Printed headline: Tech Ops Tweaks
Last year was pivotal for improvement in United Airlines’ on-time performance, partly because of the dramatically better performance of its technical operations division.
The airline set an all-time record in April of 145 consecutive hours without a cancellation. It logged 59 days of 100% mainline completion—shattering the previous record of 21 days, recorded in 2016. It also captured its best controllable completion rate (not counting weather-related problems such as Hurricane Harvey, which devastated Houston, and ATC issues) for its mainline and Express operations.
While 2017 brought changes to Tech Ops, the end of 2016 included two major events that resolved major remaining issues stemming from its merger with Continental Airlines in 2010, and these helped set up last year’s performance improvement.
In 2016, United migrated all of its maintenance activities on to Sceptre, which was Continental’s legacy system. This meant Tech Ops was no longer operating two systems, running two processes and two sets of manuals. At the end of 2016, United ratified a new contract with the labor union representing its mechanics, which had been in the works for years. “So instead of focusing on merger distractions, we could focus on running an airline and doing maintenance,” says Kris Bauer, senior vice president for technical operations.
Bauer, who joined United in January 2017, drew a divider separating line and base maintenance. He thinks there needs to be division between the two, and “over the years, that line became gray.” The airline had been “doing more base-type work in line maintenance, which distracted us from the core function of doing things that are really important to customers,” such as being on time, says Bauer.
So one of United Tech Ops’ big efforts last year was extracting those tasks from line maintenance and inserting them back into base maintenance.
As an example, United operates a line maintenance station at its Denver hub that was performing landing gear changes. Those are pretty extensive, and “they took up a hangar,” lots of labor and oversight, which was a “big distraction,” says Bauer. United moved that work back to base maintenance, allowing the Denver station to “focus on clearing MELs [minimum equipment list issues] at night and fixing broken airplanes,” he adds.
Another example of the efficiencies came from making Airbus A320 and Boeing 737 C checks similar. The A320s underwent a more traditional C check but United’s 737s had more phased checks—A checks with some heavy maintenance tasks dropped into the overnight work. “That made a lot of sense when the airplanes were new” and they were operating for Continental, “but as the aircraft aged and the airline became more complex [after the merger], those extra tasks sucked up a lot of labor,” says Bauer.
To correct that, Tech Ops rewrote the 737 maintenance program and moved certain tasks back into C checks. By doing that, it again distinguished between line and base maintenance, and the A320 and 737 checks are more closely aligned.
United’s A320 A checks take 60-70 labor hours and the 737 A checks, which used to consume 125 labor hours, are down to A320 levels.
The Tech Ops team is in the process of harmonizing Boeing 757 checks, to “keep base out of line,” he says.
Aligned with this, United Tech Ops used to focus maintenance at the hub, but it has spread out the work geographically to stations such as Portland, Oregon, and Tampa, Florida, as well as international locations including Hong Kong, London, Sao Paulo and Taipei, Tiawan. At the same time, “we asked base stations to support the line,” so instead of the line taking base maintenance tasks, the pendulum has swung back, says Bauer.
This flexibility has positively impacted the system: Stations can respond faster and the average number of out-of-service aircraft came down significantly in 2017. Another key metric, STAR departures (start the airline right: get the first flights out on time so there is not a trickle-down delay effect) also greatly improved from the prior year.
The airline as a whole, as has been publicized, is trying to become more customer-focused. Besides being responsible for having the aircraft available as scheduled, Tech Ops has an important role to play in interiors, including making sure that the Wi-Fi is reliable, which is not always the case.
United is working with its vendors Gogo, Thales and Panasonic, and installing new broadband controllers on A320s and some 757s to increase bandwidth. It is also adding more wireless access points on all aircraft to increase network reliability.
United Tech Ops also is becoming more granular in how it looks at reliability problems. “A year ago, if you would’ve asked what was the biggest driver of reliability, we would’ve said (ATA) Chapter 25, which is interiors. What do you do about that? Is it seats? Galleys? Lavs?” asks Bauer.
All delays and cancellations are recorded as four-digit ATA codes, which are much more specific—and they can be addressed by a reliability engineer.
For the 737, United knows the Number One problem causing operational disruptions is the ADIRU (air data inertial reference unit). An engineer found that aging gyros inside the ADIRU cause it to fail at a certain point. “So before this summer, we’ll get all of those high-time gyros off of our ADIRUs, so we should see a substantial improvement in reliability,” Bauer says.
TechOps also has a list of the Top 15 challenges for each fleet, which it addresses and continually updates as problems get fixed. “We go back to the OEM” and also evaluate PMA parts to fix the individual component problem.
While its 2017 STAR performance was the best it has been post-merger, United is still doing “a lot of blocking and tackling,” and “intense basics,” as Bauer says. For instance, United used to have to pull aircraft out of service because MELs weren’t addressed before their deadline, so planners have focused on MELs to make sure they are cleared in time.
Another proactive step involves making a technician’s work process more efficient. United is rolling out Apple iPads to its mechanics by summer. The applications were developed internally and are unique to the airline’s processes and systems, says Bauer. The iPads will allow technicians access to electronic logbooks so they can see deferrals, assigned work, manuals and wiring diagrams. They’ll also be able to sign off on work at the airplane and order parts. “We’re getting great feedback from mechanics,” who largely designed it, he says.
“It’s going to be a step change in how we do business.”
United also is investing in a new warehouse management system and is looking at health monitoring and predictive maintenance opportunities for further Tech Ops efficiencies.