Special Feature: Southwest Airlines' Winning Maintenance Team

Sept. 5, 2014
"Aviation's Best" according to industry rankings and AMTSociety's Maintenance Skills Competition

Legend has it that Southwest's cofounder and chairman emeritus, Herb Kelleher mapped out the vision and plan for the airline on a paper napkin while dining at a restaurant in San Antonio.  Southwest was incorporated in Texas and commenced service on June 18, 1971, with three Boeing 737 aircraft serving Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio. Today, Southwest has 548 Boeing 737s, employs a staff of about 35,000, and manages about 3,400 flights a day to 72 cities. It is a very successful company and regardless of the category Southwest is continuously being recognized for outstanding achievement:

• Topped the list of the 50 best U.S. places to work by Glassdoor.com  (December 2010)

• Named as one of MSN Money's "10 Companies That Treat You Right” (May 2010)

• American Customer Satisfaction Index ranked Southwest Airlines No. 1 among all airlines for the 17th year in a row (June 2010)

• Named the recipient of the Williams Trophy for Southwest's environmental stewardship and leadership in Required Navigational Performance. The Williams Trophy is awarded to recognize leadership and vision in aviation or space that has enriched the quality of life on Earth (October 2010)

• Named Best Low Cost Airline in North America by Business Traveler Magazine (December 2010)

• Recognized as a Top Employer in G.I. Job's list of 100 Military Friendly Employers (2011)

How does Southwest achieve this level of performance and contribution? In my opinion it is rooted in the airline’s commitment to its customers, employees, the communities it serves, and the environment. Southwest’s commitment to its employees is written in its mission statement, part of which reads, “Above all, Employees will be provided the same concern, respect, and caring attitude within the organization that they are expected to share externally with every Southwest Customer.” If you have flown on Southwest, very likely you have experienced that great customer service from the frontline staff. I was curious to see how the Southwest’s philosophy is demonstrated in its maintenance organization and by its AMTs.   

Southwest maintenance organization

A staff of 1656 aircraft maintenance technicians (AMTs) maintains the fleet of 548 B737s according to the FAA approved Boeing MSG-3 maintenance program. Each AMT is trained to perform all maintenance tasks on the aircraft. They do not have designated “skills” or specialists and are trained as line mechanics.

Of its 16 locations, 10 have full coverage and perform scheduled overnight maintenance; four with hangar facilities perform maintenance up to the C-check level; and the facility in Dallas also performs MSG-3 heavy checks. It outsources a percentage of its heavy maintenance to select MROs. 

Southwest maintenance culture

I called senior technical instructor Tom Zollars and asked for specific information about the Skills Team and if maintenance is influenced by the larger corporate culture. Zollars says, “Our maintenance culture can be described in two words, respect and teamwork. We are part of the larger Southwest corporate culture, and the Southwest spirit runs through all departments. It is really a simple approach. Treat employees with respect. Ensure that they feel they are a valued member of the company and reward teamwork. The employees are motivated to do their best and perform their task as quickly as they can. I have worked for several other airlines and companies and it is surprising how many just don’t understand how important it is to treat employees with respect.”

In the airline community, Southwest’s mechanics have the reputation of being very effective and efficient. They wear shoulder patches that read SWA Maintenance “Aviation’s Best.” I asked Zollars how they developed and maintained that speed and accuracy maintenance philosophy. 

“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 have 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 and 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.  Tom 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.” 

If you are considering competing in AMTSociety's 2012 Maintenance Skills Competition, plan on having fun and I strongly recommend you bring your A game.

Charles Chandler is an A&P based in Michigan. He received his training from the Spartan College of Aeronautics.