High flyer: Interview with Phil Maher, director of engineering, Virgin Atlantic

4 min read

The challenges facing the airline industry have never been tougher. Justin Cunningham talks to Phil Maher, director of engineering at Virgin Atlantic, about how his team engineers solutions.

Operating in one of the most competitive sectors in the world, the engineering pressures and responsibilities on large airlines are unparalleled. Extraordinary care must be taken to manage and control maintenance processes to ensure operational efficiency and, of course, safety become an intrinsic part of the organisation. Additionally, given the competitive nature of the airline industry, introducing and investing in the 'right' new technology is essential in keeping costs down and staying on top. One of the major challenges facing the sector is product differentiation. Boeing and Airbus have both taken a rather Henry Ford approach to production which means aircraft delivered to airlines around the world are now generic and standardised. It is therefore up to engineers at Virgin Atlantic to drive that differentiation into its aircraft to distinguish them from competitors. This creates many engineering challenges for Virgin's design and product engineering teams. "To turn an aircraft into something that is bespoke and specific to Virgin takes a huge amount of effort, energy and thinking," says Phil Maher, director of engineering at Virgin Atlantic. "We normally have to start about three years ahead of an aircraft delivery." Maher would like to see engineers at Airbus and Boeing modify this approach and think about how they can continue to drive cost out of the manufacture process, but also add flexibility in terms of what the operators want and need to provide. Good advice for most engineers. "The manufacturers have accepted the need for simplification and cost reduction, but that is being done at the expense of customisation to the aircraft," he says. "We want to provide something unique and special for the passenger. As a result, we have a cabin customisation programme that looks at everything from hard products such as the seats to softer elements such as carpets, colours, service interfaces and technology interfaces." So obsessed is it with providing a bespoke experience to passengers that Virgin decided to rewrite the software for its In-Flight Entertainment System. This, Maher says, has helped fundamentally change the experience of passengers. "It now behaves and operates like an iPad," he says. "It changes everything from Video-on-demand to how you can call for a drink from the galley, to what you are going to order for food. So it feels more like a bespoke concierge service." Virgin is also unique in that it designs and manufactures its own seats, setting up a company called Reynard Aviation. With the seats being such an important part of the passenger experience, Virgin wants its 'point-of-difference' on flights to be very obvious in terms of comfort, feel and experience. "We look at the seat's looks, comfort and function," says Maher, "And then you look at how that seat will interact with technology such as in-flight entertainment, the connectivity of phones or laptops, how the passenger interacts with that media as well as the service aspect, such as how will the trays pull out and fold up." Other elements of its product differentiation include the paint scheme. Virgin recently trialled a paint called Andaro that provides a very high quality finish similar to a top-end car as opposed to the industrial paint normally applied. "This is an integral part of our branding but within that there are environmental benefits," he says. "It is lighter paint, lasts longer and looks better. But, of course, it is more expensive." The paint has a top clear lacquer layer and Virgin is currently evaluating a special polish coating called TripleO which uses nano technology to fill tiny gaps, impurities and scratches on the surface of a panel down to nanometres. This gives, for example, the surface of the leading edge of a wing near perfect smoothness that can reduce friction by 39% and result in a 1-2% fuel burn reduction. This may not sound much, but across a fleet of aircraft over the course of a year, it could result in the saving of millions. "However, we believe that the finish we have from the Andaro paint is already delivering fuel savings," says Maher. "So the TripleO would likely not yield as much benefit as it would on a standard paint scheme so we are still evaluating exactly what the benefits are." However, the biggest challenge for the wider aircraft sector is the need for a step change in fuel burn ratios. How will it drive a 50 or 60% improvement in fuel burn? "Those are the sort of numbers we need to be thinking about," he says. "That is probably addressing the engine technology, the airframe technology, the stage length, the speed, so these are a really complex set of challenges." Another major challenge is the skills gap. Like many firms, Virgin fears the 'demographic time bomb'. With about 35% of its staff over 46 years of age – and based on the notion that people might retire on average at 65, then it will experience a major demographic shift in its staff over the next few years. However, the demographic issue at Virgin also will coincide with a change in engineering requirements. Aircraft are increasingly being made out of composites and have an increasing array of onboard sensors and diagnostic equipment integrated throughout. Younger engineers are likely to be more au fait with the IT aspect of these technologies and how software might be integrated into a maintenance and engineering role. "That actually raises a bigger question for us, and probably for wider industry," says Maher. "Managing the cultural impacts of what is happening with commercial technology and the impact that has on the thinking of an engineer. Does it lead, for example, to a need for instant answers and instant results that we might need to temper? So when we look at technology impacts, we of course look at the technical aspects, but also how it might change an engineer's behaviour and what we have to do to manage that." Background Phil Maher, director of engineering at Virgin Atlantic, joined the Irish Air Corps as an apprentice and learnt the skills of the trade over four years. His next major career step came when he joined British Airways, and over a period of 12 years gained increasing qualifications. At 27, Maher decided he wanted to go into management and has since completed an MBA from Henley Management College. "Like a lot of engineers I have a lot of qualification and accreditations," he says. "This reflects a personal commitment to ongoing professional development. "This is a point to make around apprenticeships; it gives you the foundations to develop the career you want whether you become a highly skilled specialist or go into more generalist management. The opportunities provided by engineering qualifications and apprenticeships are unparalleled."