From under the bus: Meet the Alaska Posse

You might have spotted the Alaska Posse at a United Motorcoach Association EXPO, where they trek in to take part in the annual Maintenance Interchange. They definitely draw attention when walking through a crowd. 

This talented Holland America Princess (HAP) group — including Eric Hale, Tyler Lewis, Les Kellogg, Peter Haunold and their boss, John V. Crews  — often brings a lot of questions and stories. They joke that they are the only Alaskans without their own reality TV show. But we know if they had one, it would be entertaining! 

A Princess Cruises motorcoach in Alaska.

Lewis, who has been with HAP for 11 years, works in the company’s Fairbanks garage with 46 coaches, while Hale works at the Mount McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge in Trapper Creek. The summit of Denali is closer than any parts store, he says. Hale, who has been with the company more than a decade, is responsible for 23 MCI motorcoaches, four cutaway airporters, a Freightliner box truck and 25 light-duty service vehicles. 

“Our coaches transport guests to and from the closest town (50 miles away) of Talkeetna on an hourly shuttle schedule, giving guests access to excursions such as train trips, jet boat tours, flightseeing tours, dogsled tours and ATV tours,” said Hale. “Our coaches also transport guests between our other lodges as well as the cruise ship they arrived on or are departing on. During our short, five-month season, our coaches will travel an average of 25,000-30,000 miles.”

Kellogg, who has been with HAP for nearly 12 years, works at the Skagway garage that has 80 coaches. “Most coaches tour anywhere along a route about 150 miles round trip,” he said. “Starting from sea level in town to a summit of 3,500 feet in less than 20 miles, entering Canada, then on to Carcross in the Yukon Territory along the South Klondike Highway. Seventeen of our coaches regularly tour a 450-mile route to Dawson City, Yukon. This is a leg of a multi-day excursion through the interior of the Canadian Yukon and Alaska.”

Les Kellogg
Kellogg, who has been with HAP for nearly 12 years, works at the Skagway garage.

Haunold, a 21-year employee, is based in Anchorage, where his garage has 60 coaches (MCI and Van Hool), 20 medium-duty trucks, three road tractors, six trailers and, yes, a boat.

“Our coach fleet primarily transports our guests to and from our cruise ships to the airport, our rail operation, and to some of our many lodges all over this great state,” Haunold said. 

Crews, who is the Superintendent of Fleet Maintenance & Safety for Holland America — Princess Alaska, says last year was the strangest with cruise ships around the world anchored and the company’s fleet of motorcoaches and train cars parked for the year.

“I would never have thought something like this would happen. In 2021, we were able to operate about three dozen coaches in the Anchorage-to-Fairbanks corridor and close to 100 coaches in southeast Alaska. So, if you stop and think about it, over half of our fleet has been parked since the fall of 2019,” he said. “Coaches like to be moving and technicians like to feel productive. As a company and in the individual shops, the foremen have all been challenged during this period to keep technicians busy and productive. We have gotten many of the lingering projects completed we would not have had time for in normal years.” 

Bus & Motorcoach News tracked down the busy Alaska Posse to ask them about why they love working on motorcoaches in Alaska, their career highs and lows, and what fuels their passion for the industry.

How did you become a motorcoach mechanic?

Eric Hale: After completing my first year of diesel technician school at the University of Alaska, Anchorage, my professor encouraged me to apply for a seasonal job with HAP, servicing the generators on the train cars. I listened and they hired me. During that summer, I became hooked on the company, driven strongly by the sense of family among the staff across all departments and by the dedication the company had to give their technicians the tools and supplies they needed to be safe and efficient. 

The following spring, I was hired back, but I wanted to work on unique equipment and not be an OTR truck mechanic. Thankfully, my supervisor knew that and encouraged me to spend my second season with HAP as a seasonal mechanic with the motorcoach division. I loved it. At the end of that season, they offered me a full-time job, and I have been here ever since. The company has been nothing but great to work for, the job is very rewarding, and I feel challenged daily. I wouldn’t change a thing.”

Eric Hale
Eric Hale works at the Mount McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge in Trapper Creek.

Tyler Lewis: I have always possessed the skill set and received formal training at a technical school. I cut my teeth on a very diverse fleet that included a double-decker Neoplan. Fast forward down a winding road, with a few detours along the way, and I’m appreciating the fleet aspect of my chosen career. I ended up in Alaska with 46 “children” and their support vehicles. 

Les Kellogg: I was recruited from Universal Technical Institute to work in Alaska for Princess as a diesel technician.  

Peter Haunold: My wife found a small ad in the local newspaper for a lube tech position at Princess Tours. I was 22 years old and knew nothing about buses. I thought the best way to learn is from the basics. Boy did I learn a lot.

What’s your go-to phrase?

Eric Hale: Did someone say ice cream?

Tyler Lewis: It was used too much when new. I also like, We operate some elite motorcoaches, sometimes in Rally car conditions while maintaining them to fighter jet standards.

Les Kellogg: Daggum!  

What’s your favorite and/or least favorite repair to do and why?

Eric Hale: I hate fishing cellphones and spray bottles out of the toilets. I really enjoy doing the occasional three-axle alignment. 

Les Kellogg: I like HVAC work. The refrigeration stuff interests me.  

Whats your favorite bus feature?

Tyler Lewis: I have two. High-Ride on an MCI E-model and the reverse fan function to blow out the radiator and charge the air cooler. 

Les Kellogg: Size.  

Peter Haunold: Hands down, driver’s seat diagnostics. Being able to do something like seeing A/C pressures with the push of a button is just amazing. I have to hand it to MCI for having the best engine cradle/mounting system out there. They designed something that absolutely worked decades ago and stuck with it. Every tech out there thanks them for this.

What’s the best compliment you’ve received?

Les Kellogg: We need eight more guys just like you.

Eric Hale: Our trip and experience thus far have been sub-par, but your help and positive attitude turned our trip around.

Peter Haunold: A great satisfaction is on the rare occasion I have to respond to a breakdown. No one is happy, and it’s up to you to make the situation better or worse with your diagnosis. When you have completed your repair and you ask your driver to start the bus and all the guests cheer, there may not be a better compliment to be had.  

Peter Haunold
Peter Haunold, a 21-year HAP employee, is based in Anchorage.

What’s your funniest shop or bizarre repair story?

Eric Hale: For weeks, I had been chasing an intermittent no-start issue on a D4505. Every time it happened, I would start troubleshooting and, after a few actuations of the start switch, it would start up, so I never could get very far on it. When I came back from one of my weekends, the old-timer in the shop was looking all smiley and proud, and as soon as I walked in he proclaimed, “That start issue is all fixed.” I was pretty surprised, and when I asked what he found, all he said, and has always said since was, “I just cleaned the ground.” I’m not sure if that’s what it really was, but it hasn’t reoccurred, and “Just clean the ground” has become a regular sarcastic shop phrase.

Peter Haunold: Years ago, I was teaching a group of new drivers a component identification class. We were under a D model that was on our drive on the lift. We had gone through the entire under-chassis and the class was coming to a close. I asked the group if they had any other questions while we were under the bus. A young man piped up and said, “What does this do?” while stuffing his entire hand and forearm up the toilet dump pipe. My eyes about popped out, while I tried to get the words out to him, “That’s where the $%@& comes out!” His reaction was like he had just had his arm cut off.

Whats your career highlight?

Peter Haunold: Teaching and mentoring young entry-level technicians and seeing them develop themselves into Journeyman and leadership positions within our industry. 

Tyler Lewis: I am honored to be on two college technical advisory boards and participate in UMA’s Maintenance Interchange. To be in the same room with like-minded people, having multiple years of experience, networking, discussing, and finding solutions to the issues and challenges we all face every day in the maintenance world. It’s priceless and humbling.

What makes your company a great place to work?

Les Kellogg: At our location, it’s family.    

Eric Hale: HAP has always treated its employees very well. They make sure we have everything we need to operate safely, efficiently and comfortably. They understand the importance of having the correct tools, adequate lighting and readily available new parts. Everyone is very friendly and seems genuinely happy to be working here. There is definitely a mom-and-pop family vibe despite being a company stretched across the globe.

Tyler Lewis
Tyler Lewis, who has been with HAP for 11 years, works in the company’s Fairbanks garage.

What repair or job gives you the most satisfaction when completed?

Tyler Lewis: Rattles drive me nuts. Vibrations are the cause of a multitude of shakes, rattles and squeaks. I am most satisfied when I can locate and eliminate the source of these vibrations, be it tires, drivelines, or just loose fasteners.

Peter Haunold: Sadly, collision work. We all take pride in our fleet, and when one returns to the yard that has been wounded in the field, it hurts us all. For me, diving into these repairs, regardless of size or complexity, and returning the coach to service like nothing ever happened must be the most satisfying job for me.

What’s your best piece of advice for a newbie? 

Peter Haunold: PM, PM, PM. Preventative maintenance is where you see and learn things. This is where inconsistencies are found. This is where attention to detail is developed. This is where small problems are discovered and dealt with before they turn into major breakdowns.

Considering the age and location of the fleet, what issues do you have in maintaining your vehicles?  

Peter Haunold: Being located in Alaska, getting parts quickly or locally is a far-away dream. Often, we will spend more on shipping costs than the cost of the part itself. This leads us to stock many critical parts among our seven locations, consolidate our parts orders and plan ahead where we can.

Tyler Lewis: We affectionately have two seasons, white and green, or preventative and reactive. Cold storage for multiple months at 30, 40 or even 50 degrees below zero has its own challenges in the Fairbanks region. Snow and ice are constant, nothing melts until April. Coolant is set to at least 60 below zero, metal shrinks, seals leak even when you just repaired/replaced them. #1 Diesel in September is life-altering. Our Denali shop relocates its entire fleet and staff to Fairbanks for the winter. Moving an entire shop and fleet twice a year is quite a feat in itself.

What are your biggest challenges operating in Alaska?

John V. Crews: Even with our focus on keeping everyone productive, we did see people leave the company. Over the course of the pandemic, we saw 24 technicians or parts clerks depart, just over 30% of our shop staff. Rebuilding our shops has everyone’s attention. We’ve had countless team meetings and phone calls to plan and develop strategies for attracting and hiring qualified technicians.

Recruiting for Alaska is challenging, it is a long way from the lower 48, and finding technicians who want to or are willing to make the move is like finding a 10 mm socket in the engine bay of a coach. Finding a willing technician may only be half of the equation. Moving a family to the “North Pole” is a much larger endeavor.

Growing technicians locally is one way we have worked to try and fill in some of the gaps. We have a registered apprenticeship program through the U.S. Department of Labor. So far, we have had two complete the program to become journeymen coach and truck technicians, and we have one apprentice in the system working his way up. Unfortunately, with some of the shop losses, we cannot bring on an apprentice until we have more journeymen.  

We are incredibly fortunate to work for a company that truly values and supports our maintenance mission. Each of our foremen is viewed as an expert, and their opinion carries weight. Events like the UMA convention and the Maintenance Interchange help keep them in touch with changes, challenges and equipment we have available in our industry.  

Read more From Under the Bus columns.

 

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