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Spirit Takes Time On New MRO Facility Decision

Spirit Airlines debates how much MRO to outsource or bring in-house with a planned new facility.

Printed headline: Spirit Airlines

Spirit Airlines is looking to add another facility in the U.S., but according to Kirk Thornburg, its vice president for technical operations, the carrier has not made any firm decision. He spoke with Inside MRO’s James Pozzi and Lindsay Bjerregaard.

Last year, Spirit Airlines stated that it intended to switch from a mix of Honeywell and P&W Canada APUs to solely Honeywell products. How is this APU standardization plan going?

It’s going OK. The standardization plan entails 3-5 changes out per year. It’s interesting that we’re seeing design changes coming from the Pratt & Whitney Canada products, which we’ll let play out and see where their reliability ends up. But right now, we’re continuing at the right pace to change out the fleet to Honeywell APUs.

You also stated you would look at possibly adding a second U.S. hangar to complement your existing facility in Detroit. How has this progressed in the past year?

We carried out a maintenance optimization project that gave us a bit of breathing room in terms of hangar space needs. This has afforded us an extra year before we need to decide on any new facility. It’s still very much part of our plans, but it’s likely that we won’t start looking for a location and getting a request for proposal until around this time next year.

Speaking of Spirit’s maintenance optimization package, this was due to be completed in late 2018. Was this done on time, and if so, was it a relatively smooth process?

Around 90% of the project was completed on time, but around 10% is pending FAA approval to move some tasks. Optimization and bridging projects of this nature always have their challenges and this one has had it, but it’s a normal set of challenges. Right now, we are in the middle of bridging what we have changed in terms of tasks intervals. We’ll also spend the next year transitioning our fleet. It is presenting challenges in terms of fallout work around the two-year point where we are still trying to manage the packages, how we bundle them and where they are going to be most efficient. Overall, it’s given us some nice growth as we can return some aircraft back to the operation for revenue flying and basically move up a 24-month heavy check interval to 36 months. That’s provided an extra lift for the airline.

Many low-cost carriers outsource most of their maintenance. Does Spirit choose to outsource, and if so, to what degree?

It’s quite traditional, like many low-cost carriers. We outsource all our heavy maintenance, component and engine work. Internally, we carry out most line-level tasks—everything from daily checks up to the A and B check level. The transition point for us, whether we do internal or external, for the airframe-level work is the two-year point, as mentioned previously. Right now, most of that is being done internally, but we are doing some analysis on what will end up being internal or external. All our maintenance combined is roughly 65% outsourced when counting engines, components and heavy maintenance versus our line maintenance work.

What are some of the key planning strategies Spirit has in place when operating its fleet of more than 130 aircraft?

It’s about efficient bundling right now. We’ve basically laid out our life expectancy on an airframe, and we are trying to lay out the most effective way for packages in terms of days out of service. We’ve had a couple of cuts at it, and by using our analysis, we can decide what the life expectancy of a Spirit airframe is. The strategy is just to get the most revenue days within the selected maintenance program.

What does Spirit look for in an MRO partner?

We want partners that can deliver reliably on the key elements of the check visits and engine overhaul visits. We’re looking for reliable span time, reliable outcome for the product, and certainly the cost side comes into everything. We’re also looking for partners prepared to invest more of the resources up front to do the heavy work such as tooling and, in some cases, the inventory that’s needed to support the fallout work. Partners that can step up to not only do the work but also resource the tooling and the spares to go along with it have been the best match for us.

For its maintenance operation, which new technologies have caught Spirit’s eye?

There are a couple of things, but whether they are new or not is debatable. We’ve invested in some applications of new technology. One is called the Aero Tracer, a device that can detect types of leakage on the aircraft, whether it is from hydraulics, oil or deicing fluid getting up into bleed ducts. One of the emerging things in the industry now is dealing with onboard odors and fumes, and the Aero Tracer has been helpful in detecting exactly what is leaking. We’ve also found new applications to apply the Aero Tracer at different points in the aircraft pneumatic system to help isolate where a leak is coming from. Also, we applied borescope equipment to that same problem, and we’re finding ways to take this equipment and place it in areas between engines, APUs and aircraft ducts to look for signs of leakage. Budget has also been approved to transition to tablet technology for our technicians. We expect to complete the migration from paper to tablets in the middle of 2020.

Have there been software upgrades across the Spirit Airlines maintenance operation?

We did one upgrade in advance of the tablet technology transition. We use Traxx software for our maintenance tracking software, and we needed to be at a certain level in that system to be able to interface with tablet technology. This was completed in May 2018. We also had certain infrastructure to get in place in terms of IT bandwith. We’re not doing much with big data and predictive maintenance yet, however. There are a lot of interested parties coming to us, but we probably want to see use cases and business models play out a bit more before we think about signing up for it.

You’ve stated previously that you are somewhat skeptical of big data. Is this still the case?

Yes, I still am. It’s a hard business case to show when a set of data says you can remove a component from an aircraft before it fails. You can never totally have that assurance. We’ll continue to watch companies developing it, however.

When it comes to hiring technical talent, which methods have you used to be competitive? What is your experience with filling the workforce pipeline?

We have been developing relationships with A&P schools near our main hubs. After our partnership with a Detroit-based A&P school and the setting up of an apprentice program was successful, we may be growing these further. Our apprentice program has grown sevenfold from the number of positions we had last year. We’re trying to establish relationships with A&P schools where we can mutually benefit. I’m seeing a shortage in technical talent generally, whether that’s in engineering or planning. The industry must look at a strategy on the compensation package and the career path within Spirit. We’ve had to examine this and adjust our technician pay scale to attract talent. 

Spirit Airlines Fact File

History: Founded in 1983 as Charter One, rebranded to Spirit Airlines in 1992. 

Fleet: Includes 61 Airbus A320-200s, 31 A319-100s, 30 A321-200s and, since late 2016, the A320neo.

MRO Facilities: One maintenance hangar in Detroit.

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