Saturday, October 01, 2005

LA Story: a long-winded rant.

Since my company started adding service at Los Angeles earlier this year, a number of our pilots have started to consciously bid away from it. They'll look at a line they're interested in, check the trips, see that it has a bunch of LA turns, and look elsewhere. It's not that the Northwest has given us vampire-line reactions to excessive sunshine or anything. Rather, doing a LAX turn is a surefire way to screw up your day thanks to a ramp operation that is 100% FUBAR. Our experience there last night was more of the same.

A little background. LAX has far more XYZ Co. flights than ABC Co. flights, so they handle our operations. Alaska gate agents work our flights. XYZ Ops prints out our releases and serves as our main point of communication. And Menzies Aviation, contracted by XYZ Co. to provide their ramp service, handles our ramp service. These duties include marshalling airplanes into parking, connecting ground power if needed, loading and unloading bags, servicing the lavatory and potable water when applicable, and performing pushbacks. Menzies seems to take the position that these are very basic functions that any high school dropout could do, so that's the kind of minimum-wage help they hire. XYZ Co. certainly appreciates the price that they can do it for.

A little more background for those without airline experience. For airliners, having a source of electrical power other than the batteries is very important. We can run on the batteries for short periods of time, but we really try to avoid putting any great load on them, such as an engine start. When our engines are shut down, their generators do not operate, so we must get power from alternative sources to avoid depleting the batteries. A Ground Power Unit (GPU) is often used. It's essentially a little cart with a cord that plugs into a receptacle somewhere on the airplane. For my airplane, the preferred type is solid-state and converts AC power from the terminal into 28 volt DC power that the airplane can use. Diesel-powered GPUs are a self-contained alternative, but we try not to use them because they're noisy, smelly, and are not reliable in providing good 28-volt power. If faced with a diesel-powered GPU, we'll often opt instead to use the Auxiliary Power Unit (APU), a small jet engine installed in the tail for the sole purpose of providing DC power and heating/cooling on the ground. At LAX, we usually use the APU. Because of congestion around the gates, the usual procedure at LAX is to push back and then start the engines, which is not possible with a GPU. Until yesterday, I'd never used a GPU at LAX.

Yesterday, when preflighting the airplane in Portland, we discovered that the APU was inoperative and deferred. Knowing that we'd be in LAX a few legs later, the captain called dispatch. They assured him that a GPU would be available at LAX, available by prior request. Hours later, as we approached the LA basin, the captain called LAX operations to alert them of our revised time of arrival. He made sure to communicate our need for a GPU. They said they'd pass that request along to ramp service; the captain and I were both skeptical that it'd be there.
When we landed at 8:00PM, our gate was still occupied by a late-running MD80. Ground Control gave us the dreaded "continue straight on E, turn right on D10, right again on D and hold short of the alley until your gate opens up." Within a minute or two, I contacted LAX operations to let them know we would be holding for the gate, and to reiterate our need for a GPU when we arrived. They acknowledged. Twenty minutes later, our gate opened up, and not a minute too soon: the passengers were about to mutiny for the right to get up and use the restroom. As we taxied in, we looked for a GPU; sure enough, nowhere in sight. When parked, the captain gave the rampers the established "Connect ground power" hand signal. They looked at him in utter confusion and kept responding with the "Your wheels are chocked" hand signal.

Further attempts at hand communication were futile. I radioed operations and told them that we were still missing a GPU. They said they'd call ramp and let them know. In the meantime, our passengers could not deplane so long as our engines were running. We decided to shut them down, get the passengers off, and power down the airplane to protect the batteries if a GPU was not quickly forthcoming. I got off with the first passengers and flagged down a ramper to tell him we needed a GPU, NOW! He took off and returned with a diesel-powered GPU a few minutes later. About five rampers stood around trying to figure out how to fire it up. They finally succeeded and plugged the cord into the receptacle. I flashed the captain the "ground power connected" hand signal. In the cockpit, I saw him flip the external power switch.

No good. The GPU wasn't putting out any current; the aircraft remained on battery power. The rampers all stood around scratching their heads and flipping switches; I doublechecked that the cord was plugged in securely. I returned to the cockpit and called operations to let them know we're killing our batteries, we need somebody who knows the GPU out here now. The woman on the radio gave a knowing chuckle and said she'd call a supervisor. In the meantime, we couldn't depower the airplane because one passenger remained on board, an elderly woman who informed the FA's at the last minute that she needed a wheelchair. We turned off the cabin lights to save battery power; I felt bad for the woman, sitting alone in the dark cabin, waiting for a wheelchair that never seemed to come. It reminded me of the scene in Office Space where Lumburgh leaves Milton muttering in the dark at his new desk in the basement.

The Menzies supervisor arrived and now a little crowd stood around the mysterious GPU, fiddling with switches and knobs. Our battery voltage started dropping. The old woman sat quietly in the darkened cabin. A few gate agents ran out and urgently whispered to the flight attendants. We shut down the cockpit avionics in preparation for depowering, and wondered how much longer the batteries could discharge before they needed replacing. Our scheduled departure time to Medford approached. I felt very tired.

Finally, success: somebody divined the magic combination of knob twists that convinced the wayward GPU that it should indeed put out 28 volts DC. Well, almost. Like most diesel GPU's, the voltage swung up and down, sometimes dipping to 24.5 volts. The captain had doubts about whether it'd charge the batteries enough by departure, and I wondered whether the thing would puke out when we put a load on it by starting the engines. There didn't seem to be any alternative to giving it a go, though, so we turned the lights back on. The wheelchair finally came and took the old woman, so we began boarding for Medford.

The GPU held on during engine start, and although the battery loads stayed high for a while, a slow taxi helped them get below the departure limit before we got to our runway. Before we left the alleyway, though, we got to witness Menzies' next blunder: attempting to marshall another flight into gate 31B when it was assigned gate 32. We blocked out almost 30 minutes late; favorable winds and a great turn by the good folks in Medford helped us make up most of that by the time we arrived in Eugene after midnight.

In the race to get costs down, many airlines have turned to outsourcing functions that well-paid employees used to do. There are certainly financial advantages to outsourcing in many industries; the one huge disadvantage is that you lose a certain amount of control over your product. Outsourcing only makes financial sense if you put the mechanisms into place to ensure that your vendors are providing you with a quality product. This is one prime example of a vendor providing horrible service with no apparent repercussions. Menzies employs uneducated, minimum-wage labor from the poor areas around the airport, trains them poorly, and neglects to provide oversight by knowledgable supervisors. The operation can truly be described as dysfunctional. Menzies' reward? A bigger contract, this time for ramp service in Seattle. Up there, they've wreaked havoc on the operation with a string of damaged airplanes, misplaced priority cargo, and even a gang fight on the ramp (!).

Hey management, would you care for a suggestion from a lowly junior FO? Go take a close look at the ramp operations in Spokane and Boise. These people are experts at turning airplanes quickly, efficiently, and safely. They are proficient at dealing with unusual situations; they're well-trained guys and gals who can think on their feet without being babysat. They take pride in the great job they do. And our company is considerably better for it. Do they cost more than Menzies? I'm sure they do. Are they worth it? Every penny. They contribute to the quality of our operation rather than detract from it. Keeping in mind our companies' roles as smaller, niche providers of high-quality air travel in our region, a quality operation is paramount. Without it, we won't survive. You know the barbarians are at the gates - you know, the guys with ugly airplanes and cheap fares and smart management and a well-run operation. I'm proud to fly for you guys. I want this airline to survive and prosper. Please, please, please: realize that our success depends on far more than getting costs down. Do not outsource this operation to the people who will trash it.


Jim Howard said...

That was a gutsy post.

Lost Av8r said...

I used to work for a contracted ramp company. We did Dash 8's, 737' mostly. I was very proud of the job we did. We could quickly turn a plane, and very rarely ran into problems with equipment. It's sad that so many ramp companies hire bottom of the barrel employees. Kinda brings the "profession" down.

pops said...

hey Sam,this is dad.Keep chalenging your profession to excellence. There's way too little of it around. Love ya lots

CoLite said...

At our hub operation in Houston, we contract with Colgan Air to provide feeder service for us to markets than the company think's can't support Xpress Jet service. It's running joke among the ramp agents, since these flights are contracted out, the ramp crews that handles those flights are contracted out to Delta Ground Services, the catering is conracted out to someone else, instead of using our own catering company that we own, and since they are a pad operation there is another company with a contract to bus them from the terminal to the plane.

Sam said...

lost av8r, that wouldn't be the company that does our ramp service in YVR, would it? They do a good job...I recently heard that their company is losing the contract, though. Good service = too expensive? Grr.

Hey Dad, glad to see you're checking out the blog!

Lost Av8r said...

Hey Sam,

I was in YLW (Kelowna), I think your Horizon customer service people do the ramp there for you guys, @ least they used to. I'm not sure who does QX in YVR. I'll see if I can find out though.