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I am curious about what happens when a large plane, such as a commercial passenger jet, has an equipment problem at an airport where the company does not have a maintenance facility.

For instance, do airlines have mechanics at every airport that they serve? And do those airports have a supply of spare parts?

Even if those answers are no, I imagine it's easy enough for an airline to fly in parts and staff. What happens if the repair requires some large piece of equipment to complete?

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    $\begingroup$ Related: What is this orange container labeled “Flight kit wheel”? Sometimes it's good to travel with spare parts :-) $\endgroup$ – mins Oct 28 '17 at 9:52
  • $\begingroup$ One month ago, an Airbus A380 flying from Paris to Los Angeles landed at Goose Bay, Newfoundland, after one of the turbojets disintegrated in flight. The airliner can't be repaired at Goose Bay, and the management of Air France and the FAA are still discussing what to do and how... $\endgroup$ – xxavier Oct 28 '17 at 9:53
  • $\begingroup$ And in February, Swissair had to fly in an engine, crew, and tent to fix a Boeing 777 avherald.com/h?article=4a453674&opt=0 $\endgroup$ – DJohnM Nov 23 '17 at 6:26
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There are a lot of possibilities to handle a broken down aircraft, depending on the location and the extent of the damage.

First, to answer the question about mechanics: airlines do not keep mechanics at every airport they fly to. If the airport is a destination of a flight, it is chosen such that it is equipped to service the type of aircraft that will fly there. Repairs are done locally at the airport: after all, a Boeing 757 from Airline X is just like another Boeing 757 from Airline Y, from a maintenance point of view.

Now that may not be true if the airline is flying to a remote location or a not-so-developed country. IIRC an answer from a retired 747 captain on this site states that the flight engineer is also a qualified mechanic and they carry tools in the cargo hold to deal with simple repairs. I am not sure if this practice is still in use today.

If the repair cannot be completed at the airport, it is usually a result a diversion, an emergency landing, or unusual damage. There are two options: either repair the aircraft on site back to service status, or patch it up temporarily so it can fly to a location where better maintenance is carried out.

The airline can use whatever means to transport the necessary equipment there. However a grounded aircraft is an asset not making profit, and the quickest way to shuttle equipment is by flying. The airline may fly engineers and tools from the main hub using its own planes, or it may charter a cargo flight.

If the damage is really serious, the aircraft manufacturer has an emergency response team that go anywhere in the world to fix an aircraft. The team is on-call 24/7. Members of the team are very experienced mechanics who worked at the assembly line, and they can repair almost any damage.

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I’ve done it both in the military and the civilian world. At major airlines, it’s pretty rare that you’ll fly into a place without mechanics. That said, there are odd circumstances as pointed out in other answers. In those cases, we do our best to coordinate with the pilots to get a very good idea of what the problem is.

Usually Maintenance Operations Center techs will try to find a local mechanic or even someone from another airline to get it going. Generally speaking, if the problem was that simple, the pilots probably didn’t need to divert anyway. Other airlines don’t mind helping with parts, but manning is another story. There are labor contract issues, payroll problems, etc... It gets complicated quickly. That’s usually when they call The Mothership and decide to bring a few mechanics in to fix it.

From there, we brainstorm most likely scenarios and also the most outlandish. We try to bring everything including the kitchen sink. From experience, no matter how easy you thought it was on the phone, and no matter what you bring, there is a guaranteed monkey wrench lurking in the midst. After all, if this was just any ordinary problem, the plane would have been off the ground already.

We usually dispatch to the plane by other commercial flights, or we drive to the location ourselves. Most guys prefer to drive because we’re usually on overtime for the majority of the trip... Might as well drive 8 hours on OT too...

Once we arrive, the mess we’re in quickly becomes apparent. We usually hem and haw in gaped astonishment at what went wrong. Then we realize that nothing we are looking at is what we were told over the phone. Then we call The Mothership and explain that we need some outlandish piece of equipment. It then becomes MOC job to get us that equipment somehow or some way. Still on OT, we make our way back to the hotel and wait for the call that our stuff is on the way.

I have changed engines with skyscraper cranes, performed wire splaces with two terminals, a bolt, a nut, and a piece of tape, and made adjustments to “non-adjustable” equipment to get a plane off the ground and into a better location. Sometimes you have to be creative but judicious in the repair process.

Usually, after days of lack of sleep and suffering from overexposure to cold, heat and/or other intolerable elements, we get the airplane up and go home. After our arrival, we fill out our travel paperwork, are summarily haggled to death by bean counters who have no idea what we have just done, and find that the 47 hours of OT we were billing the company for gets knocked down to about 12 hours plus a few denied receipts. In the end, you break even, go home, lie to the wife why there is a $2000 charge for “The Dollhouse” on the credit card and go to bed. Later that evening, you’re called to go on another trip and the cycle continues.

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  • $\begingroup$ If anyone puts sitting in the hotel and unnecessarily long journeys down as OT I think they should expect it to be declined 😉 unless of course you’re genuinely doing actual work in the hotel/car. As much as we’d like it, no one is going to pay that rate for sitting around! Also don’t forget to ask the bartender to put your tab on the bill as a food order 👍 $\endgroup$ – Notts90 Oct 31 '17 at 9:35
  • $\begingroup$ Nice work and family ethic! (BTW, both the bean counters and wife understand the extra OT and nature of the dollhouse) $\endgroup$ – Jeffrey Oct 31 '17 at 13:19
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It depends on the extent of the problem, the availability of mechanical personel and of course on the local availability of spares. About flying in parts and staff, it may not be easy at all, depending on the location of the airport and the distance from the manufacturer and /or airline location: as a typical example, several years ago an Alitalia 747 had a substantial engine problem which caused the pilots to land in Canberra, Australia, instead of Melbourne. Having found and ascertained the extent of the problem, Alitalia decided to adopt the quickest and relatively less expensive option: a new engine was secured to the wing of an other 747, which was flown empty from Rome (Italy) to Canberra. Here the defective engine was taken off the grounded craft and the new one was installed. The total repairing time was about 4 days, which meant that the grounded 747's downtime was comparatively very little and the financial loss to the company was the minimum possible.

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I was flying a night hop out of NAS Cecil Field near Jacksonville, Florida. At that time it was home to the Sidewinders of VA-86. I was headed south and Tampa was on my right wing when the hydraulic warning came on. I was in an A7-E which had 3 hydraulic systems. If you lost one the aircraft still flew fine, but emergency procedures dictated the pilot land as soon as possible. I declared an emergency and checked to see if I could get fuel and a start at MacDill AFB. I landed there, and the squadron detached a maintenance crew to the airport to fix the hydraulic system. It took a few days to repair and was flown back after that.

What I found most interesting about the emergency is that, after getting back to the squadron, the Maintenance Officer told me he would have brought the aircraft home on 2 systems. At the same time he told me that a pilot would never be faulted for following emergency procedures.

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One thing to be considered is the company's willingness to fix the broken airplane due to cost considerations.

In the late 80s or early 90s a certain asian carrier had a ground strike on one of its outboard engines (747) in Manila. This engine was not usable and instead of ferrying an engine in (this airline had 747 freighters and was based in Asia) they elected to ferry the airplane out. A three engine ferry on a 747 is not really that bad especially as it was only a few hours back to base but some airlines only allowed crews who have trained specifically for 3-engine ferries to perform the flight. Some airlines even go to the extent of paying Boeing crews to ferry these aircraft. Well to cut a long story short they went off the runway during the take-off run and the poor plane got stuck in the mud. This airline had been going thru a bad patch with a widebody crash almost every other year.

Another scenario is a certain airline from a middle east country which has been under a trade embargo for a long time.... oh all right Iran Air. Anyway this airline would 'never' ground the aircraft off base. I'd bet that even if the engine fell off they would rather bring the aircraft home rather than pay for off-base engineering which is 'very' expensive. If you work on an airport which handles this airline you will notice that they usually have their own ground engineers. This is because a contracted engineer may be bound to report an unsafe aircraft to the authorities.

Back to parts.. a lot of airlines maintain reciprocal agreements with other airlines. Eg Lufthansa and Singapore (as an example) would probably work out a deal where if SQ needed a tyre in Frankfurt, LH would loan one to them and vice versa in Singapore. On return the tyre would be accompanied by documentation stating how many landings the tyre had done and LH would bill SQ accordingly. You would be surprised that even sworn enemies will help each other as you never know when you'll need help! Only exception is if their own stock is low then they may not be able to release because they need to be prepared in case their own plane breaks.

Aircraft which do a lot of ad-hoc flying will carry a flight kit and engineer on board. Stuff like filters, tyres, oils and other things which usually cause problems on that type are usually carried. These thing will usually get you home even if it doesn't cure the problem. Eg a component like a pump may be faulty and the aircraft MEL (minimum eqpt list) may state that pump must be removed. Well you probably wont have the pump in the spares kit but you may have a blanking plate and seals so if you remove the pump and blank off the drive hole then you'd be good to go, back to base at least!

Finally a lot depends on the culture the airline comes from and the attitude towards regulations. A pilot from one country would never fly a plane his colleague from another would cheerfully take to the skies. We all bitch and moan about the regulations but at the end of the day I'd rather be late than dead.

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