Nothing without support

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 Derek Zimmerman, Gulfstream President, Global Support, on what it takes to run a top-notch worldwide support operation

Running a global support operation for something as expensive and demanding as a fleet of business jets requires a rare blend of logistical skills, financial acumen and management expertise.

A great support network does not just happen. It has to be crafted piece by piece, meticulously, from the ground up. People have to be trained and motivated and their skills kept sharp and fresh. A vast array of parts have to be strategically located if you want a fast response time to customer requirements – and that means that the organisation concerned is going to have to bear the cost of having all those parts sitting on shelves.

Plus, if the fleet is large, with the range of models that Gulfstream has in its portfolio, and if there is a real commitment to supporting even the oldest models for the rest of their useful lives, the annual bill for the entire support operation is going to be eye-wateringly high.

As Derek Zimmerman, President, Product Support, at Gulfstream explains, the parts inventory alone in Gulfstream’s support network is valued at over $1.6 billion. For many multinationals, a parts inventory on that scale would have the finance department on the warpath with their knives out, looking to save the company a fortune by slashing inventory to the bone. Gulfstream management, however, know with great certainty that if you want to have the premium brand in business aviation, you have to keep the customer happy, and with business aviation, that means keeping the customer flying.

Having an aircraft AOG waiting for a part to be sourced from God-knows-where is not exactly reputation enhancing. At the same time, you can’t be cavalier about the volume of surplus stock you have lying around. The solution is to look for an acceptable balance between holding much of the stock centrally, and pushing out the more in-demand parts to locations where they are much closer to the customer. Again, getting this balance right takes deep skill and an excellent network that enables information on parts usage to guide and refine the balancing process.

“We are very fortunate at Gulfstream in that we have a parent company in General Dynamics that understands that the business aviation industry is tremendously resource intensive. What’s more, our parent company has provided the means for us to continue to invest in this business all the way through their time as owners of Gulfstream.

“It has been no small investment. They have provided the tooling, the facilities, the parts across the full range of the fleet, now at more than 2,500 aircraft, going all the way back to the G1, which first flew in 1958,” Zimmerman comments.

He makes the point that it is relatively easy to build one aircraft, but to keep on building new models decade after decade, and to support and maintain those models to the standards that corporate and private customers rightfully expect, is a different proposition altogether.

“We are able to do it because we have a lot of very smart and very dedicated people in our organisation. It is their responsibility to work out the balance between the things that are best stored centrally, so that we have command and control over them and the numbers on the shelves, and the parts that are best placed as close as possible to the customer,” he notes.

You have to have centralisation – otherwise, a support network can easily degenerate into a host of spot decisions being made in local markets. These decisions might look fine at the time, but when looked at as a whole, with the wisdom of hindsight, any organisation going down that road is likely to find that they are tying up far more money and being a great deal less efficient than they thought.

“Centralisation allows you to take advantage of all the pricing you can gain control over, and if you combine this with pushing parts out close to the customer, you can get the optimum balance. It is more costly than holding everything centrally, but the upside is that it really cuts down the time it takes to get parts for the customer’s aircraft and you get them flying again far faster,” he says.

Zimmerman points out that delivering quality repairs in the shortest possible time frame has a hugely positive impact on the brand. “First and last, the relationship with customers is vastly more valuable to us over the longer term than any savings we could make on parts. Obviously, we still have to track and monitor things very carefully to avoid waste, but our focus is on efficiency rather than savings and we try to put as much as makes economic sense as close to the customer as possible,” he says.

All the data that comes in from the entire Gulfstream fleet, across all the service centres, is constantly analysed. “We need to be prepared for constant change as we flex to match evolving customer requirements,” he comments.

One of Gulfstream’s major advantages on the service and support side is that it has always done the vast majority of its maintenance in-house, along with support from its sister company Jet Aviation. So there is a very strong flow of information and learning that comes from this, helping to ensure that services and repairs continue to meet very high quality standards. “We know what the experience is in the overall Gulfstream fleet, and we can leverage off all these internal data sources to shape our responses accordingly,” he comments.

Another important factor is that the service and support side is part of an integrated approach and not merely a stand-alone after-market service. This is particularly true for Gulfstream’s next two aircraft to entire service, the G500 and G600 in 2018 and 2019, respectively.

“Here on the support side we are very close both to the manufacturing and design side and to sales. Right from the outset we have people from product support embedded in our new product design and build phase, helping to provide input on the maintainability of the new design and answering questions about how we are going to support the design, tool for it and train our staff for it. There is a continuous dialogue back and forth with the other parts of Gulfstream,” Zimmerman says.

The support team will have a special squad overseeing the first test aircraft and familiarising themselves with its unique characteristics. They’ll also be feeding information back on key design or engineering issues that impact anything to do with keeping the aircraft flying.

It is common practice among some airframe manufacturers to produce aircraft that are a best-fit compromise between what customers really want and what is reasonable, from an economic perspective, for the airframe manufacturer to provide. This approach leaves scope for a healthy after-market third-party business, where specialist engineering companies look to design desirable modifications and add-ons which they walk through the certification process and try to sell to a goodly percentage of the buyers of that particular model.

Zimmerman says that while Gulfstream is mindful of the needs of the after-market, building a perfect or near-perfect product is what Gulfstream aspires to from the outset. This leaves very little room for third parties to come in with after market add-ons. Plus Gulfstream itself has a very active programme of enhancements for its older models, and that too, is a revenue generator for the company.

“A good part of our investment in the last year or two has been targeted at GIVs and GVs, especially in regards to avionics upgrades and cabin connectivity and functionality.

“We understand our airframes better than anyone else and we believe we are best placed to bring out enhancements, where there is a clear or emerging market need for them. We know how the systems work and it is a much easier story for us to make the investment in the upgrade technology, get the product certified and then get it onto the customer’s aircraft. Business jets are sophisticated products. The better you understand the aircraft, the easier it is for you to complete the certification work on an enhancement or upgrade. Plus the customer can be confident that the after-market improvement you have added can be supported for the life of the airframe. We know that at the end of this process we are giving them something that they are going to be happy with,” he comments.

Any owner or operator knows that the quality of the support that an aircraft has received over its life has a significant impact on the aircraft’s residual value when it is finally sold on or traded for a new model. A real stumbling block for potential buyers of pre-owned aircraft, of course, is if the OEM has withdrawn support for an ageing model. Zimmerman points out that Gulfstream had a G1 on the ramp earlier in 2016, and continues to support customers who operator its oldest model.

“We are well aware of the fact that aircraft can be very long-lived and we know that the lifespan of any aircraft can be extended way out into the future if it is properly cared for,” he remarks.

When it comes to deciding where to site its service centres and mobile support operations, Gulfstream is of course guided by demand. With some 60% to 70% of the business jet fleet residing in the US, its existing wholly- owned service infrastructure is set up to reflect this US-centric skewing. There are 11 Gulfstream service centres worldwide, with a combined area of more than 5 million square feet. On top of this the company has some eight factory-authorised service centres through Jet Aviation, and 17 authorised warranty facilities on six continents.

Of the 11 company-owned service centres, three are outside of the USA. One is in the UK, at Luton, one is in Beijing and another is in Sorocaba, Brazil. Gulfstream’s Savannah service centre is still the largest in the world.

In addition, over the last few years Gulfstream has invested substantially in mobile support units with their own dedicated teams. There are now eight specially equipped truck-based mobile repair vehicles in Gulfstream’s support fleet and the mobile support concept has already been rolled out to Luton in the UK.

So how does Gulfstream keep tabs on such a far-flung support network? “The question of how to coordinate all this starts from our base and works outwards towards the customer. A really interesting key future development for us would be to have some of our technicians and technical support staff actually based with larger customers. That will send a tremendous message to customers about us being there for them and with them. I think that is a natural evolution for the support industry as time goes on,” Zimmerman comments.

Staff training on the technical side is absolutely a continuous process. “There are a whole range of issues that we need to train our technical people on and we run courses continuously here. FlightSafety, our partner on training issues, runs courses as well for us. It is all about looking at how you move people through the various training channels,” he observes.

New models clearly require a tremendous amount of preparatory work from the support team. “Right now we are very forward-focused on the G500 and the G600. We have a product support team taking care of one of the flight test aircraft, so they are already getting plenty of hands-on experience, and learning lessons that will be fed to the entire support network,” Zimmerman notes.

With a long history of successfully introducing new models, Gulfstream has a deep experience of what is required in order to have its global support network and all the third-party shops up to speed by the time the new models are being delivered to customers. “We’re getting ready for these new aircraft and we’re really looking forward to them joining the fleet,” Zimmerman concludes.”