American Airlines Gets into Maintenance Line

The company hopes its efficiency and expertise will help it attract its rivals as clients for its work.

And in 2005 the Tulsa base's labor and management spent a weekend offsite at an event union and management now refer to as the "pajama party." A $500 million goal in savings and increased revenue was set then, and pledges were made on both sides.

The carrier promised to avoid layoffs, while workers committed to embrace continuous improvement efforts. Processes would be standardized, efforts made to eliminate waste. Workers promised to adapt to change.

American also does some limited outsourcing, including some engine and landing gear work. All the other work on the aircraft is done by the carrier's mechanics. Their contract with the airline limits the amount that can be done elsewhere. "There's ways they could try and increase it, but it would be a bone of contention," Burchette said.

In recent years more than 4,000 maintenance jobs had been eliminated, as American struggled to stem multimillion-dollar losses.

Unlike many competitors, the airline has been able to avoid bankruptcy. But a series of challenges that have buffeted the industry, including brutal competition from discount carriers domestically and record fuel prices, have kept American from showing a profit since 2000.

Now, mechanics that retire or leave for other work are generally not replaced. That rankles some, said Burchette, president of Local 514, Transport Workers Union of America.

"They've offered job guarantees, but the airline has shrunk," he said. "That's hard for some to accept. I've got 700 members still laid off. Traditionally, the union would say every time a guy retires I want one of my guys brought back."

Nor has everyone in the union embraced the changes, he said. Some union veterans still grumble about the new rules and goals, dismissing them as just another in a long line of management notions that will disappear with the next leadership switch.

"We're trying to change 60 years of culture in a very short amount of time," Burchette said. "But the [industry] environment helps us. When you see what happened to Northwest and you see United, Delta, US Air . . . people open their eyes."

On the other side, some supervisors have yet to embrace the idea that they must work cooperatively with the rank and file, Romano said. "Instead of being in command and control, they're asked to be a coach."

The Tulsa base, which employs nearly 7,000 workers, hopes to achieve its goal of $500 million in cost reduction and revenue generation by year's end. The Kansas City, Mo., base, with about 900 employees, hopes to generate $150 million in new work and savings by the end of next year, while the Ft. Worth facility has set a $400 million goal by the end of 2008.

Pulse line

In Tulsa, among the most ambitious efforts has been the development of a new line for heavy maintenance. Instead of parking an aircraft, assigning hundreds of workers to it and letting them spend weeks taking apart and putting the plane back together, the airline has developed a pulse line.

"They came up with it--the workers," Romano said. "All of them. Planners, engineers, inventory control, supervisors, management."

Now, an MD-80 plane moves through three stages, each assigned the number of mechanics needed for the tasks done at that step in the process.

At stage one the plane is taken apart, inspections begin and repairs are made. Every seat is removed, panels and overhead bins taken out and the plane is scoured. It is then towed to stage two, where heavy repairs are made, the plane is put back together. It is then moved to the third stage for testing.

The line, put in place earlier this year, has cut heavy maintenance time from an average 19 days for each aircraft to 12 days. And, the number of employees appears to match the workload at each stage.

"Nobody, to our knowledge, pulses complete overhaul," said Frankie Meza, American's continuous improvement manager at the Tulsa base. "We believe we're the only ones doing it to this magnitude."

Other steps, while not on the same scale, are also contributing to the bottom line. Tool storage was among the areas reorganized. Smaller shelving units on wheels similar to those seen in a bakery replaced high racks that required a forklift to reach items at the top.

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