American Airlines Adding Widebody MRO Capacity In Tulsa
A few weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic began wreaking havoc with the U.S. economy and airline operations, American Airlines announced on Feb. 28 that its largest maintenance base will undergo a major transformation—to the tune of $550 million—over the next few years.
The investment at the base fulfills two of the carrier’s needs for the next 20-30 years: a new hangar able to accommodate any aircraft that American Airlines flies—narrowbody or widebody—and upgrades to the rest of the hangars and infrastructure, says Craig Barton, American Airlines vice president of technical operations.
The base, erected during World War II to build bombers, was taken over by American in 1946 and reconfigured as a maintenance facility, as it moved its tech ops headquarters from New York LaGuardia Airport. Its original four hangars expanded to six, plus Hangar 80 across the field, where the team performs overnight line maintenance work.
While the hangars could easily house MD-80s, the last of which American retired in September 2019 as it inducts newer and bigger aircraft such as the Boeing 787, the hangars are not large enough. American has added tail slots for Hangars 1 and 2 to accommodate larger aircraft such as the Boeing 737, but having a tail stick out of the hangar is not a practical, long-term solution—especially in inclement weather.
One of the facility infrastructure upgrades is to the fire suppression system, which needs to be manually monitored and is beyond its useful life, says Erik Olund, American Airlines’ managing director of base maintenance. Other infrastructure projects include new roofs, sewer water lines, utilities and information technology upgrades—including adding Wi-Fi to the hangars so American can deploy tablets and real-time work packages.
Updating the central utility plant, built in the 1940s and ’50s, with sustainable systems also has a green benefit.
American Airlines CEO Doug Parker says the Tulsa, Oklahoma, maintenance base is a “critical part” of the airline and that the investment reflects that. He points out that American has invested $20 billion in fleet renewal the last 5-6 years, and upgrading this facility is necessary to keep up with the fleet.
Barton says the Tulsa base changes will give the airline flexibility to “manage the mix” of narrowbody and widebody aircraft and the maintenance that is input. “It’s key to keeping a good balance of what we do,” he says, adding that American completes more maintenance in-house than other U.S. carriers. The base maintains about 900 aircraft annually.
The new 193,000-ft.2 hangar will accommodate two widebody aircraft or six narrowbodies—adding widebody maintenance capacity to the airline’s system. The design will enable technicians to bring aircraft in tail- or nose-first, compared to the current nose-in-only option, and allow for a cleaner workspace around the aircraft. Instead of aircraft surrounded by the old, traditional docking, workspaces will include lots of natural light, clean power for the aircraft and modernized systems to make work processes more efficient.Tulsa’s Hangar 6 already has switched to some docking that could become the model for the others, says Olund.
The base already has extensive backshops in which component and engine maintenance are performed. So the basic capabilities list will not change during the renovation. But the current administrative building that houses engineering, records, human resources and other services that support the base will move to the new hangar, says Barton.
American also operates base maintenance facilities at its Dallas headquarters as well as in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Pittsburgh.
The Tulsa facility, the largest in American’s network, has not received a major investment in 20 years and needs it to make it sustainable for the long term, says Kevin Brickner, senior vice president of technical operations.
American performs line maintenance in 30 U.S. cities and wants to make sure it has the right facilities, and that line and base maintenance needs are balanced. “In Miami, we just picked up a hangar on the north side of the airport that adds about 50-75% more [line maintenance] capacity,” says Barton. The new hangar will allow American to perform more work that naturally should be done there, instead of forcing it elsewhere in its network.
That was one of the drivers of the new $215 million, 191,000-ft.2 line maintenance hangar at Chicago O’Hare International Airport, which officially opened in January 2019. That hangar can simultaneously house six narrowbodies or two narrowbodies and two widebodies, including the 787.
While the plans included in that Feb. 28 announcement have not changed—as of early April, American plans to continue moving forward with the hangar—like all U.S. carriers that have grounded a significant portion or their fleets, it is evaluating how it will ramp up operations after the virus is contained.
The tech ops team is working on the master plan, which will outline everything from the green initiatives to how people, parts and aircraft flow into and out of the facility. “By the end of the year or early 2021, we expect the groundbreaking will start on the new facility,” says Olund. Constructing the hangar should take about 18 months, but the whole project is scheduled to take place over seven years.