November 05, 2012
Credit: American Airlines
Jerome Greer Chandler Anniston, Ala.
As U.S. legacy airlines renew their fleets, determining how to integrate them and ensure consistency becomes a challenge. Flight operations, maintenance, ground-handling and passenger experience all come into play. This quest for consistency is a balancing act, one in which airlines weigh the “seamless” benefits of retrofitting older aircraft against potential payoffs.
One way to reduce retrofits, of course, is to purchase aircraft that segue well with the present fleet. The analysis starts up front. “You want to make sure that the aircraft you're buying has cockpit technology that's common, to a large degree, to the fleet that you're flying,” says Ron Baur, United Airlines' vice president of fleet. From an operational perspective, there's a balance carriers seek to strike, one “between maintaining commonality with the existing fleet while still making the airplane advanced enough to take advantage of new things” such as Required Navigational Performance, he says. The aim is to rationally render the aggregate fleet “as efficient as possible,” says Baur.
Type training thrives on commonalty, drawing its sustenance from consistency. United is the first U.S. network carrier to fly the Boeing 787, which has a common type rating with the 777. One way Boeing does that is “through software, and how images are collected and displayed to the pilot,” Baur says. In terms of crew scheduling, the airline's ultimate goal is to have pilots who can fly the 787 one day and the 777 the next—seamlessly. The operational challenge with large, existing fleets is to ensure that new aircraft “integrate well with the current fleet,” says Baur.
Interestingly, the bigger the fleet, the easier the integration becomes, contends Adam Pilarski, senior vice president for aviation advisory company Avitas. “That's part of the advantage of big airlines,” he says. From a training perspective, “if you have a small airline that is buying five of this and three of that, you have problems.”
Purchase a substantial fleet of new aircraft and he insists that—comparatively, at least—integration issues will be “no big deal.” It is a classic case of economies of scale, buttressed by a concerted effort to make sure everyone in the airline is properly prepared to accept that new airplane type.
Melding an aircraft such as the 737-900ER into an extensive fleet of shorter Boeing narrowbodies is one thing; assimilating a 787 is something else. Once the decision to bring such an aircraft onboard is made, no one consideration trumps another. “They're all important,” asserts Baur. That's where United's Service Ready Team comes into play. For the carrier's 787 induction, that team is comprised of 150-175 people. He says thousands of tasks accompany service launch, from provisioning for parts and spares “to painting a new stripe on the [tarmac] to tell the pilot where to stop” at a given gate.
That is precisely the challenge facing American Airlines as it prepares to take delivery of its first Boeing 777-300ER. At 242-ft., 4-in. nose-to-tail, it is the planet's longest commercial airplane. “There are certain gates that can handle it, and certain gates that can't,” says Jim Butler, American's managing director for commercial planning and performance. He says every area of the company is engaged in a coordinated effort to usher in the airplane.