King Aerospace lives by the same values as Southwest Airlines.

Southwest Airlines Visit Yields Valuable Insights for King Aerospace Team

May 20, 2024

First impressions, as they say, can be lasting impressions. The guard at the Southwest Airlines security gate is methodical but friendly in checking IDs for the group of thirteen King Aerospace executives, led by company Founder and Chairman Jerry Allan King-Echevarria, arriving for a late-April visit to the carrier’s Network Operations Control (NOC) center at Dallas Love Field.

As he goes through the names, the guard mentions the forecast for storms later that afternoon. He admits he’ll be happy to be home before they hit the airport.

Access confirmed, the guard’s amiable demeanor evolves into a broad smile. “Go down to that first stop sign, hang a right, take a left at the next stop, and there’ll be the building you’re going to,” he instructs the group. “And welcome to Southwest Airlines!”

The guard undoubtedly offers the same welcome dozens if not hundreds of times each day, but the earnestness and enthusiasm in his voice can’t be scripted. It’s a tone that says, “Thank you for visiting the company that I’m proud to work for.”

And while the purpose of this visit is to learn more about Southwest’s approach to maintenance, it also offers an important glimpse behind the scenes of another organization that, like King Aerospace, does things a little differently than their competitors.

Applying Technology to Move Forward

Lit in subdued blue that contrasts against hundreds of vivid computer displays, the massive NOC houses more than 200 employees tasked with keeping Southwest’s Boeing 737s flying, its employees where they need to be and – most importantly – getting more than half a million passengers safely to their destinations across more than 4,100 flights scheduled on a given day.

“Fourteen employee groups are working here on the floor, with all job groups represented,” explains Brandon Beard, manager of Maintenance Operations Control (MOC) Technical Support. “They are here 24/7/365. There is no time when you can come here and not see this room fully staffed.”

When he isn’t serving as tour guide, Beard oversees the carrier’s Field Tech working group, made up of about a dozen specialized team members among the airline’s several thousand aviation maintenance technicians (AMTs) who are tasked with fixing “unsolvable” issues.

Those experiences have yielded many significant benefits to the airline, including where to apply technology to prevent issues before they develop. One example is the advanced health monitoring (HM) system that is standard equipment onboard the carrier’s latest 737-MAX 8 airliners.

Dozens of sensors monitor the function of critical aircraft systems. A significant fault or failure will immediately send a message to the MOC, even if the aircraft is still en route to its destination, allowing maintenance crews to be ready to fix the problem on arrival.

Less critical HM messages download after landing to be addressed in the course of normal, scheduled servicing. The system also allows AMTs to spot trends before they become larger problems.

“Those of you who’ve been on 737s a long time know how horrible the pneumatic system is on the airplane,” Beard says. “We installed additional pre-cooler temp sensors that give us the true health of that system before problems arise. We took pneumatics from the number one delay driver at Southwest Airlines, which cost us the most money, to around number 22 today.”

Southwest has also retrofitted many of those same capabilities to its fleet of older, Next Generation 737s that were developed long before such capabilities were even on the drawing board.

“The NG is kind of a ‘dumb’ airplane,” Beard says. “The MAX is smarter, and we’ve learned where we can apply HM to offer the greatest benefit. We also use the NG as the testbed for what we want to write for the MAX; they use different systems and programming languages, but with many of the same capabilities.”

Finding new approaches to solving maintenance issues isn’t limited to the airplane, of course. Beard also emphasizes the importance of adapting to the expectations and technological abilities of younger maintenance professionals now entering the industry.

“We may have a new hire or contract mechanic today who’s never opened the manual for a given issue on a 737,” he says. “Instead of trying to talk him through it, I can send him a 20-second video that shows the fix, and he’ll be like, ‘oh, okay, no problem.'”

This combination of traditional values with new methodologies is also a key priority for King Aerospace in serving their customers. “This is the kind of forward-thinking that we want to see,” King notes. “We want our customers to know that we’re not just fixing their airplane. We’re using technology to come up with ways to make things better and make a difference.”

The ‘Heart’ Behind it All

Even as each company has adapted to industry changes over the past several decades, both Southwest and King Aerospace hold firm to a shared commitment to servant leadership to their customers, their employees and others. As an example, King recalls a long-ago situation involving a foreign dignitary’s 737 that was at King Aerospace for maintenance.

“We were absolutely bamboozled by this problem that we couldn’t troubleshoot,” he tells Beard. “Somehow I got the phone number for the Southwest AOG desk. I called it, and right away they started troubleshooting the issue. The guy even asked, ‘do you mind if we patch so-and-so in to help out?’

“All throughout this call, I kept asking if they understood that I wasn’t a Southwest employee,” King laughs. “‘I haven’t opened a work order or PO to you.’ And they said, ‘no problem, it’s okay’ and they walked us through the fix. I couldn’t believe it.”

That is one of many reasons why King makes no secret of his love and admiration for the nation’s fourth-largest airline, going back to his earliest days in the aviation industry. He proudly notes Southwest Airlines founder Herb Kelleher was both an esteemed industry colleague and a cherished friend.

So, it’s not surprising when King breaks out his famous “heart” costume and moves to the windows separating the NOC from an attached conference room, delighting several Southwest employees who rush to photograph him holding up a homemade sign with a simple message: “LUV Y’ALL!”

Embracing Values in Difficult Times

Much has been written about the Southwest approach to business and teambuilding. It’s one thing to embrace positive attitudes when times are good; it’s much harder, but even more important, to hold onto such values during rougher times.

Beard points to the lessons learned from the airline’s infamous “December event,” when a miscalculation in forecasting the severity of a late-2022 winter storm shut down Southwest’s network for more than a week over the holiday travel season.

“We flew too long,” he admits. “We knew the storm was going to impact Denver, one of our mega-cities, but we’d hoped it would be a dusting. It turned out to be more significant. We should have stopped flying way out in front of that storm, but we actually didn’t stop flying until the storm had also affected Chicago. Now, we were in an absolutely bad position.”

As thousands of irate passengers and countless media headlines tore into the airline, Southwest’s employees worked diligently into the early days of 2023 to restore order from chaos.

Many of them also saw a certain bespectacled gentleman cheering them on, standing near the entrance to the company’s headquarters in the middle of the night, wearing his heart costume and holding his homemade sign.

“I woke up at 2 am thinking about all of those people,” King recalls, “and I knew I wouldn’t get back to sleep until I did what I could to brighten their day a bit. So, I drove down to greet the departing night shift employees and the arrival of the day shift.”

It’s during such difficult times, King reiterated to the team after leaving the NOC, when a company must reaffirm its commitment to the customer, employees to each other and all to the greater mission of service to God, Country and Family.

“There will always be tough times in between moments of triumph,” he says. “Believe me when I tell you that difficult times and empty hangars don’t scare me. Empty hearts, though, scare the heck out of me.”