Land of the Lost

March 1, 2002
Ruminations from the Ramp

Land of the Lost

For enhancing efficiencies in inventory and accounting, Tony Vasko advises on the importance poking around forgotten areas of stockrooms and unearthing lost treasures

By Tony Vasko

March 2002

Stockrooms can be fascinating places to those who are interested in history. They are not intended to be such and the bean counters (I must be nice to accounting people as my daughter is a CPA) will go wild at the very idea. Things are not supposed to accumulate in storerooms — they are there to be used. In this day of"Just-in-Time" it is abhorrent that anything in a stockroom would gather dust. Of course in our industry,"better safe than sorr" is the code and it is better to have a voltage regulator for a power cart on hand for months than to NOT have it when there is a delay working on the gate.

Keeping track of what you have is very important. If you don’t know you have — it might as well not be there at all. However, sophisticated computerized inventory systems are only as good as what they are fed. GIGO (Garbage In, Garbage Out) is very much an operative term and many an inventory system was defeated by slovenly practices or lack of training at the floor level. Barcoding everything seems to be the dominant way of identifying things, but magnetic stripes and optical readers are around too. I am old enough to remember other systems including the ever-loving index card files.

You can arrange things in stockrooms in many ways. Everything can be racked in order by part number or airline stock number, but you run into problems there. Part number 111111 may be a small bolt, while part number 111113 may be a transmission the size of a trunk. It becomes very difficult then to rack things when their sizes differ so greatly so most places have big parts and little parts areas. It becomes worse when you finally have binned the two parts next to each other and a part arrives that has to fit between them. Usually, it will be an inconveniently large, bulky and misshapen part that will not fit on the shelves unless you move a lot of stuff around.

Eastern Air Lines’ Boston hangar, now torn down for the new airport tunnel, had hangar bays on two sides with a structure between them. The ground floor served for shops but upstairs was mainly dedicated to random access storage. Lots of area too, as it was a large hangar. It was also relatively old, which meant it had accumulated a weight of, shall we say delicately, obsolete material. I found out just how obsolete when I was there as manager in 1981.

Random access means that when something comes in to be stored, you simply found a spot for it, somewhere, in the thousands of feet of storage bins. Anywhere that was convenient would do as long as you carefully noted the part number and the exact location in the card file that was"maintaine" for that purpose. If you didn’t, or the card was pulled and lost; the part was, for all practical purposes, unlocatable — unless it happened to be very large and obvious. The computerized system would say it was in the Boston Hangar, and it was, but it might as well have been on the moon.

Naturally, there was a stockroom on the ground floor level where most of the action took place, but ground floor space is precious, so only the commonly used parts were located and binned at that level. They were in good order — racked up by airline stock code so items were easily located. It was the lesser used items, especially GSE stuff, that somehow fell through the proverbial cracks and was relegated to the attic, which had none of the busy hustling to and fro — answering the call for O-rings and nuts. Rather, the bigger stuff and the ways of seniority meant that the older hands migrated upstairs. They tended to be careful and methodical, and sometimes cranky, when asked to bring forth some long-stored unit. After all, the coffee breaks and lunch periods were important perks and if you needed one of these big items, you could not be in much of a hurry.

I did a tour as Boston Maintenance Manager and the Eastern Air Shuttle was the most important thing in my life, obviously. The first thing to do of course was to tour my domain and in due course, I hit the stockroom. Downstairs was like every airline stockroom, bustling and moving and dispensing its parts. The employees obviously knew their jobs and didn’t really report to me anyway. I could bring influence, but not direct control, to the Stores Manager who accompanied me.

We went up the stairs and part way up was a subsidiary stockroom for cabin furnishing. I will only say that cabin materials — rugs, seat covers, curtains, and the like are among the worst of all things to maintain order in, except for GSE, where the airline has bought at least one of every model of equipment.

Next, I went up to the cathedral of stockrooms. High above were the cantilever beams stretching out through the walls to support the hangar bays. Like a church, it was dimly lit but instead of warm candles, it was lit by hideous blue-green lamps hung on chains.

The gargoyles (I mean, stock clerks) all had 30-plus years of seniority. They deigned to show me the locator file with its banks of index card files. I was suitably impressed and started the standard tour, which tended to stay on the central aisles and not down the side aisles that stretched away into the dimness. The Stores Manager got into a discussion with the Lead in regard to some issue and I went off on my own.

The further back I went, the more it resembled an archeological site. Some items had thick dust on them while its neighbor, just racked yesterday, was gleaming. I suddenly recognized an old friend, a Hercules L-head engine, which was the same one that Chris Craft used as the engine in my former boat. I cleaned the dust, read the ID tag, and was impressed to see the old Eastern Air"duckhaw"logo on it. The item appeared to be from a 28V DC power cart usable on the Martins and Constellations of 25 years ago.

Down another side aisle was an International engine from a long extinct tug, complete with a tranny. As I wandered, I found towbar parts, including heads for Constellation towbars. There were large nacelle parts for Connies and DC-7s, wheel halves for God knows what, structural brackets and parts and bins of relays of a size and type that only vintage equipment would use. Hoods and fenders, fuel pumps from tenders long gone were scattered everywhere on the shelves or on pallets on the floor.

Noting some of the part numbers, I found my way out and went back to clerks at the index file. They looked up some of them. No, these parts were not listed and therefore, did not exist — in the inventory lists at least. The cards had been lost or misfiled or not filled out at all.

I am afraid I became unpopular with the stores people. The long overdue hands-on inventory grew in size when the amount of forgotten parts became obvious. Now, it required assistance from Miami. Truckloads of things were removed from upstairs. The same problems surfaced at some of the other older stations — even Miami had its back areas that time forgot. I would not be surprised if some DC-3 material came out into the light of day.

It just proves that humans can defeat any system devised. All it takes is negligence in following procedures, carelessness in filing and soon, you too can have a land of the lost. It also proves that a good manager walks around a lot and sticks his or her nose into the back areas once in a while.