Get extra lift from AOPA. Start your free membership trial today! Click here

Managing maintenance

When is a hired expert right for you?

Illustration by Neil Leslie. More than a year ago, Frank Fotia of Hilton Head, South Carolina, was frustrated by engine issues with his second Cirrus SR22.

Savvy maintenance
Illustration by Neil Leslie.

More than a year ago, Frank Fotia of Hilton Head, South Carolina, was frustrated by engine issues with his second Cirrus SR22. “I had it at a local service center and they had a very hard time trying to diagnose what the issue was,” he recalled. “This issue was costing me a lot of time and wasn’t really getting anywhere.”

Fotia had read about Savvy Aircraft Maintenance Management, a three-year-old company that seeks to bring managed maintenance—long used for turbine aircraft—to general aviation’s piston-engine segment. He called Mike Busch, Savvy’s founder and CEO, to discuss his problem, and decided to hire Savvy to help resolve it. Savvy did, in short order. “Since then I’ve been convinced that there’s great value in the money they charge,” Fotia said, especially for owners like him, who run several businesses and don’t have time to deal with service centers.

Irvin Sahni, an orthopedic spine surgeon in Seguin, Texas, also had problems with the SR22 he bought in late 2008. The Cirrus’s new engine gave false indications of high oil temperatures. The original shop could not correct the problem after three visits. “They would just replace the same parts, over and over. It was like a needle in a haystack,” he said. “I ended up going to Fairhope, Alabama, to the TCM service center.”

Engine manufacturer Teledyne Continental struggled to identify the problem, too, and Sahni called in Savvy. The false indications only took place in flight, and the cause was determined to be wires that were not properly routed. “TCM had never run into that before,” he said. “I couldn’t have done it without Savvy. It’s paid for itself, in my opinion.”

Managed maintenance for pistons

Savvy’s genesis began more than 23 years ago, when Mike Busch bought a Cessna Turbo 310. When the director of maintenance at his shop left and was replaced by someone less experienced, Busch decided to learn about maintenance. He did his own for years, then became an airframe and powerplant mechanic and earned inspection authorization. He went on to work as a tech rep for several type clubs, and was 2008 A&P of the Year.

“Being a type club tech rep is really an interesting experience,” he said. “Troubleshooting, which is mostly what we’re doing, is a totally intellectual experience. The frustrating part is that you usually get involved way too late.”

In an effort to get owners more proactively involved, Busch put together a 17-hour weekend maintenance seminar. “Basically, what I was trying to do was teach aircraft owners to be aircraft owners,” he said, noting that the federal aviation regulations give owners a tremendous amount of responsibility—but nobody ever trains them for it.

That didn’t solve the problem, either. A 2008 Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association survey revealed that Cirrus owners loved everything about the ownership experience except maintenance. “They hated the maintenance,” Busch said. Busch also realized that piston aircraft were the only segment of the industry still doing maintenance like it was done in the 1950s. “I’m frustrated by that. For various reasons it hasn’t changed in owner-flown GA.”

So, Busch launched Savvy Aircraft Maintenance Management. Clients pay $750 per year for a piston single or $1,000 for a piston twin, which includes management of scheduled and any unscheduled maintenance, including the annual, but not significant events like engine changes, major avionics upgrades, or prepurchase inspections—which can be added for an additional charge. Customers are assigned a primary and a secondary account manager, who work with service centers on the customer’s behalf. Account managers are A&P mechanics and several run shops themselves, allowing them to develop peer-to-peer relationships with service-center staff. “Professional maintenance management has been the standard in higher-end GA, but nobody’s ever done that with Bonanzas or Cessna 210s or Cirruses. We should be able to do 95 percent of what an on-site maintenance manager can do, via remote control.”

Savvy’s more than a go-between with the shop, however. Busch advocates reliability-centered maintenance, meaning that many components are overhauled or replaced on condition—when the work is needed—not on flight time or the calendar. “It’s a whole different way of thinking about maintenance.”

Maintenance is managed through an online platform Savvy built that handles 90 percent of communications. Electronic “tickets” are used to track each shop visit; any time the account manager, service center, or aircraft owner updates a ticket, all parties receive an e-mail notification. Digital photos can be attached to document or help diagnose a condition. Logbooks are scanned and maintained electronically. The system provides reminders for scheduled maintenance.

Savvy’s service agreement includes a mutual hold-harmless, and the company requires customers to add it to their policy as an additional insured. “The service centers do the maintenance, and we act as a very knowledgeable aircraft owner,” standing in for the owner, Busch explained.

In early November, Savvy had 210 aircraft under contract, a number increasing 6 percent a month. More than 60 percent of them are Cirrus models.

Not just for Cirrus

Carl Simons of Medford, New Jersey, has owned a turbocharged Cessna 310 for 11 years—the same model as Busch’s—and had been reading Busch’s articles. “I was very impressed with the longevity he was getting out of his engines,” he said. “I figured with my limited knowledge of airplanes—do I want to get legal advice from the guy next door, or do I want to call a lawyer?”

Simons likes Savvy’s approach of generally repairing or replacing based on condition, instead of time. “My dilemma has always been, am I erring on the side of being ultraconservative, or could I spend less and be just as safe and airworthy?” For nine years he handled his own maintenance, “with a lot of trepidation at times.”

Kyle Jones of Strongsville, Ohio, flies his 1968 Bonanza V35A about 100 hours per year, more since he stopped flying for NetJets. He signed up for Savvy in 2009, after attending one of Busch’s maintenance seminars. “There’s a lot of peace of mind when you have a cadre of experts who aren’t trying to sell you something.”

Engine monitoring, cylinder borescopes, and other tools make reliability-centered maintenance practical today, he said. “You can better and more accurately predict if something’s about to go wrong.” He recently overhauled his IO-520 engine and upgraded it to an IO-550, installing a backup alternator in the process. “Savvy would have me run the main alternator until it failed. But I didn’t have a backup. If I’m going to do reliability-centered maintenance, I’m going to put on a backup.”

“One of the biggest benefits is in dealing with maintenance facilities. When they’re talking with the Savvy folks, they’re talking professional to professional. These guys are respected in the field,” said Gordon Feingold of Santa Barbara, California, who owns a Cirrus SR22 Turbo.

“They really know which items can be done on condition rather than on time, and they cherry-pick those items. And there’s no compromise on safety.” This saves money and reduces the number of maintenance events, he said. “Early on, the service centers were kind of skeptical. But when they look at the relationship, and what the benefits to them are, they became enthusiastic.”

What do the shops think?

If service centers don’t want to work with a third-party maintenance manager, Savvy’s services become less valuable. Owners say they sometimes find shops that balk at the concept, but many facilities are enthusiastic about the idea—and some have found unexpected benefits.

Richard Sanchez, director of maintenance for American Aircraft Maintenance at Orange County Airport in Santa Ana, California, has seven or eight Savvy customers. “We see them on a regular basis. Anything that we find, Mike Busch’s people make a recommendation and sometimes even a decision about what needs to be done. That takes a lot off the owner—a lot of time they don’t know what has to be done. Mike’s people also have the experience with the airplane. If something comes up, we talk, we discuss it—sometimes they’ve seen it before. It definitely helps when we have two sets of mechanics looking at it, especially if something new comes up. And that’s happened before.”

Savvy’s online tracking system is helpful, Sanchez added. “Having that available to my techs here in the shop, that helps. We send out what we see, [and Savvy] communicates with the owners. Owners with Blackberrys respond almost immediately.” He said the relationship has brought new business to his shop.

“Because Savvy Maintenance is run by mechanics, the account manager can help explain to the customer why something needs to be fixed. All my customers seem to be very happy with it,” said Steve Coody, director of maintenance at Aurora Aviation in McGregor, Texas, which services about 10 managed aircraft. He also likes the fact that Savvy account managers are mechanics. “I’m able to tap into that experience. We can’t see everything—they might have seen the same problem at their shop, or in another aircraft that they’re managing,” he said. “We don’t have to waste a lot of time figuring out how to fix it, because somebody else has already done that before.”

Steve Miller, director of maintenance at Leading Edge Aviation in Tampa, Florida, wasn’t real big on Savvy when they first started, “but they have become a good group to work with.” Not all pilots know how to make informed decisions about what’s needed for their aircraft, he said. “There’s a lot of difference between maintaining a car and maintaining an aircraft.”

Miller compared aircraft maintenance to $20 oil changes for your car, where the garage inevitably recommends several other services. A motorist can call a spouse or friend for help sorting out what’s really needed. Aircraft shops will recommend services, too—sometimes as a service center, they’re required to. “The ones you have to do—you have to do,” he said, but recommended and cosmetic items usually can be safely deferred. While Miller tries to help customers make those decisions, some customers prefer to work with a third party like Savvy. “They’re like Joe Friday from Dragnet: ‘Just the facts, ma’am.’” Savvy might recommend doing something that’s not required, or acknowledge the shop’s recommendation but tell the owner that because of the way he flies, it can be deferred. “As a director of maintenance, that’s nice, because the customer leaves happy—even though it’s the same information.”

Filling a need

“Pilots learn to do stalls and fly ILS approaches, but nobody teaches them anything about maintenance and being an aircraft owner,” said Adrian Eichhorn, an A&P, aviation maintenance lecturer, and Beechcraft expert. “As an airplane owner you have to think of yourself as a director of maintenance,” he said. “I like to see owners get somewhat educated and more involved in their maintenance, but there are those who don’t have any interest in that. In that case a program like Mike’s is a good idea.”

There are maintenance facilities that take advantage of consumers, he added. “I think there are certain individuals that definitely need” maintenance management services.

That doesn’t mean Savvy customers are disengaged from the process. The ticket system lets Fotia stay involved. “You can be as hands-on as you want, or just step back,” he said, adding that he likes the emphasis on diagnosing any problems before taking the aircraft in for service. Downloading engine data helped to troubleshoot his engine issue, and data is reviewed at annual time as well. “You upload that to their website and they can see exactly what’s going on with your engine,” Fotia said. “It saves you a lot of aggravation and grief, especially if you’re having a gremlin.”

Sahni, a 700-hour private pilot who handles maintenance tasks for the Cessna 150 he owns, said Busch “reminds me of the internal medicine professor I had who really wants to sit down and analyze the problem. It’s refreshing to work with these guys, and I’ve learned so much. Just working with these guys, you will learn a ton—to me, the $750, that’s worth it for the education.”

E-mail the author at [email protected].

Related Articles