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Southwest Airlines celebrates the last day of revenue operation for the carrier's 737-500 series aircraft.

Southwest Open To MRO Joint Ventures

U.S. low-cost carrier Southwest Airlines could explore more joint venture and partnership opportunities with aftermarket providers during the next decade as its expansion continues with the introduction of more aircraft and engines.

That was the view of Amanda Gower, the airline’s sr. manager powerplant supply chain who spoke at Aviation Week’s MRO Europe last month about the LCC’s maintenance strategies over the next decade.

“When you have around $4bn of engine spend over the course of ten years – why would you not think about an opportunity like a joint venture?” said Gower, who noted the engine figure as “staggering” even for an airline the size of Southwest.

“We’re exploring new possibilities within the MRO market to take advantage of available offerings. Long-term, it’s important to have relationships with the technical companies that are out there developing repairs.”

Based on the large volumes of change taking place in Southwest’s fleet at present through both aircraft retirements and delivery of new jets, the airline has made a series of moves aimed at refining its maintenance network in the past few years.

One of these was from an organizational standpoint. The bulk of its 700+ aircraft fleet is comprised of CFM56-7-powered 737-700s, with Southwest opting for used versions of the narrowbody from 2014. Two years prior, it began taking deliveries of 737-800s variants. 

These instances, according to Gower, enabled the carrier to “fill out” its organization by splitting it between repair operations – a group overseeing parts, large engine and APU contracts - and strategic sourcing to execute agreements.

“With these changes we were not only able to fill out my organization but also the other disciplines within technical operations that affect the powerplant decision making such as quality, engineering, reliability, finance and even legal,” Gower said. “It’s a very cohesive strategy and approach to our engine maintenance.”

One of the most significant changes to its outsourced maintenance footprint came about after Southwest identified risks due to around 85 per cent of overhaul work being concentrated on a single facility – GE Celma in Brazil. This was brought down to around 70 per cent in 2012 after Southwest negotiated an off-load agreement with StandardAero, Gower said. She added that having a U.S.-based facility also improved logistics by making it easier to transport engines around.

As Southwest continues to grow, with new generation 737-MAX8 set to start entering its fleet from next year, Gower cited some areas where it will look to focus its attentions.

“We’ll aim to build on what we have established and our asset management program is where we are concentrating. In the area of parts management, we feel we did a good job with the tools we had in reducing the classic fleet’s overall maintenance expense but are missing a software tool that can handle large amount of aircraft to really make sure we are not only optimizing life limited parts, utilizing the right work scoping and utilizing module swaps,” she said. “This will also give us a better agile ability to access different scenarios within the retirement planning process.”

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