Meeting the challenges at WFS’s Phoenix rebuild facility

posted on 21st June 2018

Scott Whitfill, Worldwide Flight Services’ North American director of maintenance is delighted with the company’s rebuild facility at Phoenix Mesa Gateway airport, in Arizona.

Whitfill is usually based at the WFS US headquarters in Irving, Texas, but he recently paid a visit to the facility in Arizona, which opened 18 months ago, to observe the highly trained specialist mechanics there at work on the bag tractors and belt loaders.

“It’s a really impressive set-up,” he said. “The workshop is based at a commercial airport which used to be an old Air Force base. It’s a huge space which is just perfect for this kind of work. The guys have all the room they need to go to town.”

First, the mechanics strip a vehicle down to the frame, sandblast it and repaint it. They use a fully rebuilt transmission, rear end and engine in each unit. “We do a zero time rebuild so that the vehicle is essentially a rebuilt tractor, or belt loader, and it goes on the books with a whole new eight-year lifespan,” Whitfill informs.

The new service provides WFS with a niche in the US ground-handling industry. “To my knowledge we are the only ground handler rebuilding vehicles,” he remarks. “Some airlines do it, but this is specialist work. We are now looking to market the service more widely to other companies, but we don’t expect a huge expansion.”

Rebuilding the vehicles saves money compared to buying new ones and the minimisation of costs is an essential part of Whitfill’s job, which he has now been doing for nearly 12 years at WFS.

“Since the financial crisis in 2008, costs have been squeezed every day. It’s just a fact of life as the margins in the US market are so tight,” he says. “All the US ground handlers are operating on less than we ever have before and we just have to deal with it. We look for efficiencies and for ways to operate with less equipment.”

One way to keep maintenance costs down is to purchase equipment astutely and to make long-term plans. “One of the keys is the cross-utilization of equipment,” Whitfill explained. “For example, if I need an air conditioner and a heater then I will go and buy an air conditioner that is also a heater. The manufacturers are aware of the needs of ground-handling companies, so the machines are on the market. It just requires end-user planning and thinking ahead to source them.”

He has a number of suppliers he has used for years, mainly the dominant players in the US market. “It usually doesn’t make sense for me to buy and ship in from abroad unless I can’t get the piece in the US. It’s very rare for me to buy from overseas – currency conversions cost me quite a lot as the US dollar has been down for a while.”

Using US supplies also increases the likelihood that Whitfill’s mechanics will be able to source replacement parts locally. “It’s much easier for my mechanics if they can source parts in the local stores. That way, we don’t have to wait on parts being sent from the manufacturers unless those parts are only available from the OEM (original equipment manufacturer). If we buy our vehicles from overseas, I am worried that the parts will not be readily available in the US.”

Being able to receive the equipment quickly is also a major priority. “Speed of delivery is crucial in the contract business,” he considers. “We rarely have more than 30 days turnaround time, and we frequently have less.”

Like so many procurers of GSE equipment, Whitfill is understandably wary of acquiring machines with too many accoutrements. “As a general rule, we order generic equipment to keep our costs down,” he observes. “We get all the standard technical and safety features, but we don’t get the all the extra ‘bells and whistles’ which can require more work to maintain. Generic pieces can also be moved around airports in the US, and still be used for different tasks. Typically, they will be in use for a decade, or more, and will be transferred to numerous locations in that time.”

The advances made by the equipment manufacturers are something of a double-edged sword to Whitfill. “To some degree more things can go wrong because there are more electric and computerised parts, and these can require more training for our mechanics,” he says.

“But it’s also true that slowly, but surely, the technology in our cars is making its way into the GSE world. It’s great technology and while it might take an additional piece of test equipment to read the codes, you can drive it for thousands of miles and – like your car – it never breaks down.”

Advances in engine technology have brought cost savings and legislation on legal limits for engine emissions has produced significant advances in fuel efficiency. But the real key to keeping costs under control, Whitfill believes, is taking care of performance maintenance (PM).

“We are heavily dependent on doing our PMs. That’s the biggest task in GSE maintenance. If we didn’t do it right, we wouldn’t get the full lifespan out off the vehicles,” he notes.

WFS maintains a database with comprehensive information about all its equipment.  Every piece from across the 55 North American airports where it operates equipment has an entry and a company number logged on the computer. The information includes the equipment’s make, model, location and which group it is assigned to.

This database helps with WFS’s preventive maintenance programme, which has three grades – A, B and C. “Not all companies do their PMs in the same way. We have evolved a system of three checks,” Whitfill says.

“The A check can be a simple look over the equipment and probably includes an oil change. Then, the B control will come after a certain time interval, which is scheduled on the calendar. This is a more involved analysis, which might also include an oil change, but essentially goes deeper into the working of the equipment.

“Finally, the C check is typically done once a year. It’s a very in-depth check which goes through everything on the unit. The mechanic checks the oil, rear end, flushes the radiator and hydraulics, and so on. These PMs help us to keep our reactive maintenance to a minimum. Being so thorough is also crucial in keeping the equipment safe to use, which is our paramount concern.”

WFS is one of the world’s biggest ground handlers. Now headquartered at Roissy, in France, it services 300 airlines and around 50 million passengers in 20 countries worldwide. It is present at 120 airports, some 55 of which are in the US, and has 10,000 employees.

But Whitfill’s sole focus is the maintenance of the GSE operations in the US. He knows personally the more than 100 US mechanics working for the company. Most of the work is done in-house, but around 35 per cent is outsourced in the US.

“We tend to outsource at our bases in medium to small-sized cities. We have much less equipment there, if any at all, and it’s not worth the cost of maintaining a lot of staff when there are only two or three flights a day,” he points out.

“At the large airports in big cities we have 100, or more, pieces of equipment and there are operations from early in the morning to late at night. It’s not affordable to outsource that kind of operation.”

Following a career in the air wing of the US Marine Corps, Whitfill has worked at WFS for 21 years. Having started out as a mechanic, he has worked his way up the ladder and landed his current job after nine years.

“I love my job. It’s a lot of fun and every day there’s a new challenge,” he enthuses.

Looking to the future, Whitfill predicts that the biggest changes in GSE maintenance will be due to the increased use of “green” machinery. Proposed regulations that restrict emissions may limit the use of a lot of current GSE.

“We will have to do a lot of things to meet these new regulations and some of the equipment could be more expensive,” he adds. “The manufacturers will have to change what they produce and we will have to adapt our existing equipment, or change it altogether.”

But WFS embraces the prospect of more efficient and environmentally-friendly equipment and is working to build a GSE fleet and maintenance regime that complies with environmental rules, while also balancing the financial needs of its customers, Whitfill concludes.