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What other airlines shed, Delta shelters

An unfamiliar plane pulled into the huge Delta Air Lines hangar at Tampa International Airport last Saturday for a routine check of its airframe and wiring.

The Boeing 737-800 carried the lime green and purple markings of Miami Air International, a charter carrier that leases planes and crews to sports teams, cruise lines, corporations and political campaigns.

The local Delta mechanics wrapped up the work a half day early Tuesday. That allowed Miami Air to use the jet the next day to fly U.S. Sen. John Kerry, fresh off a Democratic presidential primary win in New Hampshire, to campaign stops in Missouri and South Carolina.

While competitors such as US Airways and United Airlines are shifting aircraft maintenance work from their own mechanics to cheaper contractors, Delta is pursing a different path.

The nation's No. 3 carrier is aggressively marketing its maintenance services _ from engine overhauls and electronics repairs to scheduled airframe inspections _ to other airlines.

What started as a $50-million side business in 2000 grew to $160.5-million last year, and Delta officials expect continued growth. Customers include freight carrier Airborne Express, foreign airlines like AeroMexico and Delta subsidiaries Comair and Atlantic Southeast Airlines.

Most of the "in-sourcing" work is done at Delta's big maintenance bases at Atlanta and Dallas/Fort Worth. The Miami Air contract for scheduled checks on the two Boeing 737-800s is the biggest for the Tampa base, which employs 215 mechanics and other workers.

Their bread and butter, of course, is tending to Delta's MD-88s and 737s and the 757 jets flown by its low-fare division, Song.

"We've seen what everybody else is doing, sending work to third-party providers," said Raymond Bennett, general manager of the Tampa hangar. "We're proud that we're good enough to do our own."

Like other traditional hub-and-spoke carriers, Delta is struggling financially as business travel remains sluggish and low-fare carriers nibble away at its markets. The airline lost $327-million in the last three months of 2003 and $773-million for the year.

Growing revenues from outside maintenance work is a top priority even as Delta works to cut costs, said spokesman Anthony Black. The airline streamlined the process of inspecting planes and sped up how it overhauls engines last year, saving about $110-million annually.

That helps Delta remain competitive for other airlines' work. But the biggest advantage may be its work force of nonunion mechanics, a rarity among major airlines. That means, among other things, that Delta isn't burdened by contracts that restrict work schedules.

"We have flexibility that a lot of carriers can't offer," said Jim Maucere, a vice president who oversees Delta's maintenance hangars.

At a celebration for the 20th anniversary of Delta's Tampa hangar Friday, a Tampa International administrator offered Maucere a tour of the maintenance hangar US Airways closed last year during a bankruptcy court reorganization. That was just in case Delta wants to pick up the lease and expand its maintenance operations in Tampa, said Ed Cooley, the airport's senior operations director.

After abandoning the Tampa hangar, US Airways contracted with an Alabama company for heavy maintenance on its Airbus jets _ work that local mechanics said had been promised to the Tampa facility.

"We can look over there and see the alternative to not growing," Bennett said.

_ Steve Huettel can be reached at huettelsptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

Wrenches for hire

Delta Air Lines made $160.5-million in revenues last year from performing engine and aircraft maintenance for other airlines. Here are some of its customers:

- Airborne Express

- World Airways

- AeroMexico (engine repair)

- Royal Air Maroc

- Boeing business jets (on-call maintenance)

- Comair and Atlantic Southeast Airlines (regional jet engine repair)

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