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Monday, October 1, 2007

Back Shop: Aviation Today


Jack Northrop. Leroy Grumman. Donald Douglas. Glenn Martin. Howard Hughes. There was a time when the logos of aviation firms boasted a single last name. These individuals were visionaries, typically engineers or pilots, who exerted God-like control over their enterprises.

Sure, they were capitalists and they were out to make money — a lot of money — but their true passion was to create aircraft that flew higher, faster, farther and better. For them, pushing the performance envelope, not fattening the pay envelope, was Job One.

Mergers and acquisitions have combined or erased many of these names from aviation’s pantheon. Of course, a handful of surnames from aviation’s golden age live on in solitary splendor: those of William Boeing and Igor Sikorsky come to mind. But long gone are the days when most aviation companies were infused from top to bottom by the larger-than-life personalities of their founders.

Say what you want about the early corporate giants, at least they built things. The aviation pioneers who put their names on the building were self-made tinkerer/entrepreneurs who invented an aircraft or component, manufactured and marketed it, and even repaired it. Their egos were large, but so were their legacies to society.

Now that our post-industrial society is in a new century, you won’t find many of the aviation industry’s managerial elite on the shop floor, wielding wrenches and getting their hands dirty. The new type of aviation leader tends to cast his eyes to the upper rungs of the corporate ladder, not the wild blue yonder. The closest they get to anything aerodynamic is a pair of wingtip shoes.

However, during my recent podcast interviews with leaders in the MRO sector, I learned that exceptions to this trend walk among us. You can find these interviews on Aviation Today’s archived podcast page: http://www.aviationtoday.com/podcasts/.

Even the billionaire Howard Hughes, depicted in Martin Scorsese’s blockbuster movie "The Aviator," cared more about aviation integrity than anything else. Exemplifying the newest incarnation of the "old breed" is John Stewart, president and general manager, SWAT (Southwest Airframe and Temp Services), Dallas, Texas. During our podcast interview, entitled "Safe Outsourcing: How to Ensure Proper Fuel System Maintenance," Stewart emphasized that he harbors a sense of deep personal responsibility for every project.

"Air safety is compromised when sub-standard outsourcing is hired in precariously," he told me. "Companies considering outsourcing should thoroughly examine the company they intend to hire, their internal safety standards and evaluate the intention of outsourcing. For SWAT, it is a product of everyday life. It’s a marriage between the customer and the vendor that should be examined before jumping off a cliff together. Hey, don’t invite me into your home if you don’t know who I am. I realize I am a guest in your home and want nothing more than to be invited back."

This connection with the customer also became apparent in my interview with Randy Sonefeld, director of aviation, and Russ Pepple, technical director, Merrill Tool & Machine Aviation Division, for the podcast show entitled "From Takeoffs to Landings: The Right Path for Engine and Landing Gear Component Repair & Overhauls."

"We are privately owned and family run, and this allows for quick, focused decision making in real time," Sonefeld told me. "We have executive management commitment; our mission statement is ‘Trusted Quality, Price and Delivery.’ This is understood and used in our everyday decision-making process to determine the best possible routing. Our people not only have the experience and necessary skills to meet and exceed most industry standards, [but] they also have a special appreciation for the aviation industry and the others working to make it safer."

An economy can’t sustain its competitiveness — and its standard of living — if it lacks a vibrant industrial base. I’m taking about the honest-to-goodness, roll-up-your-sleeves work undertaken by companies such as SWAT and Merrill.

Many aviation managers give lip service to professional pride and individualized customer service. They love to pontificate about their hands-on style; few actually practice it. For a reminder of when aviation was ruled by people of vision, check out our free one-on-one podcast interviews on Aviation Today.

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