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Feature Story

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Boeing/Bernard Choi

A maintenance expert shows how airline technicians would use a scanner to read information from small identification tags that are embedded in the airplane. Boeing, Alaska Airlines and Fujitsu are launching this new service in a program called Component Management Optimization.

Using radio frequency to inspect airplanes (Video)

To get airplanes ready to fly every day, men and women like Mark Whittaker have to get on their hands and knees every night.

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Boeing/Bernard Choi

Alaska Airlines maintenance technician Mark Whittaker bends down to inspect a Boeing 737 cabin door. Airplane inspections like this can take hours of hard work.

The Alaska Airlines maintenance technician showed us how he inspects a Boeing Next-Generation 737 from front to back by checking almost every nook and cranny.

"We have cards that remind us exactly what to look for and you have to go through and check it all," says Whittaker during a break inside Alaska Airlines' hangar at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. "You just have to. It's important."

Boeing, Fujitsu and Alaska Airlines are partnering to test and validate a program that could shave hours from some of these inspections. Called the Component Management Optimization program, all a technician would have to do is walk around the airplane with a scanner.

"You save money, save manpower and [put] less wear and tear on the mechanics as they're not crawling on the floor." Glen Steger, airplane maintenance expert

The solution is embedding small contact-memory buttons (CMB) or radio frequency identification devices (RDIF) in the airplane. Those tags send out radio waves that can be read by an electronic reader.

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Boeing/Bernard Choi

The contact memory buttons (circular) and radio frequency identification tags (rectangular) can store all kinds of information such as part number, serial number, date of manufacture, and maintenance history.

"With an RFID tag on a certain panel, you can walk by and point and click and read the information about that panel and everything associated with it," said Glen Steger, a veteran airline maintenance mechanic who advised Boeing on the program. "That way, you don't have to open it up, take the time for removing the screws and replacing the screws to do that."

In the video above, Whittaker demonstrates how a traditional, manual check would work compared to one aided by RFID and CMB technology. The former took nearly 9 minutes, while the latter was completed in about one minute.

"If it's smart enough to check your [part] tags and possibly even pressures, I think it would be a good idea to speed things up," says Whittaker.

"If it's smart enough to check your [part] tags and possibly even pressures, I think it would be a good idea to speed things up." Mark Whittaker, Alaska Airlines maintenance technician

The tags can store all kinds of information such as the part number, serial number, and date of manufacture. Technicians can update the maintenance history on the tags by typing the latest information on the scanner and sending it to the tags via radio waves. It becomes an electronic record that travels with the airplane.

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Boeing/Bernard Choi

In a demonstration of how airlines could save time and money by using radio frequency identification technology, Alaska Airlines maintenance mechanic did a cabin check the old-fashioned way and one if RFID and CMB devices were embedded in the airplane.

The program is scheduled to launch by 2012 and Alaska Airlines will be the first airline to use the technology with their airplanes. Other airlines flying Boeing and non-Boeing airplanes could follow and use the same technology after the program is certified.

"Our partnership with Boeing reflects our vision of being on the leading edge of the best technology applications that we believe will shape the future airline operations environment," says Fred Mohr, vice president of maintenance and engineering at Alaska Airlines.