Printed headline: Alaska Airlines
Kurt Kinder, a 29-year veteran of the airline, became Alaska’s vice president for maintenance and engineering in January 2016. He talks with James Pozzi about how the airline’s acquisition of Virgin America will affect its operations, as well as the drivers behind the carrier’s new Anchorage hangar, scheduled to open next year.
What are some of the key elements of Alaska Airlines’ current maintenance strategy?
Our maintenance strategy is relatively straightforward. Safety and compliance are at the center of everything we do, and we proactively build them into our processes. Internally, we perform line maintenance, engineering, planning, material support and quality oversight. As for heavy airframe, engine and component maintenance, we use outside, U.S.-based maintenance providers.
There’s a saying at Alaska Airlines: What gets measured, gets managed. So a big part of our operational excellence strategy involves measuring inputs and outputs. Whether it is completion rates or delays, we have a scorecard for everything. It’s our job to figure out the story within the data. The more we understand the data and associated trends, the easier it is for us to identify incremental improvements, put mitigations in place, and ultimately run a better operation than we did the day before.
Another area where I believe Alaska stands out is working with the FAA and our commitment to transparency. This includes our data analysis and risk-mitigation efforts. Alaska’s Safety Management System (SMS) was approved by the FAA in 2016 and has systematically integrated safety throughout the culture and business processes across the airline. Not only are our employees trained on safety standards, they are empowered to stop the operation if they have a safety concern.
Running a solid operation drives us to standardize and simplify work. Whether it is through taking action on employees’ ideas, improving processes or integrating new technology, our success relies on the continuous-improvement mindset of our people. This is how and why we excel in both safety and on-time performance.
Last July, the airline group announced plans for a new $40 million facility in Anchorage. How will the added capacity aid your maintenance operation?
We’re thrilled about the new Anchorage hangar, but it isn’t quite as sexy as it sounds. The current hangar was built in 1954 to accommodate DC-3s, and needless to say, we’ve outgrown the space. The new hangar will be able to house two Boeing 737 MAX-9 aircraft, which means maintenance of all aircraft types can be performed indoors. And speaking from experience, this is a big deal during the winter months in Alaska.
As far as added capacity, this facility helps us cover the overnight maintenance needs as we grow our fleet. The hangar was designed with our projected operational requirements in mind, including Bombardier Q400, Embraer 175 and Boeing 737NG maintenance.
What’s inspiring to me is that the people who will one day be working inside the hangar were part of the design process from the beginning. We incorporated ideas and requirements from our mechanics and stores agents to ultimately design a better, safer facility.
Last year, Alaska Air Group received the greenlight to acquire Virgin America. Are you anticipating the number of additional aircraft coming into the group’s fleet having an impact on your maintenance operation?
We will acquire all of Virgin America’s Airbus A319s, A320s and soon-to- be-delivered A321neos. Obviously, this is a major departure from our current all-Boeing 737 fleet approach, so we will need to adjust our organization to again support a multi-fleet operation. As we join forces with Virgin America and become one team, there’s an opportunity to learn from each other and adopt best practices for the maintenance operation going forward. We are in a unique position; we get to see how another awesome airline runs its business and their operation. We are not taking this for granted.
In fact, we are setting up a robust cross-training program so mechanics are ready to support a mixed fleet at stations across our network. The acquisition represents growth, and inevitably this will mean more mechanics required to support our growing fleet and operation.
In which technologies have you invested in recent years to support your MRO teams?
As far as implementing new technology, we’re cautious about introducing new software to solve problems without fully understanding what is driving the data of our operational metrics and scorecards. Instead, we are using data to identify dependencies within maintenance and operational processes.
For example, we use Tableau [data visualization software] reports and dashboards to increase our business intelligence of the operation. Using the dynamic real-time data, we are able to organize and identify emerging trends. This allows us to take the necessary actions to modify our underlying processes instead of buying a potential fix.
As a side note, we are also using mobile technology with our mechanic workgroup and bringing reference materials electronically to the aircraft. We provide mechanics with iPads, which are preloaded with specific line-maintenance software including the Boeing Mobile Toolbox. We are bringing manuals, diagrams, etc. to the mechanic’s fingertips so that they can get the support and resources they need while working on the aircraft, in the hangar or at the gate.
What do you foresee as the next big challenge for your airline’s maintenance teams? What are the greatest opportunities?
As I look at our workforce, one of the biggest challenges is the gap between forecasted retirements and the next generation of mechanics coming out of airframe and powerplant (A&P) schools. We need to ensure that the knowledge and expertise of those retiring is documented and transferred from one generation of mechanics to the next. We work closely with several local A&P schools to attract and prepare students, but as the industry continues to grow, these skills are in high demand and airlines are competing for the same resources.
One thing that will help us overcome this challenge is the newly ratified agreement with the Aircraft Maintenance Fraternal Association. At Alaska, it was time for a wage reset for mechanics. The new five-year agreement allows us to offer competitive wages near the top of the industry.
The greatest opportunity we have is utilizing our most valuable assets, people and airplanes effectively. “Big data” and the “internet of things” will help us identify opportunities for incremental improvements that will lead to continuing productivity gains.
Much is said about a “skills gap” within the MRO sector. How is Alaska working to bridge this gap?
Internally, we need to leverage our critical resources in a way that maximizes their skills. This includes identifying core technical work versus work that can be performed by support teams. We have an extremely talented group of licensed aircraft mechanics and engineers working together, and they need to focus on where their skills are most critical to the operation.
Externally, our robust vendor oversight process includes Alaska teams on-site where they can work closely with our maintenance providers to bridge any gaps. We conduct quarterly performance reviews, share lessons learned and best practices as well as provide training opportunities.
What does Alaska look for in an MRO partner such as supplier, logistics operator, distributor, etc.?
My team looks for partners who embrace our values and share our commitment to safety and compliance. We also seek out vendors who have a track record of delivering quality products and services, and use proactive data-driven problem-solving approaches. Our suppliers who are able to do this well perform consistently and are in the top tier of our suppliers.
Does Alaska carry out any third-party maintenance work?
We have on-call line maintenance agreements established at select locations in the U.S., but the third-party work we perform is minimal.