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There are engineering marvels, and then there’s Delta TechOps — the SEAL Team Six of aircraft maintenance repair and overhaul. While you may brush off a repair facility as just another garage, the utterly gargantuan Atlanta base I toured as part of a behind-the-curtain look at Delta Air Lines’ operations demands the attention of any self-respecting AvGeek. Or, to be honest, anyone who has even a remote appreciation of modern air travel. (My colleagues Katie and JT Genter recently spent time at American Airline’s Maintenance Base in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Katie’s report is well worth reading.)
Covering some 2.7 million square feet (roughly the size of 47 football fields), Delta’s MRO Repair Station at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) requires one of two things to cover: Ironman-esque running endurance, or a golf cart paired with a vintage Delta hard hat. I chose the latter option, if you’re curious.
So, what is TechOps? A lot of things. Here are a few things I learned during my tour that truly blew my mind.
Airplane Engines are Insanely Expensive and Complex
I’ve been fortunate to fly both ways on Delta’s longest scheduled flight, a 15+ hour marathon between Atlanta (ATL) and Johannesburg (JNB). The Boeing 777 that shuttled my wife and me there and back was carried by a couple of General Electric GE90 high-bypass turbofan engines. Only 2,000 or so have ever been built, at a cost approaching $30 million apiece.
So, while it may seem a little nuts to spend $1,500 or more for a trip to South Africa, just wrapping one’s brain around the immense cost of the engine alone — not to mention the seat, the fuel, the labor, etc. — makes it a wee bit easier to understand why industry analysts say that today’s era is a wonderful one to fly in.
I held this tiny, almost weightless part between my thumb and forefinger without fully comprehending its purpose. As was explained to me, many dozens of these are intricately installed in engines that power planes like the Boeing 757, which crisscrosses America untold times per day. Each one retails for over $12,000, despite looking like something you’d find in a dusty toolbox drawer with just a vague recollection of what purpose it served.
I asked how engines were largely able to tell humans they needed repair without catastrophic consequences. As it turns out, a network of internal sensors monitor an engine’s health, sending reports to throngs of professionals on the ground during each flight. Given the understandable focus on safety, no chances are taken. If an engine experiences the mechanical equivalent of a bad cough, Delta’s repair shop is able to diagnose what ails it, administer the specific repairs necessary and then send it to a massive concrete building to test before it returns to service. Speaking of which…
Test Cells Are Wickedly Cool
There’s a certain section of TechOps with over a dozen engine bays, hilariously huge areas where an airplane engine can be hung from the ceiling and repaired by thousands of trained professionals. Once repairs are wrapped, that engine is then moved from its bay into a test cell using an overhead track, which enables it to mimic being affixed to an airliner’s wing.
If an engine is sick, it cannot return to passenger service until it passes marks in what’s known as a test cell. Delta currently has two of these, though neither is large enough to test the most modern of high-thrust engines like the Rolls-Royce Trent 1000, Trent XWB and Trent 7000.
I sat in the control seat in one of the existing cells, and I’ll be honest — I started sweating a bit with my hand on the throttle. It was connected to a massive engine just meters from my palms, capable of exerting upwards of 20,000 pounds-force of thrust. That pales in comparison to the 110,000+ pounds-force of thrust emitted by the aforesaid GE90 that carries passengers from one continent to another, but it’s plenty to pulverize any living thing that stood in its way. (GE90s, by the way, are the most powerful engines ever made in the history of aviation.)
The cell was essentially a gigantic concrete cube, with an intake on one side (where air is sucked in, baffled, filtered and directed) and an outflow on the other (where air is exerted and returned to the atmosphere). That intake and outflow created a U of sorts, with the engine sitting at the lowest point. Delta’s engineers are able to test engines in this highly controlled environment without waiting for outdoor elements to cooperate, monitoring a near-limitless amount of data in a bid to ensure the engine’s health.
An outrageous amount of testing goes on in this cell to ensure that by the time it’s attached to a wing that’ll be carrying you, the paying passenger, it’s in tip-top shape. Delta Air Lines alone operates nearly 6,000 flights per day. That’s a lot of lives.
Back to those next-gen Rolls-Royce engines I mentioned earlier. During my tour, a concrete pad was being created just outside of the world’s largest engine test cell. It’s part of the new Delta engine shop that opened just weeks ago, and should be complete in the months ahead. One vendor’s sadness (the Trent 1000, which is giving Dreamliner operators fits with reliability) is another vendor’s gladness. Delta’s new test cell will be able to accommodate engines like the Trent 1000, and Delta will be a key partner in repairing these as they’re taken off of Boeing 787s for overhaul.
The outflow of the new test cell looks like a dystopian movie set. I halfway expect a prequel to Maze Runner to be filmed here between engine tests.
Delta Reaps Massive Competitive and Strategy Benefits from Owning an MRO
In its most recent earnings report, Delta announced adjusted operating revenue of $11.8 billion. For three months of the year. That is a mind-boggling amount of money, which led me to ask how much of that total came from Delta’s nearly 10,000-strong TechOps workforce. Robert Schultz, a Director in Engine Maintenance, explained that the operation’s impact on Delta’s revenue was relatively small. The real impact, he said, comes from what it allows Delta to save.
While American Airlines has a maintenance base in Tulsa and United has one in perhaps the most unfortunate manufacturing location in the entire US (that’d be San Francisco and its sky-high labor and living costs), Delta’s is far larger. In fact, Schultz informed me that only around 20% of all engines that come through the shop belong to Delta aircraft. The other 80% are serviced and sent back to clients such as FedEx, UPS and airlines that have chosen not to invest in their own maintenance facility.
In fact, he noted that engines powering Boeing’s fleet of 757s are among the hottest of commodities. While Delta plans to phase out the aging 757, and possibly replace it with the Boeing 797 (also referred to as Boeing NMA, or New Middle-Market Airplane), those birds are seeing a new lease on life as cargo haulers.
“If you don’t own your own repair facility,” Schultz said, “you lose control of the process.” For Delta, it’s worth the investment to have its own people ogling its engines. “It works a bit like your average car dealership,” Schultz continued. “That repair shop is in the business of making money, so if you take your vehicle there, they’re incentivized to sell you a new part for your engine rather than repair it.” Delta’s vertical integration allows it to be very selective in how it spends money repairing its engines. It’s also able to fix things more quickly, with fewer logistical hurdles, given how many spare parts it has on hand in Atlanta and other key locales around the world.
“We keep a few spare engines in Europe and Asia,” Schultz said. “It costs a lot to put an engine on a cargo flight and ship it to other side of the world, but if we have an airliner that needs an engine swap and it’s nowhere near Atlanta, having those strategically positioned allows us to better serve our passengers.” During my tour, an entire engine was en route to Tokyo (NRT), with the goal of having it installed on a waiting aircraft before passengers on the ground would even notice. That’s the kind of customer service that goes unnoticed by the masses, but after my visit, it’s a wrinkle that is on my mind each time I board.
Air Travel Is Becoming Faster and More Efficient
As I toured the Delta Flight Museum, I overheard that one of Delta’s first passenger planes could barely fly 70mph. Beginning in January 2019, the company’s newest fleet member (Airbus’ A220-100) will be capable of cruising at over 500mph, and it’ll do so while burning far less fuel per mile than aircraft from just a decade ago.
The expansion of TechOps and the building of the world’s largest engine test cell is testament to progress in aviation. The new test cell will be capable of handling 150,000 pounds-force of thrust, though no current airplane engine can actually produce that.
With efficiency on the rise and the use of renewable jet fuel increasing, it’s not outrageous to think that we’ll soon be getting to our destinations more quickly, and with less impact on Mother Earth. I don’t think we’ll see a resurgence of the supersonic jet without some extreme innovation in sound dampening, but Delta is clearly preparing for a generation of engines that will be faster, quieter and less thirsty than we’ve seen before.
Literally Every Successful Flight is a Miracle
Assembling a video looking at every single thing that had to happen for a commercial jet to take flight would be a Herculean task. Finding the time to watch it in its entirety would probably require your undivided attention on the world’s longest flight. Touring the inner-workings of Delta TechOps made one thing abundantly clear: it’s a miracle that commercial air travel is even possible, and another miracle that it hums along as well as it does, given the sheer throughput of flights on any given day.
Just on the maintenance side, a part arrives, is cleaned by trained professionals, and then is escorted to any number of work stations depending on what’s needed. If a part needs to be created out of thin air, it can be. Delta has an Additive Manufacturing department with EOS 3D printers capable of printing rods, gears and bolts out of exotic powdered metal. (And, in truth, the NASA-esque garb that operators in this division have to wear make the rest of TechOps look downright spartan.)
Just in the time you’ve spent reading this report, tens of thousands of passengers have been safely moved from one city to another in mind-bogglingly quick fashion. That wouldn’t be possible without operations like TechOps, filled with people who pore over every millimeter of an engine larger than some New York apartments to ensure its proper operation.
Next time you’re departing from ATL, toss a wave to the hangars below. That musical hum of the engine outside your plane is the crew waving back.
All images courtesy of the author.
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