In a previous column, I remarked on some of the different aircraft I’ve been fortunate enough to fly aboard as an aviation journalist. Another perk of this job is the opportunity to visit some of the world’s great industrial plants, the facilities that build and maintain aircraft.
One such opportunity came during the AEEC General Session, held in October in Tulsa, Okla. While there, I signed on for a field trip to the American Airlines Maintenance and Engineering (M&E) base, chaperoned by past AEEC chairman Dennis Zvacek, the airline’s manager of avionics engineering. Some 25 of us packed into two vans for the half-hour ride to the base.
This isn’t just any base. The M&E facility in Tulsa, one of three American Airlines maintenance centers, evolved from a cluster of World War II-surplus hangars used by Douglas Aircraft to build bombers. Today, it is described as the world’s largest commercial aircraft maintenance facility, with 3.3 million square feet of hangar and shop space covering 330 acres of Oklahoma steppe. Some 6,800 people work here.
We drove into the sprawling compound as far as the security gate, where Wendyl Griffin, American Airlines project manager for MRO support operations, stuffed into the shotgun seat of the lead vehicle. A little further on, we emerged from the vans for a quick overview and brisk walk to Hangar 6, the location of wide-body maintenance. Enroute, Griffin pointed out a warehouse that stocks $2 billion worth of aircraft parts.
At the door to Hangar 6, we were greeted by Gilbert Sanchez, an aviation maintenance technician and a member of Local 514 of the Transport Workers Union of America (TWU). Griffin seemed to hand over the group to Sanchez in a formal way, in keeping, I assumed, with some stipulation of the facility’s labor agreement. I recalled that on a Manpower job in Austin, Texas, once, I was assigned to move freight for a theater production from the back of a truck to the rear door of the building. We’re only talking about a matter of feet, but our services were needed because the unionized stagehands were prevented from working on the loading dock.
But it was more than that. The M&E base since 2005 has observed a "working together" policy of collaborative labor-management decision making. Managers and their TWU counterparts at multiple levels meet regularly to solve problems and pursue greater efficiency. The balance was struck for both survival and future growth — to preserve the base at a time of financial instability and to grow it as a profit center capable not only of maintaining American’s fleet of 600-plus aircraft, but doing outside work.
"The decision to counter the trend of increased outsourcing was made jointly by M&E management and the company’s workforce-members of Local 514... with funding from the city of Tulsa," wrote former Avionics Editor Dave Jensen, who visited the base in 2006. "It was no small decision. With American Airlines facing financial difficulty since 9/11, the Tulsa facility’s future was in doubt. More than 4,000 maintenance jobs had been eliminated."
Both Griffin and Sanchez accompanied us to Hangar 5, where American’s Boeing 757s are being modified with new winglets, yielding fuel savings of 6-to-8 percent, Griffin said. We took an elevator to the avionics maintenance radar tower, where technicians conduct live-fire radar testing and service weather radars and their antennas, gears and synchros. We continued through the electrical and flight instruments workshop, where a photometer measured the luminance of Boeing 737 cockpit displays. We observed the airline’s automatic test equipment, including multipurpose Aeroflex IRIS 2000s capable of testing RF, analog and digital units.
I am always impressed by the work done in these facilities, but what stood out this time was the earnestness of the "working together" effort. Before we departed, Griffin made a point of praising the contributions of labor; Sanchez reciprocated by complimenting management.
"This is a very different and unique relationship," the "most transparent," he’d seen in 20 years, Sanchez said. "We’re involved in a lot of decisions. [Management] is not doing it just to humor us."
The rest of aerospace would be well-served to follow the American Airlines model. Aerospace in the United States may be healthy relative to the ailing auto industry, but the eight-week strike by Boeing machinists, which stalled production and further delayed development of the 787 Dreamliner, shows how thin the ice can be.