May 28, 2019

A new set of wheels: How Delta employees engineered a better bag tug

​​The GSE team is making in-house upgrades to the airline’s TUG tractors at a fraction of the cost, driving improved sustainability.

  • Delta’s GSE team has retrofitted more than 70 bag tractors that have been delivered to 10 of its stations across the U.S.

  • By overhauling its TUGs, Delta stands to save approximately 40 percent of the cost to purchase new ones.

  • The company’s total spend on parts for overhauled tractors has decreased by approximately 80 percent year-over-year and unscheduled out of service events has decreased more than 60 percent​.

Tucked away near Atlanta’s Maynard H. Jackson International Terminal lies the Delta Ground Support Equipment (GSE) maintenance shop where several months of leading-edge, employee-driven innovation has produced a better, more reliable baggage tractor.

Peer out of any airport window and the steel-framed, two-seat tugs are hard to miss as they drive along tarmac roadways, with baggage carts in tow, delivering bags and cargo planeside. The airline’s older M1A model tractors are the workhorse of Delta’s baggage operation at just about every airport and were starting to show their age. All out replacement is costly, so Delta’s GSE engineers and mechanics set out to find a unique way to extend the life of the tugs while at the same time improving the safety, reliability and sustainability of the airport vehicles through an innovative retrofit and overhaul.

Outfitting the tugs with modern features and Delta-engineered improvements, this grassroots effort developed in-house by GSE technicians, is delivering a better-than-new tractor at a lower cost than replacing the unit — ultimately saving Delta about 40 percent by overhauling the older units. The retrofit also includes a handful of system upgrades, standardizing the fleet and providing industry-best capabilities.

“We saw an opportunity to go beyond the one-size-fits all standard and design a modified tug that would fit the needs of the Delta operation,” said Mike G., Regional Manager — GSE Maintenance. “These solutions to the TUGs were developed based on employee feedback; and our very own engineering and maintenance teams made it happen.”

In addition to fresh paint, upgraded features include:

  • New engine and full electronic transmission drivetrain

  • Auto-start circuit and dashboard upgrade with:

    • Push start button

    • Low fuel shutoff protection

    • Safety shift inhibit feature

    • Transmission fault light

  • Upgraded heavy duty front and rear axles for better ride comfort

  • Custom designed wiring harnesses with plug-and-play connections

  • Telemetry installation with sensor provisioning for data collection and GPS monitoring

  • A more ergonomic placement of the parking brake handle

With Delta people in mind, these upgrades are aimed at simplifying maintenance as well as enhancing driver handling and equipment reliability. 

“We’ve seen tremendous improvement in our metrics since we began the retrofit project,” said Bryan S., Lead Engineer — GSE. “The year-over-year spend in parts has decreased by 80 percent and unscheduled out of service events have decreased by more than 60 percent; these results are phenomenal and highlight the innovative thinking of our people.”

To date, the GSE team has retrofitted more than 70 baggage tractors that have been delivered to the Airline’s Atlanta hub as well as stations in, Orlando, Phoenix, Las Vegas, New York-JFK and -LaGuardia, Minneapolis, Detroit and Seattle.

What began as an employee-led concept will now be a template for future overhaul lines on other GSE fleets, including belt loaders and cargo tractors.  

“It feels great to work for a company that lets you come up with a grassroots effort where you can use your creativity, skill set and innovation to accomplish a large scale project like this retrofit,” said Bud G., Ground Maintenance Mechanic — GSE. “Through this program, we were able to develop relationships with vendors, apply the lean manufacturing process, learn how to own a project and develop a product that our teams are using well every day.” 

“I’m most impressed by the teamwork and coordinated effort of the GSE department who felt empowered to create an innovative solution that would further improve the airline’s reliability and customer experience,” said Gareth Joyce, S.V.P. — Airport Customer Service and Cargo. “This retrofit project is a great example of what sets Delta apart as a leader in airline innovation.”