Published in April 2016 issue
By Chris Sloan
It only makes sense that the world’s largest airline happens to operate the world’s largest commercial airplane maintenance facility—a massive operation with 22 buildings on the main base, with 3.3 million square feet (306,580m2) of hangar and shop space stretching across 33 acres (13ha).
However, you may be surprised to find out that the American Airlines (AA) Maintenance and Engineering (M&E) Center is located not at its Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) main hub, where you find the airline’s new Integrated Operations Center (IOC), Corporate Headquarters, and Training & Conference Center.
Instead, the carrier’s M&E Center is located 250 miles (402km) from DFW, at an airport where AA operates only a relatively paltry dozen flights a day: Tulsa International Airport (TUL) in Oklahoma.
FROM HUMBLE BEGINNINGS TO AN AVIATION AND ECONOMIC POWERHOUSE
Although it could have seemed illogical to place an M&E center in a city once known as the Oil Capital of the World, that’s not how American Airlines (AA) executives saw it when they decided to relocate Maintenance and Engineering from New York City’s LaGuardia (LGA) in 1946.
Tulsa had been an essential contributor to the war effort during World War II. Douglas Aircraft had a manufacturing plant in the city, where over 23,000 people had produced the A-24 Dauntless, the B-24 Liberator, and the A-26 Invader.
During the Cold War era, the plant built the B-47 Stratojet and the B-66 Destroyer. Over the years, the city evolved into a major aerospace center. McDonnell Douglas manufactured components for the F-15 Eagle, the F-18 Hornet, and the AV-8 Harrier. Rockwell’s facilities not only produced components for the B-1 Lancer, but also the Payload Bay Doors for the Space Shuttle Enterprise. Today, Tulsa is the home of Spirit AeroSystems and the Spartan College of Aviation and Technology, not to mention being the corporate headquarters of charter carrier Omni Air International.
After the end of World War II, American Airlines had still been headquartered in New York, but it had outgrown its LGA base. The airline had already opted to move its training operations to Ardmore, Oklahoma (ADM), 145 miles (233km) from TUL. Tulsa city officials saw an opportunity and lured AA to T-Town. With a skilled postwar aviation workforce and four mothballed hangars, the Tulsa M&E Center was born.
Tulsa became American Airlines’ maintenance and aviation hub—a title it still holds. Virtually every AA mainline fleet type up to the present has been maintained or overhauled in Tulsa, including storied models like the Convair 990, the Douglas DC-3 and DC-7, the Boeing 720, 707, 727, and even the 747. Not to mention the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 and MD-11, the Fokker 100, and the Lockheed L-1088 Electra, and even the 747s that AA leased to NASA to ferry the Space Shuttles. The few exceptions include the Boeing 777, which was only overhauled at TUL for a brief time between 2008 and 2010, but is currently maintained in Asia following the shutdown of the Worth Alliance Airport (AFW) base in 2012. The Tulsa operation was even involved in repairing a brand new 787 that had been damaged by a hailstorm early last summer in China.
The American Airlines M&E Center is a major driver of the region’s economy. Some 5,200 people (equivalent to 5% of the merged AA’s 100,000-strong workforce) work around-the-clock in three shifts at the base. The benefits and stakes for the airline and the region cannot be overstated. In 2013 alone, the M&E Center paid over $48 million to its over 110 local suppliers; in 2014, it provided $419 million in wages and benefits to the region.
TOO LARGE FOR A SINGLE AIRLINE?
Unlike its higher-profile industry counterparts and competitors, AA does not consider its M&E Center a Maintenance Repair Operations (MRO) base. While other large facilities—such as Lufthansa Technik, HAECO, COOPESA, or Delta TechOps— do work for other airline and private customers, the American Airlines M&E Center is dedicated exclusively to the AA fleet. This immense operation is devoted to providing safe, efficient and world-class services that contribute to the carrier’s bottom line and operations—a theme constantly emphasized during our guided visit. The center is on a constant quest to push itself towards productivity, excellence, and quality improvements. American Airlines employees and management from around the system point to the Tulsa base with a lot of pride—a point of responsibility not lost on the team here.
Currently, Tulsa is the mainline maintenance mecca for AA’s fleet of McDonnell Douglas MD- 80s (Airways, November 2015), Boeing 737s, 757s, and 767s. The airline uses its maintenance hangars at DFW for new aircraft ingestion (except for the 737) and line maintenance. Although the process of integration of US Airways’ (US) and AA is almost complete (Airways, January 2016), the former’s legacy fleet is still maintained and overhauled in Pittsburgh (PIT) and Charlotte (CLT); from the perspective of maintenance and overhaul, the merging of the two fleets is not expected to be completed until 2018. Thus far, American Airlines has not disclosed its future plans for the PIT and CLT bases, nor has it decided upon maintenance bases for the incoming Airbus A320 family aircraft, the A350 XWB, and the Boeing 787 Dreamliner (Airways, September 2015) fleets.
And even though up to 2,000 jobs were lost when AA filed for bankruptcy in 2011, the recovery of the industry and the AA/US merger have partially restored the fortunes of Tulsa’s employment. In February 2014, AA announced that it would bring its MD-80s to TUL for structural inspections, and that it would also use the premises to accept the deliveries of its new 737s. The airline has currently based in Tulsa a dedicated cadre of test pilots responsible for taking delivery of the aircraft from the manufacturer to the airline.
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EVERYTHING (BUT THE PAINT), INCLUDING THE LAVATORY SINK
Even though the M&E Center is focused exclusively upon its AA mainline customer, for every aircraft program, it has to compete on costs, capacity, and quality as if it were a separate business. Therefore, the center keeps as much work as possible in-house. From light maintenance to heavy ‘C’ checks, teardowns, overhauls, and engine rebuilds, the Tulsa M&E Center is a highly integrated ecosystem, with support shops for cabin-related items, avionics, wheels, engine test cells, and brakes, just to mention a few.
The base’s operational numbers are impressive: In 2014, AA reported that its Tulsa M&E Center had “accomplished 756 aircraft visits and worked on 94,632 components, 52,311 parts were manufactured, 322 engines visited for overhaul and maintenance, 146 full heavy overhauls, and 64 landing gear overhauls.” On average, two aircraft complete their inspection here every day. About the only thing this M&E does not undertake is the painting, which is outsourced to vendors in other states such as Indiana and California.
During the exclusive briefing AA gave to Airways, officials were emphatic about their commitment to reduce costs and timelines without sacrificing quality. In the shop dedicated to the maintenance of the CFM56 engine (the power plant used on AA’s 737-800 fleet), for example, they showed us how the process—from tearing down to overhaul, to test cell and re-hanging to the aircraft—has been progressively reduced from 70 to 53 days.
Tulsa was also where the airline retrofitted its 737s, 757s and 767s with blended winglets. The Aviation Partners 737-800 kit—which, between the winglets and spar strengthening, adds a total of 1,400 pounds (635kg) per airplane—took 10 days per install. In the case of the 757s, each conversion took between 16 and 18 days, while, for the Boeing 767, it occurred over the course of 24 to 25 days. AA also chose to do all its Gogo inflight connectivity installs in Tulsa.
The most noteworthy activities carried out at TUL are the extensive ‘C’ checks and teardowns of the company’s 737s, 757s, 767s, and MD-80s. The base can accommodate 23 aircraft at a time in its seven cavernous hangars. The time and man-hours involved in an overhaul vary substantially by aircraft type and age. Thoroughly putting a 737-800 delivered between 1998 and 2000 through its heavy ‘C’ check, which is done every five or six years, can take up to 25 calendar days in three round the clock shifts, totaling 14,000 man-hours. Performing the same operation on a newer 737-800 can take 15 calendar days in three shifts, for up to 10,000 man-hours.
Our next stop was at Hangar 6. Built in 1991, this is the newest such facility at the M&E Center and can accommodate three 767s at the same time. As wide-body aircraft generally fly fewer cycles, a 767’s full heavy ‘C’ check overhaul takes place at 72-month intervals, requiring 22 to 30 days and 17,000 to 22,000 man-hours. During our visit, two aircraft were being overhauled. One of these was an 11-year-old 767 with 46,000 hours on the frame that, remarkably, was still flying with one of its original General Electric (GE) CF6 engines. This aircraft was in the 14th of its 24-day check, and was also receiving new Business Cabin seating. Meanwhile, its stablemate, another 767-300ER originally delivered in 1987, was undergoing a light ‘C’ check, which takes around 10 calendar days and 7,200 man-hours. It was this aircraft’s last overhaul before its scheduled retirement, 18 months later.
REINVENTING THE OPERATION
In the aftermath of the AA/US merger (Airways, January 2016), AA’s Tulsa M&E Center seems primed for growth; yet, some concerns still lie ahead. Determined as it is to have the youngest fleet of any US carrier, the airline is now taking delivery of two new aircraft per week, which are coming online to replace older aircraft such as the 757s, 767s, and MD-80s. As a result, there is a dip in the demand for heavy checks and overhauls, which happen to be the Center’s main source of work. Although Tulsa would appear to be the logical candidate for the maintenance of the new A320s, A350s, 787s, and even the 737 MAXs, the decision to allocate it that activity has not been publicly announced; nor will those aircraft require any major overhaul maintenance in the next few years. The future of the Tulsa M&E Center seems tied to its ability to stay ahead of the cost and quality curve; providing a more cost-efficient and better quality service than its lowercost outsourced competitors, and competing to host new maintenance programs and aircraft—a sentiment echoed in every shop we visited.