Southwest Airlines recently opened its largest-ever hangar at its Houston base. We take a closer look inside the new maintenance complex.

    Southwest Airlines started the year with the grand reveal of its new maintenance facility at William P Hobby International Airport, in Houston, Texas. The new facility highlights the importance that Houston holds for the low-cost carrier which is the largest domestic airline in the US.

    The hangar is a hybrid pre-engineered metal building totalling 22,300m². Approximately 1,300m² of the facility is hangar space to accommodate six Boeing 737 MAX aircraft for simultaneous maintenance, the remaining 9,300m² of facility space encompasses offices, parts storage and other support areas.

    Outside the hangar is 42,000m² of apron paving and two aircraft wash racks, as well as locations for four future wash racks. Additionally, a 630ft taxiway connects the apron paving to the taxiway.

    Kelley Agrella, Director Tech Ops Production, Technical Operations at Southwest Airlines tells MRO Management that the previous facility was designed and built when the airline was flying the 737-200/300s, and the aircraft being flown today had outgrown that space.

    “As we began designing the facility, we looked for ways to enhance the employee experience, which included a number of new features including a new hangar door made from strong fabric which allows for more natural light, ensuring all hook-ups (including pre-conditioned air) for the aircraft now come up through a pit in the hangar floor, instead of from the ceiling or wall, and more than doubling the hangar capacity,” Agrella explains.

    The airline represents $3 billion in economic activity for Houston each year, and the hangar is significant as it more than doubles the previous maintenance operations it had in Houston.

    “Additionally, as we grow our fleet and destinations from Houston, there’s a greater need to have a facility that can handle the work that’s needed to keep our operation running at the highest efficiency,” Agrella continues.

    “We have long-term growth plans for Houston, and this will help us achieve that goal.”

    Design and engineering

    Architecture and engineering firm Ghafari Associates led the facility design, working closely alongside Southwest and aviation consulting firm AvAirPros.

    Primary factors in the design included provisions to support new and larger aircraft variants than Southwest has historically flown. Whereas to date Southwest Airlines limited its fleet models to 737-700s  and -800s as well as the -8 MAX, architects at Ghafari took into consideration provisions for stretched variants and ultimately any Code C aircraft (wingspan between 24-36 m), affording flexibility for foreseeable changes and evolution in the fleet – even to larger category airframes.

    Senior vice president, Aviation Group at Ghafari Associates, Ted Oberlies, says the hangar capacity and geometry was planned to provide efficiency and scheduling simplicity, supporting a mix of light and heavier base checks.

    “Four of the six service positions under cover enable independent entry and egress. The material stores and critical shop areas are configured to provide direct access to the hangar areas, thus reducing circulation and clutter and effectively improving workspace utilisation.”

    In addition, he says the design team, working with Southwest’s Tech Ops leadership, included features and provisions for better point-of-use service utilities and equipment to streamline work processes and support a safer, technician-centric workplace:

    “It’s a combination of applying today’s proven equipment and building technologies while anticipating adaptation for future advancements.”

    Ghafari provided the architecture and engineering services for the development. The hangar bays and support shops were designed with a specific focus on Southwest’s base and heavier aircraft maintenance.

    The hangar envelope and orientation were carefully confirmed to meet functional needs while effectively integrating with the site and airfield conditions. Key features of the design include the use of LED lighting and daylight harvesting, which should conserve energy and reduce costs.

    Oberlies explains that the highlight of this project can be summed up in a design that epitomises form following function. From the organisation of space to the architecture and building materials, the Houston maintenance base is a practical manifestation of Southwest’s vision for its aircraft service centres of the future. It combines best practices thinking for modern aircraft MRO and standardises the physical platform for that work.

    As for challenges, well, for one, the location is Houston. “The severe weather events of recent years prompted the design team to prioritise building resiliency in the design criteria. The base elevation of the building was actually crowned 45cm above the surrounding grade to avoid flooding and undue impacts to operations,” Oberlies highlights.

    Another challenge arose with the integration of the maintenance centre on the airport property. Oberlies explains that hangar facilities of this scale often pose potential impacts to the airport and airfield operations or navigational systems.

    As a pre-requisite of the facility construction, the FAA and airport had to relocate the Airport Surveillance Radar (ASR) installation. “The contractor could not erect steel or the building envelope systems during the original phased construction plan. This led to significant resequencing of the work across the building assembly.  Ultimately, the design team developed options to accommodate the alternate erection approach and keep the project delivery on track.”

    Southwest Airlines Hangar 2

    Embracing technology

    Aircraft maintenance facilities globally are now increasingly designed with technologies that make for more cost-effective use of the facility as well as reducing the environmental impact. Oberlies confirms that the design in the facility applied some of the latest, cost-effective building systems for modern industrial and service hangars.

    The Ghafari design team specified high-efficiency heating and cooling systems, along with economical passive cooling systems for the large hangar envelope. “The Houston climate primarily warrants mitigation of heat and humidity, especially for intensive work areas. To improve conditions for the airframe maintenance, spot and interior cabin cooling are achieved through conventional pre-conditioned air systems, along with power provisions for portable evaporative cooling, on-demand.”

    In electrical systems, the primary gain in this facility was in lighting, Oberlies continues, where the latest LED lighting fixtures and control systems were installed, greatly improving the quality and visual characteristics of the artificial light while reducing the energy consumption, both independently and when coupled with natural light during daytime operations.

    From an operations perspective, paperless maintenance and the use of drones are just two new technologies taking hold in MRO processes Southwest says the airline is always looking at ways to utilise new technologies, but there are no current plans to use drones or change the way the Tech Ops teams operate.

    The new facility will accommodate almost 400 Tech Ops employees working simultaneously on up to six 737 aircraft indoors and an additional eight aircraft outside the hangar bays.

    Finding adequately skilled technicians has  been an ongoing dilemma for the global MRO industry, and Agrella says some of the new hire talent has come from other MRO facilities: “They come with a wealth of knowledge and are very  eager to learn in making the switch to the airline side of maintenance.”

    Southwest Airlines is also investing in other maintenance buildouts at other locations in the USA. Currently, the airline is building a 9,300m² facility in Denver (first Southwest Hangar in Denver), a similar-sized facility at Baltimore/Washington (BWI), and an expansion project for the Phoenix Sky Harbour maintenance facility is underway: “We are aiming for both Phoenix and Denver to be online by early 2021, and Baltimore will follow,” reveals Agrella.

    Trend watch

    The team at Ghafari see several trends in the design and engineering of aircraft maintenance hangars today. “We continue to see a greater emphasis on transformative work environments and the airlines and leading MRO providers are focusing more on the employee of tomorrow,” Oberlies observes.

    He says the mindset is a significant departure from the maintenance centre designs of the last generation. The objectives now are not unlike those seen in several other industries, where the attention has shifted from the bottom line towards worker wellbeing. “In the realm of aircraft maintenance centres, that translates to more inviting workspaces in hangars, shops, and offices.

    “We’re including more daylighting as well as brighter, durable interior designs that are sustainable and maintainable. We’re also incorporating more amenities such as fitness centres, recreational rooms, and more open, convertible work and break areas.”

    There is also a greater emphasis on designing for more integration of technology in both hangar and tech ops functional spaces. Oberlies adds:  “5G communications integration, digital task cards and UAV inspection are just some of the current developments, but we anticipate applications for advanced materials and tooling management,  as well as task assistance with collaborative robots in the coming years. Tomorrow’s MRO workforce will be more sophisticated, and the workspace will follow suit.”

    In the meantime, over at Southwest’s new shiny maintenance complex in Houston, the goal for the facility is to provide the most value-driven workspace to promote quality, productivity, and safety in aircraft maintenance.