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American Airlines’ Tech Ops Focus For 2016

Integrating fleets and MRO processes proves challenging for American Airlines Tech Ops after merger with US Airways, but progess is being made.

American Airlines is focused on fleet modernization and improving operational reliability. It expects to receive 90 new aircraft this year—in addition to the 215 since 2014. About 60 MD-80s are being retired. American also is investing $3 billion in the customer experience—including lie-flat seats, international Wi-Fi, inflight entertainment, in-seat power outlets, dining options and renovated lounges.  

Some of this is playing catch-up: Delta Air Lines gained the benefits of merging with Northwest Airlines, and United Airlines is doing the same after merging with Continental Airlines. “Competition is getting better, and we’re a couple of years behind in the merger cycle,” says David Seymour, senior vice president for technical operations.

However, the airline has already made substantial improvements. Its on-time departure performance is up—at 81%, but its completions factor has some room for improvement, he says.

 “From the start of the merger until now, we probably cut [minimum equipment lists] in half, and [nonessential equipment and furnishings] are almost in half. Out-of-service aircraft have come down almost 10-15% on average,” Seymour says. He expects these numbers to improve after fully integrating the legacy US Airways and American operations and fleets.

Fleet Modernization

Prior to the merger, the average age of the combined American and US Airways fleet was about 14 years—behind both United and Southwest Airlines. “By the end of 2017, our average fleet age is going to be 9.6 years, so we will be well ahead of the industry. The rest of the [U.S.] fleets are either holding their own or getting older,” compared to American, “which is getting much younger. So it’s a phenomenal transformation,” he says.

With so many new aircraft coming online and old ones coming out, maintenance requirements are less. “Our MD-80s go through a heavy check at 18-month intervals, and a comparable Airbus would see a heavy maintenance interval every 3-3.5 years. So just the order of magnitude is vastly different,” says Seymour. “So it’s not like work is going someplace else—I just don’t have the requirement to do that much work.”

Engine maintenance is similar. “At one point, the American MD-80 fleet was nearly 400 aircraft,” and the large Pratt & Whitney JT8D fleet “stayed on wing for about two years. Right now, if I look at a V2500 or CFM56, I’m getting first runs between the 5-7-year mark, and even the second runs are not much off that either,” says Seymour.

The airline is still evaluating its capacity requirements and shifting its workforce to where the demands are.

After closing Texas Aero Engine Services Ltd. (Taesl), the engine joint venture with Rolls-Royce at Fort Worth Alliance Airport in January, some technical employees moved to the airline’s maintenance base in Tulsa. Many of these workers were absorbed by the the seat shop, which is busy with cabin upgrades and modification work.

Tulsa’s engine shop has also absorbed the quick engine-change work Taesl previously did. “When you have an in-house engine shop, you just drop off the engine when it comes off wing, and it goes into the shop and is ready to go,” he says. Without that capability, American needed a place to complete the teardown and build-up process—removing components and line replaceable units that don’t travel with the powerplant. “The Tulsa shop has done a phenomenal job at the task,” he says.

As the need for MD-80 heavy checks in Tulsa declines, “we’re bringing in intermediate and drop-in maintenance lines,” says Seymour. Because of the heavy demand for modification work, more backshop support is required, so “we shifted resources to help out there,” he explains.

While American officially merged with US Airways in December 2013 and received its single operating certificate in April 2015, the two airlines’ legacy fleets remain divided by two labor contracts and two back-end MRO IT systems. So “while there is some capability of one group working on the other’s airplanes, there’s not a lot of great opportunity to do that,” notes Seymour.

American is actively negotiating with the Internatioal Associate of Machinists and Aerospace Workers and the Transport Workers Union and hopes to get a single bargaining contract in place soon.

Until then, the legacy American fleet stays within the American environment; that is, at Tulsa and with third-party vendors. The legacy US Airways fleet heavy checks go to Charlotte, North Carolina, Pittsburgh and to third-party vendors.

The lack of a single labor contract for MRO workers is not slowing down the quest for common maintenance programs, however. “We’re already well on the way with that one,” says Seymour.

Only two fleets—Boeing 757s and Airbus A320s—are prime candidates for common programs since US Airways already retired its 767s. The A320s are migrating to the legacy US Airways maintenance program now, so corresponding bridging checks are underway as well. Because the legacy American A320s are relatively young, bridging checks are taking only a couple of days. “We’re also doing some service bulletins on those aircraft to make good use of their downtime,” says Seymour.

The airline’s heavy maintenance hangar in Dallas—referred to as DWH, on the east side of the airport—is doing some of the checks, as is VT Aerospace in Mobile, Alabama. “We’re almost halfway bridged on the legacy American Airbus fleet to the end-state maintenance program,” Seymour says.

The 757s will migrate to the American MRO program since it is a much bigger fleet. “The team is still evaluating options to either (1) convert the line level program first and then convert the heavy check program at a later date, to coincide with a logical heavy check; or (2) convert everything in one major check. At the America West/US Airways merger, we elected to do plan one,” he says.

Aside from the workforces being separated because of contractual constraints, a lot of the tech ops integration is complete. Non-represented staff in the organization are fully integrated. And despite the fact that back-end systems are different for the legacy fleets, American built a system called SAFE (system-agnostic front-end), which gives front-line mechanics a common front-end. “So whether you’re a legacy US Airways or legacy American mechanic, you log in to the same system and interact with the maintenance system the same way. You simply take the tail number and it will point you to the right system and the right data,” says Seymour.

The SAFE application, launched to coincide with the single operating certificate, also buys American time to finish the back-end migration to Sceptre, which US Airways used. Delta uses Sceptre, and United is also migrating its combined fleet to the maintenance system.

“We’re in the process of building that team and scoping the project to see how long it would take to get done. Very conservatively, we hope . . . in 3-4 years, but we hope to get it done much quicker,” says Seymour.

Modernizing the fleet, negotiating a single contract with the unions and keeping up with the enhancements for customers are top priorities for American tech ops, as is improving the operational reliability of the fleet.

“The bar for all U.S. carriers has risen and we’re up for the challenge,” Seymour adds.

Gallery See images of American Airlines’ Tulsa, Oklahoma, maintenance base at: AviationWeek.com/AATulsa 

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