Hub taps seasoned leader: New maintenance facility manager can fly ’em, fix ’em and land ’em

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One could learn a lot about Frederick L. Kocher just by the classified ad he took out in Barnstormers.comto sell his 1966 Mooney M20C airplane.

Only an engineer would bother to list brand names and model numbers of its landing light and intercom system.

Only a certified airframe/power plant mechanic would document cylinder compression readings of the Lycoming engine. And only a salesman would end the ad with, “EVERYTHING WORKS!”

Kocher’s mix of professional qualifications, and 30-plus years in the airline industry, helped make him AAR Corp.’s pick to manage the former United Airlines maintenance base at Indianapolis International Airport.

The veteran U.S. Airways maintenance executive “knows the operations, the customer service side, the technical side” of the airline industry, said J. Mark McDonald, group vice president of maintenance for Chicago-based AAR. “It was very difficult to find anyone who met [qualifications in] these three” areas.

Kocher was chosen from among 60 candidates hailing from as far as Europe. AAR interviewed candidates from airlines, aircraft manufacturers and independent aircraft maintenance companies.

As it turned out, Kocher was already in the base’s back yard; his home has been in Avon since the late 1990s, when he arrived to work as senior vice president of customer support at Rolls-Royce’s Indianapolis jet engine plant.

Briefly, during parts of 2001 and 2002, he served as senior vice president of ground operations for United Airlines’ former Avolar business jet venture, in Chicago.

The Mars, Pa., native and Univer- sity of Pittsburgh-trained engineer started working at U.S. Airways in 1970 as engineer of structures and power plants.

“Here, we have the benefit of starting from scratch,” said Kocher, who reflects on his tenure in the airline industry in fractions of a century. He politely declined to give his age, saying he quit counting decades ago.

“A little gray hair along the way helps, and we’ve all made mistakes,” he said.

It will take a seasoned executive to return the base to its late 1990s glory, when the 1.1-million-square foot, 12-hangar behemoth employed 3,000 mechanics, engineers and staff.

Built by United in the early 1990s as the most technically advanced maintenance operation in the world, the airline shut it down two years ago as part of its bankruptcy reorganization. United, like a lot of carriers, has ended up outsourcing much of its aircraft maintenance to independent, nonunion aircraft repair companies like AAR.

High fuel prices and brutally competitive fares from discount carriers have only accelerated the outsourcing of maintenance. But the competitive pressures mean customers want work done at rock-bottom prices, Kocher said.

Some former United mechanics here made $32 an hour, or more than $66,000 a year. AAR declines to outline its pay scale for Indianapolis, although the average pay for aircraft mechanics in Oklahoma City-home of AAR’s other maintenance operation-is about $19 an hour, or about $40,000 a year.

Besides saving in labor costs vs. what United paid its Indianapolis work force, AAR squeezes efficiencies from its information systems and management practices. It also had the luxury of thousands of applicants for work in Indianapolis, including former United workers-allowing it to pick the best and most efficient workers.

About 260 people now work at the base, which reopened last month. It also includes a shop operated by Indianapolis Diversified Machining, a group of former United mechanics backed by state legislator and Greenwood investment banker Brent Waltz.

AAR plans to employ at least 800 people by 2010.

Lately, much of the work under way involves the overhaul of airliner engines, which were spread across the floor of a couple of work bays. AAR said the work is being performed for an aircraft leasing company. Within two weeks, the company intends to announce what it thinks will be a long-term client.

Much of the recruiting of customers will be Kocher’s responsibility. Last week, he was to board a plane to start calling on airlines to convince them to bring aircraft to Indianapolis for repair.

“I’m on the spot. I’m the point man,” he said.

Kocher knows his share of executives in the airline industry to call on, starting from his days at U.S. Airways. He can even recall the Indianapolis airport official from decades ago who helped U.S. Airways build a maintenance hangar here, pointing out across the field to the air traffic control tower where the old hangar once stood.

During the last 15 years at U.S. Airways, he participated in an executive rotation program, allowing him to work in departments ranging from dispatching to flight kitchens to pilot relations. Kocher in the meantime earned his wings as an airline transport pilot.

“I always thought it was helpful to have qualifications,” he said, “simply as a matter of credibility with the people.”

Kocher credits former U.S. Airways CEO Seth Schofield, a mentor who encouraged him to learn various operations during the days when the airline industry was relatively stable and profitable.

The AAR assignment “sort of rolls it up in one assignment, one job.”

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