Forging Ahead

posted on 30th March 2021
Forging Ahead

Specialist MRO West Star Aviation has emerged from a surprisingly robust 2020 with big plans for 2021 and beyond, as Debi Cunningham, Vice President Marketing, explains

There are some companies whose notifications are regular enough to stand out even in the busiest inbox. Among them, East Alton, Illinois-based West Star Aviation gives the impression of having more news than ever, even through the worst months of pandemic.

Debi Cunningham, Vice President Marketing at West Star Aviation, acknowledges: “We’ve weathered the pandemic better than we could have imagined, particularly since this was an event none of us have been through before. “Many companies in the maintenance segment are considered ‘essential’, which has allowed us to stay open during the entire period. Our team sprang into action to make sure we had processes to deep clean facilities and disinfect aircraft coming in and leaving. Along with everyone else, we had to come up with all-new protocols to keep our customers and employees safe.
“West Star adopted a new working atmosphere for our techs out on the floor, coordinating them to work in PODS – three or four employees working together during their shift every day. It was particularly important for potential contact tracing and containment efforts. If one team member was found to be sick, then that POD could easily be isolated and quarantined without a massive disruption in workflow or having to close an entire facility. We also implemented mandatory temperature checks, mask requirements and social distancing, and still have those safeguards in place.”

West Star has therefore continued operations at pace, but with vaccines rolling out and governments increasingly looking ahead with tentative optimism, business and VIP aviation providers have begun planning for ‘normal’ operations in a new aviation environment. Cunningham says: “I believe business aviation will emerge stronger and wiser for having gone through all of this. Then, factor in the increased safety that business aviation can provide when compared to commercial air travel, along with a high level of pent-up demand for travel and in-person events. This demand will eventually break free as we start to get the pandemic under more control and restrictions begin to be lifted. The bottom line is, I do think we will see an increase in maintenance activity as operators begin to fly more in the coming months.”

Well positioned
With four full-service locations and six satellite facilities, between them apparently able to deliver just about any MRO service on any aircraft type, West Star Aviation ought to be well positioned to take advantage of the opportunity Cunningham identifies. In offering so much, however, there is a risk of providing reasonable service across the board, rather than excelling in any one area. It’s a risk West Star is careful to avoid.

“In the very beginning,” Cunningham explains, “we started out with two main airframes that we focused on, Falcon and Citation. We made it a priority to build teams specific to those airframes and become experts on them. This model worked extremely well for us. As we grew, we remained true to this model of being airframe specific, even as our capabilities and physical locations expanded.”

Which effectively means that West Star has expert, specialist teams dedicated to each airframe, but how is such expertise maintained and communicated to customers? “First, we hire the right people. Then invest in the right resources. But, most importantly, we acknowledge that every customer is different. We believe the more of a customised approach you can offer your customers, the more successful you will be. Operators don’t want a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach from their service provider. I think our people do an exceptional job in listening and providing a more tailored approach to our customers.”

The services offered vary between locations, but with overlap in some areas of expertise, and West Star’s regional and technical sales managers work directly with customers to determine the best facility for their specific aircraft and need. “Our four full-service, one-stop locations are strategically placed throughout the US,” Cunningham notes, “and that makes it easy for our customers to bring their work packages to us. Our satellite locations are also strategically located in order to help with the maintenance needs either of specific programmes or specific customer fleet operators.

“We also have an MRT (mobile repair team)/AOG presence, on call and able to help customers with AOG issues or help flight departments accomplish maintenance events in their hangars.” West Star’s MRT/AOG capability reaches throughout the US and Canada, and into Mexico. “We also recently went to St Thomas and Antigua, working directly with customers to get them back in the air as soon as possible,” Cunningham reveals.

Aviation is an industry where safety is paramount and for an MRO, that means ensuring staff are up to speed and qualified on the latest developments and requirements, and making certain they are qualified to the highest regulatory standards. With people necessarily kept apart during the pandemic, the demands of compliance and recurrent training over several countrywide locations are considerable, but Cunningham says West Star’s human resources and quality assurance teams are more than up to the challenge.

“They’ve created a way to keep everyone on track through a specialised learning management system for employees. It is an online portal that alerts employees of continuing training, updated technical training modules that they need to review, on-the-job training videos and individual technical training. When they have an opportunity, they log into the system and accomplish the training.”

Applied expertise
On 15 December last year, West Star, partnered with Collins Aerospace, brought several of its specialities together to offer a G450 Cabin Upgrade Bundle which, it said at the time, would secure estimated savings of around $200,000 compared to having the work done separately. Available at any of the company’s full-service, authorised Collins Aerospace locations at East Alton; Grand Junction, Colorado; Chattanooga, Tennessee; and Perryville, Missouri, the comprehensive package transforms the G450 cabin and makes a worthwhile investment considering how young in airframe hours many of these jets are.

“The original factory installed inflight entertainment systems are becoming increasingly complex to repair due to obsolete replacement parts,” Walt Marcy, Avionics Technical Sales Manager at Grand Junction explained, “so we’re offering G450 owners the ability to upgrade both the CMS and interior together, providing considerable savings.” With an estimated installation time of just eight to 12 weeks, the package is an excellent opportunity for G450 owners and a fine showcase for West Star’s operatives.

Debi Cunningham provides more detail: “The G450 Cabin Upgrade Bundle is a great example of West Star consistently striving to add value for our customers. It includes a new Collins Aerospace Venue cabin management system along with a soft goods/interior refurbishment. We’re taking out the obsolete and unsupported cabin management components and adding new, so that the functionality is at peak performance.

“This is also a great time to refresh the cabin with new soft goods and we have designers at each of our four locations that will create a truly amazing cabin interior. Combining this type of work maximises the possibilities during the customer’s downtime.” And, of particular interest to owners of other older models, Cunningham confirms that as the G450 programme evolves, so West Star will look at value-added offerings for other models and airframes.

Expanding on the possibilities of the G450 bundle is but one way ahead for West Star, however. The MRO is looking for expansion in a number of areas, based on sound principles. “We’ve built synergy by acquiring affiliate companies that offer services which play into our full-service capabilities,” Cunningham explains. “For example, DAS for composite, assembly and component repair and overhaul, and Avant, to supplement our parts business. This idea of increasing or improving efficiencies across the entire company is a big initiative with West Star in 2021 and several announcements are expected.”

To that end, she concludes: “We plan to emerge bigger and better. We have an aggressive hiring plan in place, we’re looking to add additional hangar space at a couple of our locations, and we’re adding new technology to our existing programmes to make what we do more efficient as we grow. We plan to forge ahead, not look back – we’re excited for 2021.”