#6: Don’t Be Paralyzed By Too Much Data — Industry Veteran Don Wilson On Just-In-Time Aircraft Parts and Operations

About This Episode

💡 Having the capabilities to extract intelligence from big data that is actionable is key for efficient operations. Modern aircraft generate hundreds of GBs of data every day and it’s easy to be lost without an intelligence system to help you navigate through that data.

Welcome to this episode of the JumpSeat with host Chris Glass and guest Don Wilson, owner of wILSon Consulting, former VP of Sales at Inventory Locator Service (ILS) and US Army pilot. In this episode, Don shares his seasoned background in military aviation and his 20+ years of sales experience at ILS. Through extensive experience in the industry, Don emphasizes the importance of having a capable intelligence system that can compile and churn raw data into actionable intelligence not only for MRO, but also for operations. The capability to handle data provides situational awareness which allows operators to detect and resolve issues as soon as they occur, or even preventatively before they happen.

Listen to the full episode to hear Don’s experiences with ILS and the aircraft parts market, as well as insights on the future development of the aircraft parts marketplace.



Podcast Transcript

Chris: 0:00
What advice would you have for airlines?

Don: 0:02
Being able to understand sometimes there’s so much data [that] you’re paralyzed by the data. Being able to put that into an intelligence system, I would say concentrate on that.

Chris: 0:16
Hi, my name is Chris glass, and this is another episode of the JumpSeat. Welcome to the pod, I have Don Wilson with me. Don, welcome to the show!

Don: 0:24
Thank you. Very nice to be here.

Chris: 0:27
Excellent! Don, you’ve come a long way to be here with us. Can you give me a little bit of an idea about your background and how you got into the industry we love so much.

Don: 0:36
Okay, as long as you promise not to add up all the years. I got into aviation through flying helicopters for the US army. So, I did that for 20 years during boom time when, there weren’t any electronic interfaces. I was probably in the last seat-of-the-pants helicopter guys in the 60s and 70s, retired from the army after 20 years. I did a few years, two tours, as a foreign military sales advisor in Egypt and Morocco where we were just connecting — and I’m going to come back with connecting a bit. But we were connecting the equipment they were using to their missions that they were trying to understand the best way to support our foreign military customers. And then, one of the problems we had were getting our helicopter engines overhauled in a timely manner in the US. So, when I retired, I helped open a helicopter engine overhaul company which specialized in the same engines that the Egyptians and the Moroccans were flying. I ran that and did that for three years out of Corpus Christi, Texas. That was a lot of fun. But, at the end of that time, my lovely English wife convinced me that I had made a prenuptial agreement to allow the family to live three years in the states and three years in England, and then let them decide where we would make our homestead after coming out of the military. Three years of Corpus Christi, three years — in 1992, moved to England, and I’ve been there for 30 years this year.

Chris: 2:23
So, all over the world. So, we went to lunch today and you were telling me about being in Cairo and being in Morocco. And, tell me a little bit about Morocco and Cairo and what it was like to work for the military there.

Don: 2:42
It was interesting because it was all civilian clothes. We weren’t really “there”, we were there to help them. And so, very low profile, three-man unit in Cairo, and a one-man unit me in Morocco. So, I was the sole advisor to the Moroccan Armed Forces National Depot, which was where they brought in all the parts that we sold them or donated to them and then helped them logistically support the aircraft and all ground equipment as well. But, Egypt in the 80s was somewhat of a challenge living challenge. Morocco, in the late eighties, was heaven. It was just fantastic. I always say it’s one of the best places to discover the benefits of Islam, but then not suffer necessarily from it because you could have a lovely glass of wine for dinner. And Morocco is one of the world’s best kept golfing secrets.

Chris: 3:48
Really? I didn’t know. You’re shocking me there because I didn’t know there was good golfing.

Don: 3:53
King of Morocco was an avid golfer. The current King’s father was an avid golfer. He used to bring Billy Casper over for a 30-day trip and get lessons. And so he built seven royal golf courses, and each one of them beautiful in its own way — seaside course, mountain course, desert course. But each one was next to one of his castles. So, it was very nice.

Chris: 4:24
Good scenery, Good golfing. And I understand that you learned French during your time there?

Don: 4:33
I was taught French, whether I learned French is a different matter, which a lot of people will argue about. But yeah, it was a necessary requirement for the assignment because my boss didn’t speak any English, which made it always interesting an event when I had to realize what time I had to be somewhere. And then from that, grew us into the next. And then once I got to England, I worked for a company called the Inventory Locator Service (ILS). We had customers in just about every country in the world and I was [working in] the European Africa and middle east, the AMA [region]. So, I traveled extensively through all those countries and then eventually took over as the Vice President of Sales for the company, which gave me the world to visit. So, lots of different customers, all needing, and mostly airlines needing parts.

Chris: 5:42
So tell me a little bit about ILS and what their business model was, and how they grew to the size that they were in your time.

Don: 5:50
You know, ILS was the E-marketplace before “E”. So, in fact the term E-marketplace was written up in a Harvard business case study and ILS was one of the companies they wrote it about. So, in the 1980s, early 1980s, before anybody knew what the internet was, it was here, but we didn’t know its power, because we didn’t have PCs and laptops and you know, all that came to be. So, ILS, initially through the SITA network, and then through other accesses using modems tied to the internet before laptops and PCs, we connected airlines, MROs, military organizations around the world to help them not buy the 500 parts they need next year, but the one part they need tomorrow.

Chris: 6:48
So, kind of that just-in-time sales.

Don: 6:50
Just-in-time, and it was connectivity [of people]. One of the interesting [things], we used to have a lot of customer meetings to learn more about how we could better support them. And one fella raised his hand one time and I said, “what do you like the most about ILS?” And he was a gentleman from Greece, and he said, “I’ve met my best friends on ILS.” Because he was meeting people around the world, looking for that one part tomorrow, who he had never met, didn’t know. And it actually grew into personal relationships versus business relationships.

Chris: 7:31
Which makes everything so much stronger when you’re doing business together.

Don: 7:34
It’s connectivity, it’s people to people connectivity, and over a million times a month. That’s what ILS did to bring people together.

Chris: 7:45
So how many customers worldwide did ILS have back then?

Don: 7:48
Again, I’m going back a few years, but I think as I was leaving, we had about 7,000 companies, entities, corporate entities, which was about 30,000 people. Because a company could have a single access, one man one access, or British Airways could have 40 accesses on their site. The US military in a place like Columbus, Ohio, could have 2000 IDs, 2000 accesses searching.

Chris: 8:29
So, it varies from the small guys to the big guys, to the biggest of the biggest.

Don: 8:33
But all those people were [only] looking for one part. Actually, the average of a single search on ILS was 2.5 parts over a year. So it’s not the big lists, it really is the AOG, aircraft on ground or in the military, MICAP, mission-incapable part, that people would be looking for because they had their normal sources of supply. I used to think that we were a, maybe as good Canadian [analogy], we were the Yeti of the aircraft industry — we were the missing link.

Chris: 9:06
So, I’ve got a plane stranded somewhere and I need something relatively quickly, and I can’t source it, or I don’t have time to source it for my regular channels.

Don: 9:19
For one of my presentations I used to do an analogy, and people would get sick hearing it was, “For the want of a nail, the shoe was lost; For the want of the shoe, the horse was lost; The soldier was lost; The war was lost.” And on any given day, ILS had about 70,000 different nails, as in a name of a part on the system. But it was that, it is the one part to keep the plane flying, and it could be as small as a chip detector on a 747 in New York, which was an actual example of Virgin Atlantic, had a chip detector go bad. [They] had one in Heathrow, [but it] would’ve taken a day and a half for the quality system to get that part approved and out. And, there was a person just outside of Kennedy airport that had a stock of them and could supply the part, but they had to find that person to know it. And that’s what ILS did.

Chris: 10:19
So, it was more of connecting the right person with the right part, at the right time. The other side of that is, I know the answer to some of the just-in-time problems would be to hold massive amounts of inventory on stock. And I know the airline I came from, that was a problem. You had had a lot of parts that weren’t on planes making you money. So, being able to get the right part saves money in that way. Can you expand on that a little bit, on how airlines are able to use that kind of connectivity, as your word, in order to save costs?

Don: 10:59
Absolutely. And within the marketplace of all these 7,000 companies, 26,000-27,000 people, you could have a private marketplace. So, for example, all the ATR operators could show their ATR surplus stock. They don’t want to show it to the marketplace worldwide, they may not want to show it to brokers or people that are just buying the part to stock, they only want to show it to the other ATR operators. So, you could have an ATR private pool. We had a private pool just for defense, [for the] US military. They could show what parts they had, but they wouldn’t show it to the commercial market. So, that private marketplace aspect of it was a very popular option. But the whole concept of ILS started over a kitchen table in Memphis, Tennessee, where a fellow named John Williams had an avionics repair shop. He was trying to reduce his stock and at the same time to reduce his cost, but at the same time improve his rolodex to find [contacts] because he knew the people who had the part, but to call them, are they there? But if you were able to put that information into a database that you could access and everybody would then trade and the database wouldn’t take part in the transaction, so there was no additional cost for that transaction. He asked his sister who was a programmer at a new, small cargo company called FedEx at the time.

Chris: 12:36
Small, very small.

Don: 12:37
Yes, in 1979 — And said, “you’re a programmer. Could you create something like this?” They created it over his kitchen table. And the product is alive and well today, all those years later.

Chris: 12:53
Now, what was the big learning that you got from that time? You spent all that time connecting people, connecting parts, connecting airlines. What was your big takeaway?

Don: 13:05
I would say it’s people. People want to buy and like to deal with people they like and they know. And there is always that trust factor — if you’re just another faceless person you’re trying to deal with it makes it a more difficult decision to make that part. But if you can bring a group of people together with the knowledge that you can then find more out about that part, [ the] market intelligence. We also, because we had so many transactions every day, captured all that data. And because we were a private company at the time, we never threw any of that data away. So, we had, by the 2000s, 2010s, 30 years of transaction data that we could share with our customer at the time of his potential purchase to help him understand, when…

Chris: 14:10
When you’re going to need something.

Don: 14:11
…or should I buy this from this location or this location, and things like that. So, it was the connection of the people with the market intelligence, enabling them to provide the transaction quickly.

Chris: 14:31
Excellent. So, you went from the military, a small stop in Corpus Christi. What are you doing now?

Don: 14:42
So, I’m consulting with a lot of ILS customers who now can take advantage of my 25 year history there, and my 20 year history in the military, and my three year history running an MRO, and then say, “how can I help you understand the day to day workings of buying and selling parts.” Because that’s the other side of it, people sell parts, but then which parts do I want to stock to sell? Which parts should I buy for that? And with the aviation industry growing and shrinking at the same time — what I mean is that now we’re through COVID, people are going to start flying again, everybody’s going to need more parts on both sides, both military and commercial side. But then what do I do with companies getting smaller, people buying different groups of companies and bring them into one fold. And names changing, think of how many times the company names change as we go, especially on the selling side, the stocking side.

Chris: 16:01
It must be a big challenge too, right? Because you have the — I won’t call them legacy carriers, but I’ll call them pre-COVID carriers, if that makes sense — they’re under particular cost challenges, because they’ve had to weather the storm of the two years of the pandemic. And then you have these new operators coming up who are in a much different mode. They don’t have the debt, they don’t have the baggage of COVID, so there’s two real customers out there, the ones trying to figure out how to right-size their operation and the other who are growing just for the sake of growth. So, is that a challenge you see in the world you’re in or not?

Don: 16:38
Not on the parts side, I think on the aircraft operation side, for sure. But then what are the synergies in same type fleets and things like that, you look at the Southwest’s of the world.

Chris: 16:49
One fleet one [aircraft type].

Don: 16:51
Versus others that have a multitude of [aircraft types]… I’m trying to think of, some of the other operators that have so many different aircraft types.

Chris: 17:03
Like your Delta’s, American’s, even Air Canada here having multiple different planes.

Don: 17:10
Yeah, I think it’s a market that doesn’t change other than it changes through technology. We’re getting smarter through technology and I think that’s the huge benefit of Mr. Williams using his Rolodex 40, 50 years ago to today, somebody turning on his computer and punching a few buttons in and getting the response he needs in almost real-time.

Chris: 17:44
So, where do you see the future going?

Don: 17:49
I would say that in the future, it’s just the ability to transact. So, if we think about ILS and some of the other systems that are out there, you can source, you can find, but you don’t actually then complete. You turn off your computer or you go into another package, whether it be your enterprise solution package, your financial package, and then you complete the transaction. Doing all of that online, safely, securely is a big part of where the future is, where it’ll grow because of all the different systems that are coming out now. Just think about the fact of how often do you write a checks anymore, and checkbooks. And that same thing happens in businesses, how fast can we get the transaction done to get the part we need to get the aircraft flying?

Chris: 18:51
We were talking offline about this, but we had a major service provider in the internet space in Canada fail for the past couple of days. And it left people without transactions, credit card, and Interac, which is big here in Canada. And nobody carries cash anymore, nobody carries checks anymore, so I get that that’s kind of where it’s going, that one-stop shop and online, secure and protecting data.

Don: 19:21
That’s right. And again, if you’re dealing with 7,000 different vendors possibly, you know 50 [of them]. And so then how do you securely transact with that one guy, that has the parts you need, that you may not know?

Chris: 19:37
Is there a kind of a vetting system to getting on ILS to make sure you’re not dealing with maybe a shadier operator or something like that?

Don: 19:48
There are. There’s a quality system in place, there’s also the ability to use this system, you have to be an approved company. But then there’s also the other side of that, and you have to be very [ careful]. It’s still caveat emptor with a major stamp that “buyer beware” and know who you’re dealing with. And that’s where I think going forward in the future, secure transactions are something people are going to have to figure out and I’m sure they’re working on it very carefully right now.

Chris: 20:23
Absolutely. With all the advantages that we have now with technology, that must be coming a long way. So, what advice would you — I know you’re in the consulting business, so I’m not going to ask you to give them way too much for free — but what advice would you have for airlines right now that are struggling with the just-in-time part process and making sure they have what they need when they need it?

Don: 20:48
I think it’s being able to understand the intelligence that you’re able to derive from your own systems and using that. And sometimes there’s so much data you can’t…

Chris: 21:03
You’re paralyzed by the data…

Don: 21:04
You’re paralyzed by the data. So, being able to have a sensible system to be able to understand the data that you’re getting, and then being able to put that into an intelligence system that gives you the right answer is key. And I would say concentrate on that, because there’s plenty of systems out there that can find you the information, but then bringing that information together, and making it actionable, to use a word, I think is the key to the future and the key to any company’s growth.

Chris: 21:45
Excellent. So, I have two more questions for you. One, I’m not sure you can really answer, but it kept popping in my head hearing you speak. With the embargo that’s going on in Russia right now, and the inability for Russian carriers to get parts, how do you see those airlines being able to operate, or do you see that just kind of being a house of cards at some point?

Don: 22:11
They’ll always find a way. And I think the biggest example of that is to look at some friendly foreign air forces that then became unfriendly. I was actually on assignment, before the Shah, to Iran, because the US army did a lot to keep their fleet flying. And it was an all American fleet, a bell fleet. We left there when the Shah fell.

Chris: 22:48
In the seventies.

Don: 22:49
Yeah. And those aircraft are still flying to a greater extent, somehow. So, I think, to be serious though, on the Russian side, hopefully that’ll be over soon. And, hopefully we’ll have a good result, and then people start over again, sort of post-COVID.

Chris: 23:12

Don: 23:13

Chris: 23:15
Do you see those planes that are kind of like when you put a part in that’s not under warranty or not tracked or that plane, can that plane still be insured? Those sort of questions start being asked.

Don: 23:29
No, there’ll be a major retrofit and inspection process to make sure that the right part gets into the aircraft. Especially on the commercial side. I often worry about the military side, because you don’t have so many of the checks and balances.

Chris: 23:46
Right, the same controls aren’t there.

Don: 23:47
I don’t know if you’ve seen, the new Tom Cruise movie, but he jumps in an F-,15 of some 30 years ago and fires it up and the APU starts. That was Hollywood magic. That was the one thing that my wife turned to me and said, “Did that really happen?”

Chris: 24:13
No, haha.

Don: 24:14
Hollywood magic, but could [happen] with the right inspections and the right maintenance places in place.

Chris: 24:21
So, my last question I ask every guest this before we let you go, with all your experience in the world and with all your travels — I’m trying not to get you in trouble with your family, because I know it’s probably not London, England, but where is your favorite place to go? Where’s your favorite place to travel? If there’s one place in the world that I need to go or our listeners need to go, where would that be?

Don: 24:46
I would tell you, but then people would come there. But our family has a vacation home on a very beautiful, quiet, seven-mile island with two draw bridges at a 25-mile speed limit. And if you could figure out where that was… No, it’s a place called Anna Maria Island in Florida. And that to me is a [ special place]. We found it about 10 years ago because British Airways started a nonstop London, Gatwick flight where we live, to Tampa. And so, I could get from sometimes rainy, gray, damp London to the Gulf of Mexico in just about nine hours, door to door.

Chris: 25:45
Ah, that’s awesome.

Don: 25:45
Yeah. So, Anna Maria Island would be my place on earth.

Chris: 25:50
Well in about two or three weeks, I’ll fly out and I’ll come stay on your couch and you can show me the draw bridges and we can go from there!

Don: 25:56
Come on down. Yeah, it’s absolutely great.

Chris: 25:59
Don, thank you so much for spending some time with us here on the JumpSeat. And we’re looking forward to our next couple episodes of the JumpSeat where hopefully we’re going to be on the road in merry old England ourselves. So, thank you very much. And we’ll be back in on the JumpSeat soon enough.

Outro: 26:15
Thanks for listening to the JumpSeat. Catch the next episode on your favorite streaming platform and follow us on LinkedIn at FLYHT.

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