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Racing to Improve; United Airlines Employees Go to School


for Pit Crews To Boost Teamwork, Speed
Carey, Susan. Wall Street Journal [New York, N.Y] 24 Mar 2006: pp. B.1.

Abstract
"We're back to basics," says Joni Teragawachi, United's manager of world-wide airport operations
training. The Federal Aviation Administration "has had issues with us" because inspectors could find
United workers doing things differently at different airports, she says. "In our history, training has
been optional." At the start of the second change, Mr. [Patrick Bernall] stopped the teams. "What's
wrong?" he shouted. "FOD!" To airline workers, that means "foreign object debris" that they're
supposed to remove from the tarmac so it doesn't get sucked into a jet engine or disable machinery.
Lug nuts had been sprinkled intentionally in the pit boxes to see if the United workers would notice
and clean them up. Every team flunked that test. Another time, Mr. Bernall removed some workers
from the teams, leaving just three to perform all the pit functions. "That was absolutely the most
meaningful exercise," said a sweaty Brad Fox, a ramp lead at Dulles. "Dulles is understaffed." But
having extra people didn't help, either. When Mr. Bernall added people to Howard Fulton's team, "it
was so confusing we kinda goofed up," said the ramp lead at Chicago's O'Hare Airport. "We all went
on one side of the car. We were bumping into each other."

Full text
Mooresville, N.C. -- DENISE RIVERA spends her workdays waving in jets, unloading baggage
and pushing planes around with a tractor. But on this day, the lead ramp servicewoman for United
Airlines at Miami International Airport was struggling to remove five lug nuts from a Chevrolet Monte
Carlo stock car.
"It needed lubrication or something," she said later. "I kept winging it and finally got it down."
Ms. Rivera was one of 33 United ramp workers who donned coveralls, knee pads, ear plugs and
safety goggles at Pit Instruction &amp; Training LLC one recent afternoon to learn how to handle a
jack, change 65- pound tires and fill fuel tanks on race cars.
They aren't about to turn airport runways into race tracks. But UAL Corp.'s United hopes some
training in the split-second practices of Nascar pit crews will help Ms. Rivera and her colleagues
slash the time that United's 455 jetliners spend on the ground. Less time on the ground equals more
time aloft. That means more daily flights without having to buy new planes and -- the airline hopes --
more revenue.
The pit-crew experience is intended to reinforce the importance of such things as teamwork,
preparedness and safety. It's one small but important way United is trying to become more efficient
after emerging from three years of bankruptcy-court protection last month.
"We're back to basics," says Joni Teragawachi, United's manager of world-wide airport operations
training. The Federal Aviation Administration "has had issues with us" because inspectors could find
United workers doing things differently at different airports, she says. "In our history, training has
been optional."
By immersing its supervisory "lead" ramp workers in the adrenalin- pumping realm of Nascar, the
airline hopes to cut the average aircraft ground time by eight minutes to 53 minutes, competitive with
United's peers. For the airline's leisure-oriented "Ted" flights, the goal is to cut ground time by five
minutes to 36.
United plans to put nearly 1,200 of these employees through "Pit Crew U" this year and hopes to
bring customer-service agents to similar classes in 2007. About 18 months ago at its Denver hub,
the airline started a campaign to standardize ramp functions to determine the most efficient and
consistent way to safely "turn" a plane -- bring it in, unload and load it, and push it out again. Building
on that, it set schedules for shorter ground times at the San Francisco hub and on most Ted flights
this year. Soon, the new regime will make its way to Chicago and Washington.
The exercise is meant to reinforce principles of orderliness, communication and standardized tasks
on the ramp, using examples from pit-crew work. The high-energy sessions are also meant as a
morale- builder for a group that has been short-changed on training over the years and just endured
a brutal bankruptcy that cut their wages, laid off some of their colleagues and forced them to do
more with less.
Pit Instruction &amp; Training opened a campus in Mooresville, 30 miles north of Charlotte, in
2004 complete with a quarter-mile race track and a "pit road" with positions for six cars. The school
offers an eight-week program to train novices to work the pits. But most of its business comes from
corporate team building, centered on the highly choreographed preparation, practice and teamwork
of pit crews. United said the training is part of a multimillion dollar investment that includes new
equipment and bag scanners for the ramp.
When United approached him last year, co-owner Tom DeLoach wasn't sure what the airline could
accomplish. But on a flight soon after, he found himself gazing out the window at ramp workers
going through their tarmac ballet. "It's simple, but the execution is a pain," he says. "I thought
[United] was quite creative to make a connection between what an airplane does and what we do."
Pit crews normally are composed of seven people who "jump over the wall" into the "pit box," where
a car comes screeching in during a race. One handles the jack, two heft air guns, two haul fresh
tires, one adds gasoline and a "catch-can man" sops up excess fuel. The team keeps working as the
car roars away, cleaning up the pit box, moving equipment into position and preparing for the next
stop.
United ramp workers usually work in teams of four. Their tools are belt-loaders and baggage carts,
scanners that keep track of suitcases, and tow bars and push tractors that move planes. But the
workers starting their shifts don't always find a tidy workplace with equipment at the ready. Things
break down. Weather gets lousy. People call in sick, leaving teams understaffed. These variables
mean it's important for everybody to have the standard moves down cold.
One recent morning, the United workers assembled in a classroom at Pit Crew U. Leading the
discussion were instructors Patrick Bernall, a professional "jackman" who works on Kyle Petty's
No. 45 Petty Enterprise Dodge, and John Perfetti, a United lead ramp serviceman at Washington's
Dulles International Airport.
"A good, 36-minute Ted turn is our 13-second pit stop," said Mr. Bernall, a Bruce Willis look-alike.
"Your envelope is our pit box," he added, using airline lingo for an aircraft parking place. "It would be
silly for you to line up on your envelope without your belt loader," he said. He stressed the common
concepts both groups need to follow: safety, teamwork, communications and standardized tasks.
Heads nodded as he explained the equipment, worker positions and planning that go into a pit stop,
using power-point slides and video from actual races. "They're so organized," marveled Pat Drayton,
a lead ramp servicewoman at Dulles. "The equipment is there. They're ready to go."
The workers then went outside to "Pit Road," where two race cars plastered with United stickers
made a few quick laps around the track. The employees were divided into six teams. They climbed
into uniforms, did a few calisthenics and launched into a series of pit-stop exercises captured by
overhead video cameras. Mr. Bernall stood on the wall, barking instructions into a microphone.
He offered no coaching before the first exercise. A member of one team tripped over his air gun cord
and fell down. Someone lost his safety goggles. Tires rolled this way and that. Lug nut removal was
measured in minutes instead of seconds.
At the start of the second change, Mr. Bernall stopped the teams. "What's wrong?" he shouted.
"FOD!" To airline workers, that means "foreign object debris" that they're supposed to remove
from the tarmac so it doesn't get sucked into a jet engine or disable machinery. Lug nuts had been
sprinkled intentionally in the pit boxes to see if the United workers would notice and clean them up.
Every team flunked that test.
Another time, Mr. Bernall removed some workers from the teams, leaving just three to perform all the
pit functions. "That was absolutely the most meaningful exercise," said a sweaty Brad Fox, a ramp
lead at Dulles. "Dulles is understaffed." But having extra people didn't help, either. When Mr. Bernall
added people to Howard Fulton's team, "it was so confusing we kinda goofed up," said the ramp lead
at Chicago's O'Hare Airport. "We all went on one side of the car. We were bumping into each other."
Gradually, the strangers on each team started working smarter. By the last of six pit changes, five
teams had improved their times. Ms. Drayton's squad finished its last change in 49 seconds, slicing
59% off its initial score of 119 seconds. She said, "I told the guys, 'You're better with the tools. You're
stronger. I'll take over on the jack.' They didn't argue."
Some of the more cynical United employees said they didn't think the program would save the
airline. But the sessions did raise spirits and heart rates. Ms. Rivera's team gamely improved its time
through the exercises, winding up with the lowest final score, 35 seconds, of all six teams.
A little cheerleading helped, she said. At first, "my group was moping. I said, 'No, no, no. We're
gonna get better.' By the end, they were all yelling along with me."
---
Online Today: WSJ.com subscribers can see photos and video clips of United employees training in
pit-crew school, at WSJ.com/OnlineToday.

Indexing (details)
Subjects Airlines, Training, Automobile racing
Company/Org United Airlines Inc (NAICS: 481111)
Classification 9190: United States, 8350: Transportation & travel industry, 6200:
Training & development
Title Racing to Improve; United Airlines Employees Go to School for Pit
Crews To Boost Teamwork, Speed
Authors Carey, Susan
Publication title Wall Street Journal
Pages B.1
Publication year 2006
Publication Date Mar 24, 2006
Year 2006
Publisher Dow Jones & Company Inc
Place of Publication New York, N.Y.
Country of publication United States
Journal Subjects Business And Economics--Banking And Finance
ISSN 00999660
Source type Newspapers
Language of Publication English
Document Type News
ProQuest Document ID 399037922
Document URL http://search.proquest.com/docview/399037922?accountid=14700
Copyright (c) 2006 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Reproduced with permission
of copyright owner. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited
without permission.
Last Updated 2010-06-26
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