido and his colleagues are looking forward to challenging times ahead, with plenty of variety to their work on the horizon. “With the Boeing 777 and Bombardier Cseries joining the SWISS fleet in the near future, new challenges will arise for us,” he says, his eyes lighting up at the prospect. “We are now being trained to work on these types, learning about new systems and aircraft.” This means that for a certain period of time the mechanics will find themselves working on aircraft types from four different manufacturers: Avro RJ100, Airbus, Bombardier and Boeing.
My next question draws a smile from Guido: “Has there ever been a problem that could not be solved?”. He knows what I’m referring to. Some six months ago I had the opportunity to observe the day-to-day scene at SWISS Line Maintenance. On that occasion I accompanied Guido on his rounds. He responds: “The silver spoon, the phantom,” he says, laughing. “How did that story go again?” I ask.
Guido recalls: “The cockpit crew reported that a silver spoon had been dropped in the cockpit and had presumably fallen into the controls. When we got to the airplane the cleaning crew was already on board. While we were searching for the silver spoon, passengers began boarding for the next flight. We looked all over the cockpit for that spoon and opened up everything we could from the outside.”
In exemplary fashion the pilot had kept the passengers up to date and explained the issue. The cabin crew members distributed snacks and beverages and passengers proved to be very understanding about the matter. Despite a thorough search with the resources available to us, we simply could not find the silver spoon and had to give up the search. The passenger and crew had to be transferred to another aircraft so that the empty machine could then undergo an even more thorough inspection. The instruments and cables in the cockpit are highly sensitive. Safety remains top priority. But the follow-up inspection failed to turn up the missing spoon. In the end it was clear that someone had taken the spoon before Line Maintenance arrived on board.”
In the meantime Marco has arrived. He stands in the doorway, upbeat and smiling, drinking a cup of coffee. Guido hands Marco a binder and gives him a few instructions regarding the airplane he will be working on. Marco reviews his job assignment for the day ahead and takes his place at a computer in order to check a few details. The Aircraft Maintenance Manual is an essential reference. It also exists in digital form on the Line Maintenance laptops that the mechanics take along with them to their respective aircraft. In addition to the Aircraft Maintenance Manual the mechanic might need to refer to manuals for a specific type of aircraft or look up additional details.
With the necessary documentation tucked under his arm, Marco goes to a Line Maintenance vehicle where he checks to make sure the toolbox is fully stocked and all the materials he needs are present. Together with Marco we drive across the airport to the first airplane on the duty list: the one that performed flight LX87 from Montreal. How exciting! We alight from the car just as the last passengers are deboarding via the jetty. I wonder if they have witnessed Indian summer or if their business trips were successful? Marco takes a walk around the aircraft and makes a few exterior checks. The cockpit crew members are the last to leave the airplane. Marco speaks briefly with the pilot to see if anything in particular needs attention. “Everything’s fine,” remarks the long-haul pilot.
Once inside the aircraft Marco studies the logbooks and expresses his appreciation for the brief exchange with the captain: “Before we actually board the aircraft and check the logbook entries by the pilot and maître de cabine, we hear the most important information from him and are then mentally prepared when we arrive on the job.” After going over the logbooks Marco sits in the cockpit and checks the instruments and settings. When he’s finished, he puts the aircraft in the parking position.
For the remaining aircraft, the routine checks are followed by a special check of the temperature gauge in the cabin, air pressure in the tires and an inspection of the cargo hold. “Whenever we can’t fix a problem immediately, we initiate the process for the work to be done, such as when a cargo hold roller is defective. We check it out and report it to our back office team. They will then order the necessary replacement for the aircraft in question.”
After the half-hour lunch break, which takes place between ten and eleven o’clock at the airport’s airside, we drive to an aircraft to replenish the oil in its engines. The next stop sees Marco perform a disc change in the area of the aircraft known as the avionics bay, a small space beneath the cockpit. This space is incredibly snug. Inside, you have to wriggle your way along the narrow passage past the PC racks.
At the final aircraft on Marco’s shift we meet up with Guido. On his tour of duty he checks in with the members of his team to see how they are getting on and, if necessary, provide support. Guido explains the set-up: “Depending on the job, the mechanics work in pairs or even as a trio on an aircraft. The advantage here is that you can respond quickly and thoroughly to certain tasks. Guido takes his place in the cockpit and communicates through the cockpit window with the engineer standing on a ladder and servicing an engine. Marco observes the engine test from his position outside the airplane before we return with him and Guido to the Line Maintenance office. Their early shifts ends when the late shift begins. By 14:20 at the latest, Guido hands over his pending tasks to his late-shift counterpart and includes a few instructions.
Visiting Line Maintenance has provided a pleasant change from my daily office routine. Feeling as though I have been in touch with the whole wide world and that I could attach a small story to every aircraft I seen, I return to my desk in Zurich-Kloten and set about capturing the day’s impressions and experiences.