Standardization: A Lost Fantasy

Greg W. Nist is Fleet Manager of Ground Support Equipment for U.S. Airways, Inc. in Pittsburgh, PA.

Q: How did you get into aviation?

A: I was raised on the south side of Pittsburgh, about four miles from the Allegheny County Airport. As a kid, my older brothers and I would hike over to the airport and watch the planes. When I completed high school, I enrolled at the Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics at the County Airport for the A&P mechanic program. After graduation, I was hired by Allegheny Airlines at Hartford, CT and have worked for the airline for the last 35 years.

Q: How did you get into GSE?

A:In 1979, the company was expanding what was then a very small GSE department. I applied for and was awarded a position as a technical supervisor. At that time, GSE was a growing department with good opportunities and lots of interesting projects. I became involved with installation and maintenance of loading bridges, power units, PCair systems and several new terminal construction projects. I enjoyed the work and the people and stayed within the GSE department.

Q: When a company goes through a merger, what effect does it have on ground equipment?

A: Mergers are all unique, but those I have experienced bring different equipment types and maintenance and operating philosophies. While the philosophies eventually blend together, the different types of equipment remain. Standardization becomes a lost fantasy and the reality of a diverse fleet must be managed. Aside from the maintenance issue the equipment variety brings, the operator issues for ramp personnel are the biggest challenge. We have had some success by limiting the equipment types to a specific model or manufacturer at our larger cities, but even this is a difficult and expensive task. Complicating the issue even more is the fact mergers generally involve a company or companies with long term financial issues and, of course, dated equipment. Replacement programs barely can keep up with the growth issues, so it takes years and a strong corporate commitment to make a significant impact to improve the overall fleet age and condition.

Q: Is there such a thing as a smooth transition when new ground handling software is installed?

A: Programming changes are a challenge, but planning is paramount to a smooth transition. The biggest difference today is the acceptance by the front line employees. When we first started collecting data, there was a lot of resistance. Now, mechanics appreciate the information available to them and are more accepting of new and improved programs. This allows us to concentrate on our business presentation, training and implementation planning. That said, most of us are working with limited headcount, tight budgets and expectations for instant success. Ground equipment touches so many different operating and business departments within the company; every group has some function requiring approval or interface. The most difficult task is coordinating these different departments to accomplish their target tasks on schedule.

With a proven program, decent hardware and a great support team, this can be a fun project. We have just started a program upgrade which will be a major change in our business format. We have dedicated a seasoned team of folks working to make this a successful program. Ask me next year and I'll let you know how smooth the installation was!

Q: How do leadership changes affect a ground crew? Purchasing?

A: Leadership changes, whether through mergers or retirements, generally results in uncertainty for all employees. It usually takes a few months for new policies or strategies to filter down, so rumor and speculation become the main conversation topic, but the daily routine goes on relatively unaffected. The industry is constantly changing and airline folks seem to adapt.

With Purchasing, through many management changes, I have experienced two basic philosophies. The first is, to purchase the best equipment based on quality and projected life time cost. This philosophy usually included grouping purchases together for anticipated cost savings with quantity buying. Often, deliveries were scheduled through the year to meet expansion or budget plans. This made life easier for us in GSE, as we usually had sufficient time to work with suppliers to establish tight specifications and improve our fleet standardization. Of course our suppliers preferred this approach, allowing them to plan their component deliveries and production.

The second common approach is to purchase GSE based on price alone. While there is justification to this approach, especially when the economy is slow, standardization suffers and this can add considerably to the life time costs associated with fuel and maintenance.

It's nice to have the capital and time to plan purchases, but with equipment failures, changing markets or marketing strategies or just the availability of funds, we always seem to have pressing equipment needs which result in unplanned purchases, and the GSE folks scrambling to meet the corporation's equipment needs.

Q: What are some of the major trends you have seen developing over the past 20-30 years?

A: The trend to electronics and automated equipment has been the biggest initiative. While this works well in many areas, it is also brings new challenges to the maintenance team and has a major effect on initial and lifetime costs. The airlines are trying to drive overhead down, but complicated equipment and reduced pay scales make it difficult to recruit new employees with the skills needed to keep up with the technology, for both carriers and maintenance contractors.

Q: What was one of the biggest challenges you faced over the years?

A: The biggest was - and continues to be - trying to sell the importance of annual equipment replacement programs. A few years back, a CEO once stated "We are in the business to fly people", which is hard to argue with. Airline capital needs to focus on the primary task of attracting and transporting passengers. Aircraft, terminal areas and items which touch the passengers are the focus items at budget time. Areas such as GSE, sometimes get placed near the bottom of that hierarchy.

Q: If not in GSE, where would you be?

A: I enjoy almost everything outdoors. I would rather be outside, even in cold nasty weather, repairing a loading bridge, than sitting in an office. If I could start over, I would like to try Forestry or a career in the National Park Service.

Q: What golden nuggets of wisdom would you like to pass on to our readers?

A: The airline industry continues to redefine itself to achieve profitability. GSE, while acknowledged as a required business tool, will continue to be an area forced to run on limited budgets. The last few years have been tough on most of us, regardless of our role. In the future, no doubt we will need to re-examine how we build equipment, buy equipment, use equipment and maintain equipment, to achieve the greatest dollar value we can deliver.

Q: You have been mentioned as a mentor by members of the industry. Was there anyone you looked up to as you entered the industry?

A: I look up to many of the folks from other airlines, vendors and those within my company. The GSE industry is a unique division of the airline industry, with many fine people. I met people along the way, who took time to discuss technical issues, industry developments, aircraft interface issues or whatever the topic of the times. Everyone I talked to had something to share, an experience, an idea or a better way. I took advantage of the knowledge these folks had to offer and tried to pass it on.

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