After 20 years, the aviation team at American Electric Power (AEP) is set to achieve a long-held goal: operating three factory-new airplanes, all of the same type. By the end of this year, AEP expects to take delivery of its third Bombardier Challenger 350, replacing a fleet of aging Hawker 900 jets and thereby completing the changeover.
“Historically, we have had a mixed fleet. Then, three years ago we did a business review with our senior leadership,” said AEP Chief Pilot Richard Rogers. “We determined the best course of action – for safety, operational efficiency and cost – was to go to a single type.” That decision started a three-year process, which included issuing a request for proposal, hiring an acquisition consultant, taking several different aircraft for demo flights, training the crews and writing new procedures. Taking the time to carefully assemble a fleet that fit the company’s needs was worth it, according to AEP officials.
Airplanes Are All Business
AEP’s flight operation dates back to 2000, when the Columbus, OH-based power company merged with an electric utility headquartered in Dallas, TX. With the acquisition, AEP inherited a flight department from the Texas utility. AEP relocated the fleet and some aviation personnel to Columbus, selling several aircraft, but keeping a Hawker 800A and a King Air.
“It was a totally new mission when it [the aviation operation] moved to AEP,” said Director of Maintenance Geoff Harris, who has been with the flight department since the beginning. “Personal trips came to an end. At AEP, these aircraft are business tools only.”
That business-only approach, with the airplanes open to any employee who needed to travel across AEP’s vast service area, quickly earned the flight operation approval throughout the company. Within the first year, AEP added a third airplane, a Cessna Citation V.
With three different types, the aircraft were difficult to maintain, and it was difficult to keep all our flight crews trained,” said Harris. “The fleet went through quite a few changes over the years.”
The Re-Fleeting Process
AEP had not been brand-loyal to a specific aircraft maker, so when the aviation leadership started the fleet planning process in 2017, they knew they would not just be starting a new relationship with a new type of airplane, but likely also with a different manufacturer.
“What really sold us was the support,” said Rogers. “Bombardier has a support center in Montreal staffed 24/7 with reps from Collins, Garmin and Honeywell. As we were learning a new aircraft, that was important to us.”
Getting to that decision took years and an exhaustive process of evaluating at least four other comparable aircraft.
“Re-fleeting is something most departments do so infrequently, that it’s like starting from scratch every time you go through it.”
Richard Rogers Chief Pilot, American Electric Power
“Re-fleeting is something most departments do so infrequently, that it’s like starting from scratch every time you go through it,” said Rogers. “We brought in our corporate finance department, our procurement department, our
legal department and our executive leadership.”
That cross-functional team determined that AEP needed three mid-size jets, and those involved in the acquisition decision started with a list of four models to consider. Being a publicly traded company and a regulated utility, they narrowed the list based on cost.
“We worked with great consultants who helped us run the numbers and take out the conjecture, so everyone could be comfortable moving forward with a decision,” said Rogers.
Halfway through the fleet planning process, AEP was undecided between several models, based on the level of maintenance support provided by different manufacturers. The consulting firm played an essential role, bringing in various models to demo and helping set up a final deal with Bombardier.
For companies buying three or more aircraft, Bombardier has a fleet purchase rep, giving AEP one point of contact throughout the entire transaction.
“For anyone thinking about re-fleeting, ask for advice around the industry,” advised Rogers. “That’s how we knew we were working with the best people.”
With three full-time maintenance technicians, AEP expects to perform many of the Challenger 350 inspections in-house, and the team has adjusted the maintenance schedule as each airplane was accepted.
At the same time, AEP’s pilots began developing SOPs for the new airplane. “We’re implementing an electronic flight checklist and putting it in line with what the aircraft flight manual says,” said Captain Adam Weithman.
In March, AEP, like so many other companies, suspended nearly all travel due to COVID-19. However, the company’s aviation team was determined to use that downtime productively.
When the first Challenger 350 was delivered on May 29, they found an opportunity to get ahead with their training, and by early June the company’s nine pilots all had some hours in the Challenger 350, despite the suspension of most flying during the pandemic.
“The [Bombardier 350] airplane, its systems and how you manage them is remarkably similar to the Hawker 900,” said Captain Kevin Pence. “So, it’s been a smooth transition.”
Two of the nine pilots had earned their type ratings for demo flights. Before the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, Rogers had the other seven pilots scheduled for weeks-long certification programs at training centers in Dallas, Montreal and Teterboro, NJ, staggered over 12 months and stretching into 2021.
“The [Bombardier 350] airplane, its systems and how you manage them is remarkably similar to the Hawker 900. So, it’s been a smooth transition.”
Kevin Pence Captain, American Electric Power
“FlightSafety has a center here in Columbus with two Challenger 350 simulators, so I just called them,” said Rogers. “They were able to put a class together for us in about a week for all seven pilots. What would have [normally] taken us a year to complete, took us one month.”
As a result of Roger’s quick thinking, all nine of AEP’s pilots were type rated on the Challenger 350 before the first airplane was ever delivered.
“That was an act of genius I guess,” said Pence. “Rick just took advantage of the downtime. For us to get everyone trained like that is unheard of.”
Over the summer, AEP followed the advice of health authorities across its service area as it prepared to resume its normally busy flight schedule.
In a typical year, each AEP jet flies about 425 hours. With three aircraft in motion, Dispatcher Nate Riggenbach stays busy, assigning crews for every trip.
“As a utility, we fly to some very remote locations,” said Riggenbach, “sometimes to power plants, sometimes offices, sometimes transmission sites. There are trips during which we’ll hit three or four of these spots in a day.”
Many of AEP’s top destinations are remote airfields. For instance, a power plant in Benton Harbor, MI is far from any commercial airport and a five-hour drive – but only a 30-minute flight – from Columbus.
“It would normally take a day or two [by airline] just get to some of these destinations,” said Riggenbach.
“As a utility, we fly to some very remote locations – sometimes to power plants, sometimes offices, sometimes transmission sites. There are trips during which we’ll hit three or four of these spots in a day.”
Nate Riggenbach Dispatcher, American Electric Power
AEP uses business aviation to respond to emergencies, as well as in the course of its daily operations. The airplanes can rapidly deploy linemen to remote transmission lines after a natural disaster.
AEP participates in many mutual-aid agreements with other utilities. After Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in 2017, AEP flew more than 100 linemen there to help get the power back on.
“All utilities provide this surge capacity to each other,” explained Rogers. “When it would take one company’s crews months to restore power, we all pitch in.”
In addition, AEP’s travel demands usually require some amount of supplemental lift each year. To meet that need, AEP has a longstanding relationship with charter operator LJ Aviation based in Latrobe, PA.
“At times, we have depended on them heavily to supplement our fleet,” said Riggenbach. “If I see the schedule is starting to pick up, a week or so in advance I’ll call them to put an airplane on hold for us. Over the years, they’ve become an extension of our own department,” he said.
Flying to Restore Power After a Hurricane
AEP uses business aviation to respond to emergencies, as well as in the course of its everyday operations. The company’s airplanes can rapidly deploy linemen to remote transmission lines after a natural disaster.
As a utility, AEP participates in many mutual-aid agreements with other utilities across the country. After Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in 2017, AEP chartered additional airplanes, flying more than 100 linemen help get the power back on.
“All utilities provide this surge capacity to each other,” explained Rogers. “When it would take their crews months to restore power, we all pitch in.”
Aircraft: Challenger 350s and Hawker 900XPs
Base: Headquartered at John Glenn Columbus International Airport (CMH)
Personnel: Nine pilots (including the chief pilot), three maintenance technicians and two dispatchers