Southwest Airlines' Winning Maintenance Team

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

“We try to recruit mechanics that have a positive attitude and broad work experiences, then we provide them with in-depth B737 type, systems, and troubleshooting training. The accuracy comes from their experiences and our training. The speed comes with application of that training and repetitive work experiences. The maintenance department gets a lot of respect from other departments and company employees. Occasionally I ride in the cockpit jump seat and I always hear compliments from our pilots about our mechanics.”

AMTSociety’s 4th Annual Maintenance Skills Competition

This year, Boeing, Alaska Airlines, FedEx, UPS, Southwest Airlines, Australian Licensed Aircraft Engineers’ Association (ALAEA), and the Association of Maintenance Professionals (AMP) competed in the Commercial division of AMTSociety’s Maintenance Skills Competition held in February in Las Vegas. A total of 26 teams competed in five categories. Southwest Airlines was the defending champion. It also won the William O’Brien Award for Excellence in Aircraft Maintenance for having the fastest score.

The 2011 Team Southwest included Chris Wilson (DAL); Corey Fritz (DAL); Eric Dulski (DAL); Mark Mattioli (MCO); Tom Zollars, coach; and Dennis Pelletier, manager of maintenance training. Kyle Acuna (PHX) and Scott McNabb (DAL) were 737 event judges. I asked team coach Tom Zollars, why enter the AMTSociety Maintenance Skills Competition. “Like Mark Mattioli says, we have a good reputation and we want to demonstrate that. It’s that Southwest competitive spirit. We like to compete and win.”

We had the opportunity to see and listen to some of that competitive spirit in AMTSociety Skills Competition YouTube video. You got a sense of the Southwest Maintenance Culture. They left no doubt that they were a team of professionals and they were there to win. As Corey Fritz put it, “We are here to win and have a good time.” Their team spirit was emphasized by the pink Breast Cancer Awareness ribbon each wore. These ribbons were to recognize one of their teammates that had gone through the training but had to drop out in order to support his wife who was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. That team member and his wife have since received better news.

Southwest’s Skills Competition team

I asked team coach Tom Zollars how they chose the team members. “The first year we competed, our management chose the team members. After that it was by peer review and selection. The standards and requirements for a Southwest Skills Team member are very high. These guys are serious about the standards and winning this competition. They want members on the team that have solid mechanical skills and can perform under pressure and deal with ambiguity. We never know until the competition what the tasks are going to be.”

I asked about company support. “We had total support from the company. They provided the uniforms and covered all travel and incidental expenses for the training sessions and for the actual competition. I don’t want to talk too much and divulge our winning strategy, but we treat this competition like a training assignment. In January, our training department manager Dennis Pelletier pulled me out of the training rotation and assigned me to train and support this year’s Skills Team. The team completed three four-day training sessions.”

2012 Maintenance Skills Competition?

After talking to folks like Tom Zollars, it is apparent that the maintenance department and its AMTs are part of and demonstrate that Southwest spirit. Current CEO Gary Kelly puts a sharper point on their commitment to the employees: “Our people are our single greatest strength and most enduring long-term competitive advantage.”

How is this company spirit, customer service, respect, and commitment to the employees working? Last year, when many American companies were shrinking, laying off, and going bankrupt, Southwest had a net income $459 million, and 2010 was its 38th consecutive year of profitability.

Southwest won AMTSociety’s 4th Annual Maintenance Skills Competition. I asked the reigning champions if they would field a team and defend their title in the 2012 competition. Zollars gave a tentative yes, and said “that you never know what a year will bring, but yes, we are planning to compete and win again next year. As you know Southwest’s acquisition of AirTran is moving forward. Our plan is to field two teams, one from Southwest and one from AirTran.”

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