More than 25 years in the making, Horizon Air is one of the largest regional airlines in the U.S. with major hubs in Seattle and Portland and secondary hubs in Denver, Boise and Spokane. The airline shares its activities, bookings and connection services with Alaska Airlines, Northwest Airlines, Continental Airlines and KLM. A three-year partnership with Frontier Airlines will terminate at the end of this year and nine CRJ-700s will be re-introduced into the Horizon route structure. For any airline, but particularly a regional the size and scope of Horizon, tracking every aspect of the company’s operations is imperative.
ON THE RIGHT TRACK
Project management, schedule maintenance and tracking are important functions in any industry. However, since the enactment of the SOX legislation in 2002, the intent of which is “to protect investors by improving the accuracy and reliability of corporate disclosures made pursuant to the securities laws,” these functions are mandatory. The act, administered by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), sets deadlines for compliance and publishes rules on requirements, but it does not specify how a business should store records; rather, it defines which records are to be stored and for how long.
Though SOX may have impacted the airlines’ IT departments initially, tracking and maintaining historical data such as flight status, runway and gate times, delay times and most airline operations is certainly not new. Collection of information and data, particularly due to the nature of the industry and importance for extreme safety measures, is an institution.
This has not always been the case with ground support equipment and GSE departments. In fact, not only has equipment maintenance tracking been overlooked in the past, but anecdotal stories of misplaced towbars, bag carts or even tugs as being part of the GSE culture, abound. “It can happen many different ways, especially at large airports,” says Brad Wegner, system manager of GSE for Horizon Air. “Somebody has a need for a bag cart, hooks it up, tows it off and it may be missing for a month. Or the airline doesn’t have a good system to track their assets and a GSE manager at one station decides to swap a piece of equipment at another station and somewhere along the line loses track of it.”
“As we have grown, GSE has grown,” Wegner explains. “With more equipment, more shops, more technicians and more assets, all of which are dollars to us, we determined we needed a more efficient system of tracking our assets — how many hours, how much money we are spending on them and when they become BER (beyond economic repair).” GSE such as a tug or a belt loader, according to Wegner, cannot simply have an end date of five, 10 or 15 years placed on it. Equipment can be 10 years old and cost very little to operate, yet there are other pieces of equipment that can be only five years old but very problematic with huge costs attached.
Computers and information systems have been a common part of the business environment for more than 20 years, replacing manila filing systems, binders and accounting ledgers, but according to Wegner, even the Excel spreadsheets and databases are ineffective because “the piles of information are not interfaced and you can’t make sense of it.”
LEAVE THE ELEPHANT GUN IN THE MERCEDES
“[Horizon] has always explored areas of our operations that could be more efficient and effective — researching methods that will give us more comprehensive information about how to steer our course through the industry,” Wegner says. With this as the “philosophy”, Wegner was directed by
Gary Williams, Horizon’s director of customer services, to find a way to automate the GSE department and make it more cost effective and reliable.
“The GSE market has been completely ignored by technology,” Wegner says. “And now, [software application companies] try to adapt really huge, robust equipment maintenance products to GSE that will have advanced features like predictive part replacement that a GSE shop simply doesn’t need and is very complicated and costly.”
During the RFP process, which began nearly two years ago, Wegner realized the GSE portion of the company causes very few delays or cancellations and determined his department should not make a major investment to solve its tracking problems. Instead, they should find a system that is economical and fits into the existing cost structure. “For a problem that essentially doesn’t exist, other than the need to manage assets, you shouldn’t spend a lot of money on the solution,” Wegner claims. “It’s like hunting rabbits with an elephant gun. I needed a three-quarter ton Chevy pickup to do this job, not a Mercedes.”
However, with nearly 2,000 pieces of “rolling stock” and systems spread over the Northwest and Canada, Horizon still needed the ability to track equipment, determine associated costs, inventory and make scheduling changes and deployments from one station to another in a cost effective and efficient manner.
EFFICIENT, EFFECTIVE…AND SAVES TREES
In June 2006, Horizon Air partnered with Gryphyn Works and became the first airline in the world to conduct all of its ground support equipment maintenance operations with a fully integrated paperless tracking software system. The GSE maintenance software, known as Gryphyn GSE Maintenance, is a web-based application that has enabled Horizon Air to coordinate daily operations — equipment and parts management, cost analysis, document management and accident investigation support in “real-time” and without paper tickets. “Our goal was to find a secure, comprehensive paperless solution to manage all of our daily GSE operations,” says Andy Schneider, senior vice president of customer service for Horizon Air.
Prior to implementing Gryphyn GSE Maintenance, Wegner had four stations tracking GSE individually. Today, the data is linked together and can be manipulated on the appropriate screens by technicians dealing with the various pieces of equipment at each station. “With rolling stock, everything is constantly changing and it’s critical for management to access information that allows them to quickly take control of the situation and make sense of it — know where things are and more importantly, know what the cost is in labor, time and parts,” Wegner says.
Gryphyn uses a non-seat license pricing structure and no additional IT support or hardware is necessary. For example, a software company with a per-seat license charges per user and every installation requires a seat license. Instead, because this software is completely hosted on the internet, a disk is not required. Whether there are 50 people in the system or 5,000 the cost is the same.
NO MORE LOST “TICKETS”
Like most GSE departments, Horizon’s previous tracking system required paper work orders or “tickets” to be filled out by the technicians and submitted to one employee who would enter all tickets into the system, a process which was set up because the system was complicated, but is ultimately inefficient and leads to inaccuracies. With Gryphyn’s GSE Maintenance, rather than write up a ticket, each technician enters the information into the computer.
Wegner was quick to admit that several of his technicians more than grimaced when told they would be typing their own tickets into the computer. “In fact,” says Amy Cuffel, Horizon’s Seattle ground support manager, “I had a tech who in the beginning would have told you ‘there is no way I am going to do this.’ Now, he is the guy out there ‘on the road’ who, directly after finishing his work at the airport, can jump on a computer and get on the internet to enter the information. Because it’s simple to use and makes his job easier, he has embraced the technology and is proud that he has learned how to use it.”
As a manager, Cuffel can review the entries on the reports and quickly analyze and identify labor costs, work performance, root cause and trends to take preventative action.
“Data is just data,” says Cuffel. “It is just piles of numbers and text and paperwork scattered everywhere. Until you create relationships between the data, it’s information that’s not usable.” Automated reminders are also built into the system and assist managers with preventative maintenance making it easier to prepare and plan employees work schedules in advance.
Gryphyn software can be likened to legos. Start with the base platform and add a different size or color Lego as the need presents itself. Horizon is currently beta-testing another part of the software, developed to address Horizon’s very real concerns regarding emergency situations such as a deicer malfunctioning at one of its stations or the need to communicate to 47 cities within 12 hours TSA’s mandate of no lotions more than 3 ounces in carry-on luggage. The emergency reporting and communication alert system provides immediate notification to supervisors via cell phones, email and text messages.
In addition, there is discussion underway of developing a “lost and found” system that would track and provide accurate information in a timely fashion. However, even with the best equipment and computer systems, equipment is equipment and doesn’t amount to anything until you add the people. There is no technology that will fix poor management…but it can make a good management team great.