Southwest Airlines' Winning Maintenance Team

"Aviation's Best" according to industry rankings and AMTSociety's Maintenance Skills Competition

Legend has it that Southwest’s cofounder and chairman emeritus, Herb Kelleher mapped out the vision and plan for the airline on a paper napkin while dining at a restaurant in San Antonio. Southwest was incorporated in Texas and commenced service on June 18, 1971, with three Boeing 737 aircraft serving Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio. Today, Southwest has 548 Boeing 737s, employs a staff of about 35,000, and manages about 3,400 flights a day to 72 cities. It is a very successful company and regardless of the category Southwest is continuously being recognized for outstanding achievement:

  • Topped the list of the 50 best U.S. places to work by (December 2010)
  • Named as one of MSN Money’s “10 Companies That Treat You Right” (May 2010)
  • American Customer Satisfaction Index ranked SWA No. 1 among all airlines for the 17th year in a row (June 2010)
  • Named the recipient of the Williams Trophy for Southwest’s environmental stewardship and leadership in Required Navigational Performance. The Williams Trophy is awarded to recognize leadership and vision in aviation or space that has enriched the quality of life on Earth (October 2010)
  • Named Best Low Cost Airline in North America by Business Traveler Magazine (December 2010)
  • Recognized as a Top Employer in G.I. Job’s 2011 list of 100 Military Friendly Employers

How does Southwest achieve this level of performance and contribution? In my opinion it is rooted in the airline’s commitment to its customers, employees, the communities it serves, and the environment. Southwest’s commitment to its employees is written in its mission statement, part of which reads, “Above all, Employees will be provided the same concern, respect, and caring attitude within the organization that they are expected to share externally with every Southwest Customer.” If you have flown on Southwest, very likely you have experienced that great customer service from the frontline staff. I was curious to see how the Southwest’s philosophy is demonstrated in its maintenance organization and by its AMTs.

Southwest maintenance

A staff of 1656 aircraft maintenance technicians (AMTs) maintains the fleet of 548 B737s according to the FAA approved Boeing MSG-3 maintenance program. Each AMT is trained to perform all maintenance tasks on the aircraft. They do not have designated “skills” or specialists and are trained as line mechanics.

Of its 16 locations, 10 have full coverage and perform scheduled overnight maintenance; four with hangar facilities perform maintenance up to the C-check level; and the facility in Dallas also performs MSG-3 heavy checks. It outsources a percentage of its heavy maintenance to select MROs.

Southwest culture

I called senior technical instructor Tom Zollars and asked for specific information about the Maintenance Skills Team and if maintenance is influenced by the larger corporate culture. Zollars says, “Our maintenance culture can be described in two words, respect and teamwork. We are part of the larger Southwest corporate culture, and the Southwest spirit runs through all departments.

“It is really a simple approach. Treat employees with respect. Ensure that they feel they are a valued member of the company and reward teamwork. The employees are motivated to do their best and perform their task as quickly as they can. I have worked for several other airlines and companies and it is surprising how many just don’t understand how important it is to treat employees with respect.”

In the airline community, Southwest’s mechanics have the reputation of being very effective and efficient. They wear shoulder patches that read SWA Maintenance “Aviation’s Best.” I asked Zollars how they developed and maintained that speed and accuracy maintenance philosophy.

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