Larry Laney, director of ground support at Southwest Airlines, talks to Airside about his responsibilities and plans for the future
What is your remit as director of ground support for Southwest?
As the director of ground support I am responsible for all disciplines related to ground equipment. Our team builds and maintains the budget for the department and manages all ground support employees nationwide. We provide oversight of all GSE contract partners, and all GSE fleet planning. We also assist in building the GSE capital budget for Ground Operation every year and are responsible for coming in on target.
We collaborate with Supply Chain Management on selecting GSE vendors, co-ordinating all GSE movements in the system and selling our used GSE when the time comes. In short, the GSE team handles everything related to GSE from the time it comes in the door until it leaves.
With regard to the GSE that you operate, can you tell us about the size of that fleet and what sort of equipment that entails?
Southwest only flies B737 aircraft. Currently, our GSE fleet size is over 21,000 pieces. Approximately 7,800 of those pieces of equipment are powered equipment like baggage tugs, belt loaders, aircraft tractors, provisioning trucks, air starts, ground power units (GPUs) and other support vehicles.
The remaining 13,200 are baggage carts, towbars, tail stands, MX maintenance stands, stairs, and so on. All of our equipment is designed to handle any narrowbody aircraft.
Do you typically have preferred suppliers of GSE, and what sets them apart from their competitors in Southwest’s eyes, would you say?
When it comes to supplier selection we work closely with our friends [at Southwest] in Supply Chain Management. A lot of things come into play when selecting a new supplier or renewing contracts with current suppliers. First and foremost, we want the best value for our company. What does that mean? It means we want the best total cost of ownership (TCO).
Today, we have a lot of data; we know how much each piece of equipment will cost us to operate per year. We can compare one supplier to another. Obviously, we look at purchase price and warranty; however, what sets them apart from their competitors to me is the support and services after the sell. Do they have a great service department? How do they respond to warranty issues or not? What other service do they provide? This performance makes a real long-term difference.
Our GSE suppliers include:
FAST Global Solutions
Global Ground Support
Hall Technical Services
ITW GSE/GSE Holdings
LEKTRO (now part of JBT)
Southwest operates a very homogenised aircraft fleet; does that make your GSE selection procedures somewhat easier? Does it also mean that your maintenance requirements are less complex than for other carriers?
Having a standardised aircraft fleet makes us very efficient in so many ways, so yes it is easier. We do not need as many suppliers, we have fewer pieces of GSE in large operations than our counterparts at the larger airlines, less training for our GSE technicians, a smaller parts inventory to support the fleet – and the list goes on.
Do you own all your GSE, or do you choose to lease much of it? If you do lease GSE, is that because it offers more financial flexibility for you?
Southwest Airlines owns 99% percent of its equipment. Occasionally we will lease to test a new product or for an unknown requirement that pops up and Tech Ops does lease a few items for the hangers. We purchase the equipment, keep it for 15 to 20 years and then replace it.
Are there any trends in the sorts of GSE that Southwest is looking to acquire at the moment?
There has been an increased interest in electric GSE from airports around the country. We have several projects in the works the next few years. This is thanks to the continued VALE (US Voluntary Airport Low Emissions) programme funding and now the VW funding opportunities [the German car manufacturer Volkswagen agreed to pay a settlement of $14.7 billion in the US as the result of an environmental protection action, and much of that money is being used by US states to finance programmes at airports that will reduce harmful emissions].
If you could see any improvements in the nature of GSE being manufactured at the moment, what would you ask?
The one thing I would stress to every manufacturer as an area to improve on is their Quality Assurance (QA) programmes. Nothing makes me crazier than to receive a new piece of equipment that does not work as designed, meaning we have to work on it [before we can start using it].