By Kim Blonigen
King Air Magazine
As the saying goes, “Everything’s bigger in Texas.” But does it go on to say anything about being super efficient and economical? The Flight Services section of the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) seems to think so. Its mission is “to transport Texas state employees and officials with the safest, most efficient, and economical aviation transportation system possible,” which it upholds to the highest degree.
The King Air plays a prominent part in its success, as they have four 200 models in their own fleet, providing operational oversight for the University of Texas King Air 350 and Texas Department of Criminal Justice King Air 200, while managing Texas A&M’s two King Air 200s. Besides providing transportation, TxDOT Flight Services also provides maintenance services to a fleet of 48 state-run aircraft – 18 helicopters and the remainder a variety of fixed-wing airplanes – with 13 full-time mechanics.
Part of TxDOT Flight Services’ responsibility is to recover all of their operating expenses – a feat in itself in today’s economy – yet they manage to do just that and still only charge recovery costs for their services. Director of Flight Services Jay Joseph explains, “We can offer superior quality maintenance services (their mechanics have an average of 31 years of A&I and A&P experience) to our clients at 26-50% below the costs of the private sector because we’re not looking to make a profit – just meet the requirements of our cost recovery model. We also buy our fuel in bulk, so there is an added cost benefit there, as well.”
TxDOT is considered to be the “model-manager” for state-operated fleets, as it receives many calls asking for advice from other state-run aviation departments. Joseph explains, “We’re all facing the same situation. It’s really no different than what corporate flight departments are also facing right now. Everyone is focused around the leanest economics of running an aviation department in the safest manner.”
Joseph was hired in 2006 as the change agent to get the costs in line. Drawing from his 29 years in the Marine Corps, 21 years flying for the airlines and strong safety background, Joseph said, “I felt that a well-qualified flight crew, well-maintained and standardized aircraft fleet and the need to have a safety culture that supported everything we do, was needed to run the department as efficiently as possible. The leadership at TxDOT understood that and has allowed me to do so.”
When Joseph arrived, there were nine different aircraft in the fleet. TxDOT Flight Services sold the airplanes that were no longer efficient and used the money to upgrade the existing King Air fleet (currently averaging 25 years – the oldest model being 31 years old and the newest 12). At the time, the King Airs all had different avionics, engines, propellers, etc. Today, they’re identical; they all have the Garmin 530/430 avionics suite, new paint and interior (replaced mainly to prevent corrosion), and Blackhawk engines. “I’m a huge advocate of the engines. They are a superior product in terms of performance and predictability. Since we’ve installed them, we have realized a three to five percent fuel reduction, a nine to 13-knot increase in cruise speed, and the time for phase inspections has been reduced by 20% − exceeding all of our expectations,” Joseph explained.
Standardizing the King Airs made them much more economical and efficient to maintain, as well as operate. All of the work done to upgrade the King Airs was kept in state – Blackhawk Engines is located in Waco and they were installed at Hawker Beechcraft Services in Houston, the avionics were purchased and installed by Temple Avionics in Houston, and the paint and interior completed at Murmer Aircraft Services in Arcola. Joseph comments, “It was an incredible value as we used the money from the proceeds of the aircraft we sold, so it didn’t cost the state anything, and an added benefit was generating in-state business to get all the work done.”
Last year, TxDOT provided services for 40 different state agencies (or entities thereof), transporting nearly 3,000 passengers and flying close to 1,300 total hours. Joseph explains, “We are very big in promoting the ‘business tool’ aspect of using our aircraft; the time and cost-savings of going from point to point and out and back in the same day. For example, if a typical state agency flew eight staffers to an in-state location for a four-hour meeting, the average cost savings is approximately $3,000.” Joseph does have a valid point. With only 27 commercial airports in Texas and only six of those with direct service to the capital of Austin, it would put restraints on when the airlines would make sense to use or how much time and money it would take to fly commercially and/or rent a car. There are 389 airports that the TxDOT aircraft can access – a figure Joseph proudly shares when educating the agencies of TxDOT’s services. Joseph adds, “We cannot be good stewards of the state’s money, if we’re not first good stewards of the state’s time.”
Joseph says the King Air is the perfect airplane to fit TxDOT’s mission. Besides the efficient and economical aspects of operating and maintaining the aircraft, its safety record is also appealing. “Safety is the most important component of our operation. It’s the cornerstone of what we do and how we do it,” he said.
Using the SMS (Safety Management System), and drawing from his years of experience in the Marine Corps and airlines with an emphasis on safety, Joseph holds a meeting every day at 1:30 p.m. (something he brought from the Fleet Marine Force called a “1330 turnover meeting”). Everyone involved with the operation is part of the meeting – operations, maintenance, scheduling and dispatch, line service, and Joseph as the director. “Before we launch a flight, we have a matrix of 38 different items that we review. If any one of those items looks like something I wouldn’t do myself, we don’t go. In fact, anyone at any time can stop a flight if they feel it’s unsafe; we don’t question it. There is no pressure to go,” Joseph expresses.
TxDOT’s pilots all have prior King Air experience, hold an ATP rating, and average 11,000 hours total time. They fly the King Air 200s with two pilots for every flight. As Joseph explains, “There are two radios and two engines that aid in the safety of the airplane, why wouldn’t you include two pilots? We don’t compromise on safety.” And their safety record reflects that, they have 31 years and 66,000 hours of incident- and accident-free flying. “We’re not just saying it, we practice it,” Joseph adds.
It could be what he learned in the Marine Corps or the airlines and brought to TxDOT or his extensive study of aviation safety, but when asked what he credited the most for the success of his department, Joseph answered, “More than anything, it’s the people. They have enthusiasm, they are professionals, and they have their heart in it every day. It’s almost like we’re a small family. We take care of each other and we take care of our clients.” He concluded by saying, “We’re the second largest state in the country and if we can’t do this better than anyone else, we’re missing the boat, but we do.”
Reprinted by permission of King Air Magazine, Copyright November/December 2012.