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Delta Air Linesundefined makes no secret about hiring contractors to perform heavy maintenance, a strategy many airlines employ, as a means to cut costs.

However, what is seldom discussed is that Delta is rapidly building a business that offers third-party maintenance, primarily on engines, to other carriers.

In fact, Delta says it derives more revenue than any other U.S. airline from providing this type of maintenance. The business produced about $240 million in 2005 revenue and executives say this year the amount will be substantially higher, though they declined to specify a number.

Delta's outsourcing has completely overshadowed its "in-sourcing," said Jack Turnbill, the airline's director of technical sales. "We're flying under the radar and doing quite well," he said. "People just don't realize it."

The effort to compete for third-party work has been accompanied by a new approach to maintenance, one attuned to keeping costs down by working more efficiently.

"We've gotten a lot more competitive," Turnbill said. "We are more of a force in the industry."

Delta first did third-party work in the 1980s, adding engines to a fleet of DC-8s that Delta sold to

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. The real growth began in 1999, when Delta realized the business filled a growing need. Revenue has grown every year since, and the list of customers has expanded to about 100 carriers from around the world.

The association with Delta is advantageous. It means ready access to parts and skilled workers, as well as an ability to move them quickly throughout the world on Delta's 1,000 daily Atlanta departures. About 5,000 people work in the hangar, a gigantic 27-million-square-foot facility.

This summer, when customer Air Berlin had a problem with a gear shift in an engine, Delta maintenance put a technician on a flight to Berlin. The next morning, "the technician was able to verify what the problem was and correct it within the hour," Turnbill said. "He knew exactly what needed to be done."

The airline industry downsizing that began after the September 2001 terrorist attacks cost Delta about 30,000 jobs, including roughly 4,000 in maintenance. As part of the reorganization plan associated with its 2005 bankruptcy filing, the airline decided to outsource heavy maintenance of its planes and to focus on engine maintenance.

"Heavy maintenance is 80% labor, and it seemed like the market can produce that work at a more competitive rate," said John Laughter, vice president of maintenance. "Engine overhaul is 20% labor. So we compete best by leveraging our assets, high-tech equipment and a highly trained workforce."

Nevertheless, Laughter noted, "It's not that we're not capable of heavy airframe work where we can compete and excel." A side benefit of the new approach to maintenance is that some work, which Delta once expected to outsource, has ended up being done in-house, especially heavy maintenance of the airline's Boeing 737-800s.

The first 800, delivered in 1998, required its first heavy maintenance visit this year. Expected to take 20 to 21 days, Delta's maintenance team found a way to complete the job in about half that time.

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"It was just a question of whether we can keep the ground time short," Laughter said, adding that much of the improvement resulted from workers' suggestions. "This is not being led from the

offices, but from the hangar, from our people calling and saying 'I have an idea.'"

The engine shops have been bustling recently. Late summer is a busy period for engine maintenance, because summer is the busiest period for aircraft usage. High utilization, warm weather and heavy passenger loads all strain engines. A week ago, a combined total of 80 engines were being overhauled in Delta's shops. The shops overhaul about 600 engines annually, including 375 for Delta.

To improve shop processes, Delta began working with the University of Tennessee Lean Enterprise Systems Design Institute in 2000. The effort was launched due to high demand for Boeing 757 engine modifications, and resulted in turn times that were 50% faster.

"As we began to see immediate results from adopting lean manufacturing principles in the 757 engine shops,

we formed front-line implementation teams in each of our production areas," said Mike Chase, engine product manager. "Engine turn times began improving and capacity grew, which allowed for increased insourcing opportunities."

In the late 1990s, Delta also began to invest in expensive equipment, such as devices that test

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fuel controls and

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avionics equipment.

The investment has totaled about $30 million since, although the pace of spending has slowed during bankruptcy. The equipment is important because "simulating in-flight conditions is the key to fixing a component," said Paul Hall, sales manager for components.

Meanwhile, Delta has a renewed interest in making sure that its 12 bays, which can accommodate about two dozen aircraft, are fully occupied. Among the work under way are modifications to Delta's 48 Boeing 757s. The planes are getting new seats, new first-class sections and new video screens for every passenger. That work was expected to take four to five days per aircraft, but is taking closer to three.

Joe Isley, program manager for hangar insourcing, said that through August, Delta mechanics had spent 70,000 man hours working on third-party maintenance, mostly heavy checks known as "C checks" for other carriers. That represents a 33% increase over the 2005 level, a result of its more aggressive pursuit of opportunities.

Isley stressed that he is able to schedule maintenance for others around the in-house work. "We do the work in the white space

between Delta work," he said. "We use every opportunity to fill it up."