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April 01, 2007  |   Comments (0)   |   Post a comment

Airing more than tires

by Frank Di Giacomo, Publisher


If you’re running a fleet of school buses, it’s a good bet that you need more money in your budget for your maintenance program.

That’s partly because the cost of just about everything is going up these days, including qualified technicians, parts, fuel, oil, tires, glass, tools and the buses themselves.

In this year’s annual Maintenance Survey, we asked transportation supervisors and shop managers to describe their greatest challenge in the garage. The answers varied widely, but most of them centered around money, or rather the lack of it.

Keeping up with the oldies
Many of the respondents said something like this: “Keeping an aging fleet in good operating condition.” That says a lot, actually.

It suggests that they’re spending a lot of time and energy repairing older buses, which translates into the following problems: needing more technicians to service the fleet, having difficulty finding parts, doing a lot of time-consuming body work, having higher-than-normal failure rates during state inspections, experiencing a high incidence of road calls and overusing spare buses.

Older buses, much like older people, tend to need more time and attention when it comes to maintenance. That’s just a fact of life. Fortunately, most older people in this country have health insurance, which defrays the cost of doctor visits, prescriptions, hospitalization and the like. Older buses, on the other hand, don’t have similar financial protection.

That’s why it doesn’t make sense to keep older buses in your fleet unless you simply can’t afford to replace them. And that’s a big “unless.” Sometimes you can’t afford not to replace them. If those older buses are taking up a disproportionate amount of your garage staff’s time, and thus causing you to have to hire more technicians or to delay maintenance of other buses, then you’re simply flushing money down the drain.

Which is easy for me to say, since I don’t have a fleet of buses to maintain. But I don’t think you need much convincing in this regard. You’d all like to have a fleet of shiny new buses to impress parents, teachers, administrators and board members. The benefits would go well beyond their public relations value. They’d be under warranty, require few repairs and have all of the latest safety advances.

Making the business case
But here’s the thing: You have to be able to make a business case to your superiors before you’d be given the green light to buy more new buses. And that means tracking the real costs of operating older buses versus their late-model counterparts. If you’re not already doing this, you need to start, right away.

Once you’ve compiled your numbers, you need to go to management and shout, loud and clear, “These older buses are costing us money! We need to buy new buses!” If you can make the business case for bus replacement, it is much more likely to happen than if you simply say, “According to our existing fleet replacement cycle program, we should be purchasing three new buses next year.” That’s not very powerful, is it?

You need to air more than tires at your operation. You need to air your true needs based on practical realities.

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