The Capacity Challenge: Conundrum or Resolution (Part 3)

The Capacity Challenge: Part 3

GSE maintenance can be complicated at times.

As an example, each one of the planes must be pushed back from the gate area. Push back tractors, or “Push Backs”, come in two styles, conventional and towbarless and are manufactured by more than 40 companies.

Those 70 inbound planes at MSP are CRJs, wide bodies, and narrow bodies. Sitting at the gate ready to make sure the plane is pushed on time, will be a Douglas, Eagle, JBT, TLD, or Lektro brand, electric, gas, diesel or even hybrid push back.

To add to the complexity, those push backs could be 5, 10, 15 or 20 years old. (They may actually have a carburetor, which is something baby boomers are familiar with but their children may have never seen, just like a cassette tape player, pager, or pay phone.) They don’t teach this stuff at tech school.

How many of the assets used for those 16 touches of a plane’s turn have similar variations? Fuel trucks, belt loaders, ground power units, air starts, catering trucks and more, all have wide variations and typically feature aging fleets. A retiring GSE mechanic possesses a virtual encyclopedia of tribal knowledge that is not readily passed along to his/her replacement.

The Capacity Challenge: Conundrum or Resolution

There won’t be fewer planes flying. There won’t be less cargo being moved. We can’t replace the work force with self-service or self-checkout (which is becoming a norm in other service industries). There will be more work and fewer GSE mechanics.

It is generally accepted that the average American worker produces 6.5 hours of work in an average 8 hour day. The GSE mechanics in our company are measured and perform higher than that every day. They have to or those 70 planes don’t turn and those passenger expectations won’t be met. Though over the past 12 months, we’ve added 50 new jobs (about four each month), we know that it is possible that 1% of our team (or two mechanics) will approach retirement age every day sometime in the near future. Finding replacements will be more and more challenging. The existing work force is at capacity.

To be successful GSE maintenance companies must have a clear strategy to address the Capacity Conundrum. They must:

  • Have a quality maintenance system that is auditable. Quality maintenance measurably impacts efficiency (yielding more productivity).
  • Invest in training more deeply than ever before. Capture and share the tribal knowledge. The new technicians aren’t going to come from the GSE industry. They’ll be more productive if training exists to help them assimilate the tribal knowledge quickly.
  • Apply Lean principles to the flow of the shop. GSE mechanics must be more productive than an average worker.

Despite a 20-minute ground stop and flying dead into a 150 knot wind, my flight from MIA to MSP arrived on time. We pushed back from gate H17 flawlessly. While on the tarmac and in the air we were comfortable. The plane was clean, the snacks and beverages were available, and all of our luggage was accommodated. We arrived at G13 and our baggage arrived at the carousel just a few minutes after we did. It appeared, at least for this day, despite 70 flights in an hour, the work of the GSE mechanics had been successful.

Will we be able to keep up with the demand? That is the on-going capacity challenge!