Last year, as jet fuel prices climbed to $1.75 a gallon, AMR Corp.'s board of directors approved a fuel-conserving wing reconstruction program for 20 of American Airlines' Boeing 757s.
The work, which involves stripping the outer "skin" of the wings and adding stringers and ribs to support "winglets" -- upward-angled extensions of the wings -- was to be performed at American's Maintenance & Engineering Center in Tulsa.
Not one of American's 6,000 mechanics in Tulsa had installed winglets, which were developed by Aviation Partners Boeing, a Seattle-based joint venture between Aviation Partners Inc. and Boeing Co.
In October, 757 winglet kits began arriving at the M&E Center. The kits consist of two 12-by-10-foot crates of composite and aluminum wing structure weighing 1,350 pounds. A winglet kit for a 757 costs $350,000.
"For the first airplane, we scheduled 35 days to install the winglets," said Neil Hartman, a winglet line crew chief in American's Hangar 6.
That first winglet installation took 10,700 man-hours and 33 days, Ameri can officials said.
But American mechanics persevered.
As part of American's continuous improvement process, the winglet crews wrung costs and labor out of the modification work, striving to be the best in the industry at 16 days.
"We set it up so that the process was convenient, so that mechanics wouldn't have to walk more than 30 feet to all the kits and hardware on the dock, right where we need them," Hartman said. "Every day we found ways to improve things."
After the first Boeing 757 winglets were installed, Carmine Romano, vice president of Tulsa Base Maintenance, got a call from an American executive in the finance department.
"He said, 'You're never going to be the best in winglets,' " Romano said. "We went out to the (winglet line) guys and talked about how we could do it faster, better, cheaper."
By the fifth 757, American's winglet line reduced the wing modification process to 16 days and 4,200 man-hours of labor, matching the speed of any maintenance, repair and overhaul organization in the world.
"These guys kept improving," said Joel Nelson, dock manager in Hangar 6. "The crew did the work and improved the process because they decided things could be done better. They know they are contributing to the fuel savings of the airline. There is no better motivation than that."
With modifications of 13 of the original 20 757s completed, the fuel savings are adding up, officials said.
By reducing drag on the tips of the wing, the winglets are reducing 757 fuel consumption by 4 percent, from 8,153 pounds of fuel per hour to 7,843 pounds, American officials said.
When the first 20 757s are modified for winglets, American will save 3.02 million gallons of jet fuel per year.
But American is not stopping at 20 aircraft.
Recently, American executives taped the 16-day winglet installation process, compressed it into a 45-second movie and showed it to AMR's board in Fort Worth. Impressed, the board approved winglet installation on another 104 757s, Romano said.
American management also has given the go-ahead for the M&E Center to install winglets on American's 77 Boeing 737s.
"We're so proud of what we've accomplished," Romano said. "We probably will be the world's largest installer of winglets."
American's winglet installation work is drawing inquiries from other airlines and aircraft operators who want the M&E Center to modify their planes, officials said.
It underscores American's unique position in the airline industry of having its own in-house maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) capabilities.
Although the M&E Center doesn't have the cheapest labor rates in the industry, it compensates with efficiency and faster turn times, American executives said.
"We provide the airline with quite a bit of flexibility," said Nelson, the dock manager. "In the MRO world, you have to sign up a long time in advance to get aircraft worked on.
"It has worked out very well. We have adjusted to the needs of our airline. They're our best customer."
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