A new role for the aircraft maintainer

 - October 5, 2006, 9:47 AM

As the aviation industry recovers from the events of 9/11, all of the service providers await the return of better economic times. We can now see indicators of robust activity. The number of new aircraft being delivered and the growing demand for avionics upgrades and custom interiors for both new and in-service aircraft are all indicators of a stream of revenue for our maintenance providers.

A trained and experienced work force is required to accomplish this work. Before 9/11 there was considerable discussion about the predicted shortage of certified maintenance personnel. After 9/11 theindustry reduced employment by many thousands. Many of us believed that any shortage of maintainers would not manifest itself for many years because so many experienced personnel were available. Or so we thought.

But we are halfway through the year and I continually hear from repair facilities about their difficulty in recruiting qualified maintainers. The number of military-trained maintainers re-entering the civilian work force has been decreasing as the service providers have changed the way they do business, nowrelying more on contract maintenancefacilities. This has also increased thedemand for qualified maintainers.

Cost-control Measures

These factors, among others, have started to affect the business side of aviation. I’m sure we all recognize how expensive it has become to operate an aircraft. The purchase price is just the beginning; the owner must find a home for both the aircraft and its support. Add in the cost of personnel and the required training and the numbers become substantial. The cost of operation includes maintenance–both parts and personnel.

For the most part our maintenance departments have done a good job of keeping their costs in line. To accomplish this requires considerable effort to ensure that we purchase only what is needed because replacement parts and overhauls are expensive. To meet that challenge our maintainers must not only be good wrench turners; they must also be good troubleshooters and possess some understanding of cost control and how quickly they could expense themselves out of a job. Add to this complex problem the constantly changing technology. Flight crews usually want to install the latest upgrade in communication or navigation systems.

Because we carry the senior leadership of the corporate world on our aircraft, we want the latest safety enhancements such as TCAS or EGPWS with upgrades in progress for reduced vertical separation. And let’s not forget all the creature comforts that are now installed in the cabin. All of this adds to the complexity of a modern aircraft and to the difficulty in having the aircraft available for use.

Beyond Aircraft Maintenance

The factors mentioned above relate only to on-aircraft work, but there is much more to a maintenance technician’s job. Today’s maintainer must also be able to select an appropriate repair and overhaul vendor for the many components that require service that cannot be accomplished within their facility. In the decision-making process for this task our maintainer must not lose sight of the cost of repairs plus the length of the turnaround time. This is where the cost of poor troubleshooting skills comes to bear on the flight department budget.

The maintainer must also make a determination about the quality of the shop making the repairs. The track record for delivery and how reliable the component is after the repair also enter the decision-making process.

After all the evaluation, componentrepairs and installation issues our maintainer must fully understand the proper and required record of all work/repairs that have been accomplished and enter them in the aircraft recordkeeping system. This last point is important for two reasons. First the FAR for recordkeeping clearly places the burden on the maintainer to record all work, inspections and repairs on aircraft or components. Second, the FAA inspectors are good at discovering paperwork violations, with some serious consequences for noncompliance.

However, today’s maintainer is responsible for far more than just the maintenance on the aircraft. Keeping tabs on the EPA requirements that relate to all the fuel, oil and chemicals used in a modern maintenance facility can be a full-time job. OSHA is another federal agency whose regulations can require considerable time and effort to ensure compliance.

The latest additional duty is security. I know security is everyone’s responsibility, but it sure seems like the maintenancedepartment has assumed the largest share of this issue, even in corporations that have a stand-alone security department. There are additional duties that I have not mentioned here, but the point is that turning wrenches has become just one of many responsibilities for maintenance technicians. I often hear mechanics complain that they would love to return to the good old days when they went to work, fixed airplanes and went home. In today’s corporate flight department those days are gone–probably forever.

When one considers that all of theserequirements are included in the jobdescription of today’s business aircraftmechanic, it is clear why it has become difficult to select a maintainer. Even though we may have a large pool of mechanics who have experience working for the airlines, this experience often does not fit well within our corporate flight world.