Vjačeslavs Konstantinovs, VP Base Maintenance
Words by Ilze Pole
Photo by Mārtiņš Zilgalvis (F64)
Whenever the airplanes need a check-up, whether due to a sudden ‘hiccup’ or well in advance of a scheduled inspection, it is Vjačeslavs Konstantinovs’ team that is responsible for aircraft base maintenance and making sure airBaltic’s fleet is fit to fly. As the Vice President of Base Maintenance, over the past few years he has expanded his team from 15 to almost 80 employees and stresses the importance of team spirit in the meticulous work they do.
What exactly are your duties?
Aircraft maintenance is divided into line maintenance and base maintenance. Line maintenance comprises everything that happens on the ramp between flights, such as small fault finding and rectification, or wheel or brake replacement.
In this position, however, I’m directly responsible for base maintenance, which is a much deeper and more thorough inspection of an aircraft. It also involves the inspection and replacement of larger aircraft components, either after a certain number of flown flight hours or according to a calendar schedule. We do that here in the airBaltic hangar, because it might take several days or weeks to replace a component. Access to the aircraft often requires, for example, removing all the seats from the cabin.
It’s only been a few years since we began servicing the new Airbus A220-300 aircraft here in Riga. Before then, they were sent to various other locations.
Until 2019, we sent all our Boeing 737 and Bombardier Dash 8 Q-400 aircraft for base maintenance to the United Kingdom, Turkey, and Canada, where it was available and more cost-effective for us. In 2019, airBaltic management decided to open its own base maintenance programme, because the number of Airbus A220-300 aircraft in our fleet was only increasing.
At the time, I was the senior engineer for the Airbus A220-300 fleet, and I was offered the opportunity to take over the management of this programme. That was something completely new for us, and everything had to be created from scratch, so that, to a certain extent, is why I agreed. In autumn 2019, we began working on opening a base maintenance facility in Riga.
I’ve been working on these aircraft from the very beginning – from the moment the decision was made to introduce them into our fleet – and I’ve also carried out inspections in Canada, where the Airbus A220-300 is manufactured. At the time, I was a Boeing 737 engineer. Then I became an Airbus engineer, then senior engineer, then head of base maintenance, and then a vice president.
I remember one of my colleagues telling me about the first time she walked into a hangar, and she saw a completely disassembled aircraft. What was being done?
Yes, that can be a disconcerting sight (laughs). So-called structural tasks were being performed on the plane. The inspection involves checking the structure of the plane, which means that everything is removed from the cabin, leaving only the outer skin. The structure is then checked for cracks or corrosion. Inspections like these are carried out every six years, but there’s an even bigger inspection every 12 years, when the aircraft is completely disassembled and put back together again.
That requires a very knowledgeable and professional team of technicians.
Initially, the Airbus A220-300 base maintenance team consisted of 15 people, all of whom were already airBaltic employees. No one outside the company had had experience with this type of aircraft, so we ourselves had to train any new employee we hired – and even those who already worked for airBaltic but with a different type of aircraft. We built the team by hiring graduates from local universities as well as industry professionals. Students from universities have knowledge about aviation, but it’s not as deep or specific, so they gain this knowledge on the job.
People from other companies also have different experience, because they work with different types of aircraft and the organisation and structure of work is different at other companies as well. So for them to become part of our team and for us to be able to properly do what we need to do and get the aircraft back in the air, we need to invest our knowledge and experience in our employees. We need to instruct them regarding our company’s standards and introduce them to the work culture at our company. Only then can the whole organism work as it should.
We’ve had people come to work for us and say that we’re doing it all wrong! In such cases, we ask them to tell us exactly what we’re doing wrong. Often a person who has worked in aviation for a decade thinks he knows everything. But this is not the case, because none of us can know everything, regardless of age or experience.
I’ve heard very good things about the technical department at airBaltic, especially in the sense that it has been easy for people with no previous experience of working with aircraft to fit into the team, because it’s very supportive and responsive.
That’s maybe also because the base maintenance team was built from scratch and we were very keen to listen to what the employees had to say. We even gained some information from those who said we were doing it wrong (laughs). But we did it also because, as I said before, no one person in aviation can know everything.
And, by putting all sorts of knowledge and experiences together, you form a team in which everyone has something to contribute, which in turn allows you to work together.
Exactly. For example, we have people on our team who have come from the car maintenance sector, and they’ve actually sometimes brought with them new ideas on how to organise the work process: ‘See, in the car repair business we did it this way and it was more convenient. Maybe we can try it out here as well?’ So we evaluated the idea, calculated the costs, and concluded, ‘Why not? Let’s try it!’ Now we use it, it works well, and its helps the whole process in general.
How long have you worked at airBaltic?
Since 2013. But I first arrived at airBaltic as an apprentice in 2011. I was studying aviation engineering, but, to be honest, even after my first two years at the institute, I wasn’t sure if this was really the profession I wanted to pursue. However, the deputy director of the institute, Ņina Šļenska, suggested that I try an internship to see whether it was for me or not.
So I did an internship at airBaltic and realised that this really was what I wanted. After that, I studied in Vilnius for a year as part of the Erasmus programme. While there, I also worked as a technician. After that, I returned to airBaltic for another three months, but there were no vacancies at the time and I wasn’t offered a permanent position. So I worked for another company for a year, but then in 2013 airBaltic approached me and invited me to join the company.
What do you like most about your job?
I think it’s seeing the result. Anyone can disassemble a machine, whether it’s a plane, a car, a train, or a bicycle. But not everyone can put it back together so that it can fly, drive, or roll – even though that’s the most important thing. So that gives me a fantastic feeling of satisfaction.
As far as I know, aviation engineering was not your first field of study. You began studying medicine before turning to aviation.
Yes, but just a few months in, I realised that, while I could complete my studies and everything would be fine, I wasn’t interested in the field. I was good at chemistry, biology, and anatomy; I understood it all, but I had no interest in them. So, without telling my parents, I stopped going to lectures and eventually was told that, unfortunately, because of my attendance record, I would not be allowed to take the exams.
That was a point of no return, because otherwise I would have had to start all over again, and so I told my parents that I wanted to do something completely different. In a way, it was a very conscious move on my part (laughs). Otherwise, I’d now probably be working in the operating room at some hospital. I wanted to be a cardiac surgeon.
But I’d say the hardest moment was after my second year at the aviation institute, when I hadn’t yet seen any airplanes and I was very unsure if I had really chosen the right direction. But it was the deputy director who encouraged me to give it a try. When I finally first saw a plane being assembled and flying away again, it was… a love I couldn’t refuse!
What new projects is your department currently working on?
We’re currently expanding our work to attract new customers in order to perform maintenance on A220-300 aircraft belonging to other airlines. We’ve been certified by Airbus to do this, and it will be an additional revenue stream for airBaltic. There’s still a lot to do in terms of improving procedures and changes in internal processes, but we have the most experience with these aircraft not only in Europe but, we can safely say, also in the world.
airBaltic is also unique in the sense that, internally, we have our own engineering department, which manages all the aircraft maintenance, as well as a maintenance department that’s capable of carrying it out. Very few airlines in the world have a setup like that; aircraft base maintenance is usually done elsewhere. That’s our big advantage.
Now that the Airbus A220-300 is becoming more and more popular, there will be more demand for its maintenance, and we can provide that service. Just recently, we had a customer from France whose aircraft flies in Africa. It flew in directly from Africa, and we did a check on it.
But it’s not just about revenue. As we laugh, the employees don’t see it; only the management and finance department do. For the employees, they see a different aircraft, a different aircraft configuration, and that’s a new, invaluable experience for them. It’s difficult to work in aviation without a love for technology, so for us this is like a balm for the soul. It’s something new! Even people whose jobs weren’t directly linked with this particular aircraft were asking to do something on the plane. That’s a good indicator that our employees are interested and that we can and should develop this aspect of our business.