The Maintenance Picture

 - October 24, 2006, 7:24 AM

“According to NTSB records, the number-one cause of accidents resulting from an aircraft mechanic making a mistake is failure to follow procedures,” noted Phil Randall, the FAA’s new deputy national FAASTeam manager for maintenance.

FAASTeam is the rebirth of the old Aviation Safety Program, but there’s more to the reinvention than just a simple name change. The new program has been restructured to allow FAA resources to be focused more carefully on accident causes. “A system safety approach will be used to accurately identify hazards and develop strategies to mitigate them,” Randall said. The work is done by FAASTeam managers in the field in coordination with industry partners.

The National Aviation Safety Data Analysis Center reports that between 2000 and 2004 there were 237 maintenance-related accidents, 193 of which involved Part 91 aircraft. Of the remaining maintenance-related accidents, 15 happened to Part 121 airliners, 12 to Part 135 air-taxi and commuter aircraft, 11 to Part 137 agricultural aircraft, three to public-use aircraft, two to Part 133 rotorcraft external load operators and one to a Part 129 foreign aircraft.

A review of the 193 maintenance-related Part 91 accidents supported Randall’s claim and showed that 57 percent of all maintenance-induced Part 91 accidents were the result of failure to follow established procedures. The statistic is a combination of 33 percent relating to failure to follow proper installation procedures and 24 percent related to failure to follow inspection procedures. The next closest causes are improper overhaul issues (7 percent) and simple adjustments performed improperly (6 percent).

Brian Finnegan, president of the Professional Aviation Maintenance Association (PAMA), wasn’t happy about the statistics, but he wasn’t surprised either. “There have always been a lot more maintenance-related accidents than people were inclined to believe,” he said.

“You know, every time there’s an accident the pilot is scrutinized and that’s principally because historically pilots have run the FAA safety system. I’m pleased to see there’s more focus being given to the maintenance aspect of accidents,” he added.

Finnegan pointed out that the accident coding system is such that the cause of an accident is still too easily variable based on who is doing the analysis. “We need to become a bit more sophisticated and objective when making determinations about contributing factors and probable cause,” he said. “At the same time, when a group of aviators are sitting around talking about a recent accident the first question that comes up is, ‘When did it come out of maintenance?’ How did we allow that culture to happen?”

“Why have we allowed aircraft to come out of maintenance that are not perfect?” Finnegan asked. “How did we get to the point that we look with suspicion at an airplane that comes out of maintenance?

“Frankly, as an industry, we have a bit too much of a ‘can do’ attitude that is made all the more dangerous by a sense of ‘If you can’t do it someone else will.’ That undercurrent is the undoing of both pilots and mechanics. We need to be willing to say, ‘We need training to do that job.’”

Improving Human-factors Training

Finnegan emphasized that there is zero room for error in aviation maintenance. “I believe human-factors training in maintenance is a key issue,” he said. “We are simply not paying sufficient attention to human factors in our industry, and it shows.”

Gordon Dupont, CEO of Richmond, British Columbia’s Systems Safety Services, agrees with Finnegan. The company provides human-factors training for technicians.

“ICAO has required human-factors training since 1999, but in the U.S. we’re still not requiring it,” he said. “In 1999 ICAO issued Annex VI Part 1, an amendment to Annex VI of the ICAO Convention of Civil Aviation. It said, ‘A training program established by a maintenance organization shall include training in the knowledge and skills related to human performance, including coordination with other maintenance personnel and the flight crews.’”

The UK, Australia and all the JAA countries adopted the requirement. Canada adopted it in 2002, but the U.S. takes the position that there are types of training that already cover it.

“As far as the U.S. goes, at least the new FAA Advisory Circular 145-10 “Repair Station Training Programs,” released last July, now requires training, but it’s a wishy-washy requirement,” Dupont asserted. “It allows for human-factors training but doesn’t require it specifically. I think it’s a huge problem because 80 percent of all accidents can be traced back to human error. If that’s the case, why aren’t we training people on how to avoid human errors?”

Safety Issues

Larry Flynn, president of Gulfstream product support, also expressed significant concern about maintenance and safety issues. “We constantly repeat to our employees that their priorities, in order, should be: safety, quality and schedule,” he said. “We currently work on about 70 percent of the Gulfstream fleet through an extensive network of company-owned service centers.

“We see safety as having two components: our people and our customers’ airplanes,” he said. “We measure people safety in terms of TCIR (total case incident rate).”

TCIR is an OSHA term that measures the number of recordable injuries per 200,000 man-hours of work. “You can ask any exec in any industry what their TCIR is and they’ll know it off the top of their head; it’s a very important number. The industry average is somewhere around 8.0. Our rate is 0.9; we’re substantially better than anyone I know.

“It is important to the human aspect and the bottom line. A recordable injury results in a visit to a doctor or a prescription given by a doctor; that translates into lost productivity and increased cost. Keeping employees safe makes sense on numerous levels.”

Flynn said a culture of safety has to be a top-down initiative. “Safety is an awareness and leadership thing. If leadership doesn’t pay attention to it, if they don’t walk the walk, it doesn’t happen,” he said. “On our shop floor everybody wears safety glasses; management doesn’t get to walk around without eye protection.”

Flynn said Gulfstream employees perform daily and weekly safety audits. “We follow specific checklists, and a substantial number of our employees participate in safety audits so everyone gets involved over time. In addition, we require a daily safety briefing for every aircraft we’re working on. Anything that happens, at any of our sites, comes up at my weekly briefing on Thursday. By the next morning every site knows what’s happened and everyone is briefed on it to reduce the potential for the problem occurring elsewhere.

“Another often overlooked safety precaution that we use religiously is Job Safe Analysis cards (JSA) on any task that might have safety issues,” he explained. “Take a tug, for example. Each of our tugs has a JSA card attached to it that briefs the operator on the safety aspects of towing. Operators are required to read that card every time they use the tug. We had our employees develop the cards, so they are written by the people who use them regularly and know the issues. The focus on people carries over to a successful record of not damaging customers’ airplanes, and any information we learn in the process we always pass on to our customers.”

Flynn said there are two other major areas of focus after safety: bogus parts and maintenance providers not authorized by Gulfstream to work on their aircraft.

“We still find problems in the area of bogus parts,” Flynn said. “We see parts that haven’t been overhauled correctly, and then get tagged and installed on our aircraft. We choose to overhaul a substantial amount of our own parts and offer a good warranty on them. By keeping the cost of our overhauled parts reasonable we hope operators will use them so we know the work is done properly.

“Our third major concern is about the maintenance provider not authorized by Gulfstream that’s working on our aircraft,” he said. “We worry that those operators are not getting the proper training. Airplanes aren’t simple anymore. If you make a modification such as installing an antenna, you have to do a fatigue and damage tolerance analysis on the airframe. The data for that resides here at Gulfstream.”

Environmental Concerns

Terry Miner, director of environmental safety for Sabreliner-Midcoast in St. Louis, said he spends a lot of his time studying how he can protect his people and the environment and still get the job done properly for his customers.

“We deal with OSHA all the time under the category of general industry, which is really more oriented toward the factory and assembly line, with their highly repetitive processes, but it’s the closest thing to what we do,” he said.

“The problem is we are a highly variable process because of the many types of aircraft we have to work on. We are always challenged to come up with methodology that exceeds OSHA’s minimum requirements to help ensure the safety of our technicians in such a variable work environment.”

Miner cited fall protection as an example of having to be creative. “When employees are working on an aircraft we have to protect them from falling, but it’s not as simple as providing a scaffold. We’ve invested in a personal fall restraint system that works on a vacuum system. The system adheres to the aircraft itself and provides the worker with  rip-stop lanyard to break the fall. We also have an overhead lanyard and harness system, but there are times working on an aircraft when there’s no place to tie off. A vacuum system is expensive, but when you need one there’s no good alternative.”

Sabreliner-Midcoast spends a significant amount of money on safety issues such as using non-HAP (hazardous air pollutants) paint strippers. “We’re working on reducing employee exposure to harmful chemicals and now use a paint stripper that’s composed of benzol alcohol and hydrogen peroxide,” Miner said.

“Non-HAP paint strippers are not as harmful to people, and by using a non-methaline chloride stripper we removed a huge amount of hazardous waste we were shipping out. We have stopped shipping out literally tens of thousands of pounds of hazardous waste a year.”

Miner emphasized that safety must be viewed in the big picture and that it doesn’t necessarily mean increased operating expense. “We’re recycling our water in the paint facility,” he said. “We reuse it a second time and then evaporate it away. By doing so, we figure we’re saving about $75,000 annually because we no longer have to ship out a large quantity of liquid hazardous waste. Adding everything together, we find we’ve dropped from 15,000 gallons of [liquid] waste per quarter down to about 110 gallons.

“In all fairness, the down side to non-HAP strippers is they take more time to work,” he said. “We figure we’re going from four hours of stripping to eight hours, but we just needed to do this; it’s the right thing to do. There are pluses and minuses, but overall I think everyone needs to do this because it’s less harmful on the environment, easier to dispose of, easier on the people working, easier on the aircraft and less expensive to dispose of. Overall, the benefits far outweigh the extra four hours of floor space you’re tying up.”


It is critical to keep in mind that working on aircraft is a business. No one is going to fix a $10 million aircraft simply for love of the industry. If the company doesn’t make a profit, if the employees can’t earn a decent wage and if customers don’t get quality service, the industry will fail.

There are three ways to increase profit: increase your labor rate, increase capacity and reduce costs. The future health of the industry can be achieved only by a combination of all three.

The one element of aircraft maintenance that everyone acknowledged as the most critical is the mechanic. “You can have $20 million invested in state-of-the-art facilities, the best equipment available and a marketing plan that keeps customers lined up for a mile down the taxiway, but if you can’t find good people, you have a $20 million pile of junk,” one shop foreman said. Jodie Brown, president of Evergreen, Colo.-based Summit Solutions, a business aviation recruiting firm, has been preaching that concept for a long time.

Brown puts together intricate puzzles to create a good picture. She finds pieces such as a company, location, job requirement, skills, interests and attitude that all fit together. “When I work with an individual I look at two things: experience and potential,” Brown said. “One deals with the past, while the other deals with the future.”

Brown said choosing the right candidate for a position is far more complex than simply doing an interview, introducing the person to a few execs and hiring them because they seem likeable.

“I certainly look at what experience a person brings with regard to technical skills, training, troubleshooting skills, education and problem-solving, but that’s just one part of the picture,” she said. “Equally important are such things as an individual’s ability to help expand the business. For example, does he have a network of OEMs and/or customer contacts? I also ask a candidate to give me examples of how he doesn’t have to wait to be told what to do; I like to see if he’s a self-starter.”

Brown also questions a candidate about ways to potentially reduce overhead, where he sees the industry in 10 years and what he thinks the growth potential of the business might be. “I want to know if this individual is compatible with the personality of the company and whether he can help the company reach its goals.

“When delving into an individual’s past I particularly listen to the way the person expresses himself. What are the level of vocabulary and the depth of the thought process?” she asked. “Does he express himself logically or emotionally when describing past conflict situations? Does he see himself as a victim or the situation as a learning experience? The way a candidate views his past supervisors/managers says a lot about the individual. I want to know if he takes ownership of situations and sees himself as part of what’s happening or as someone observing it from a distance.”

Kevin Dawson, director of human resources for Sabreliner-Midcoast in St. Louis, has a lot of experience with recruiting. “We’re growing, and as a result we’re hiring a significant number of people. So far we’re finding the kind of people we want to hire, but it’s the process that has concerned me the most,” he said. “Traditional search and hiring methods are inefficient and expensive.

“When I came here we didn’t have an ATS (applicant tracking system) provider, so that was one of my first priorities,” he said. “Today all our openings are posted on our Web site. When a job applicant visits the Web site and looks at an available job that interests him all he has to do is click on the button to apply. It takes him to our ATS, which in turn routes his application to the specific individuals who should be looking at that application. We’re making it easier for candidates to find us and we’re expediting the whole process. The beauty of the system is that as soon as a vacancy is approved we put it online and it’s instantly available worldwide.”

Dawson explained that an efficient hiring procedure is critical to the productivity and profit of a company. “Using the ATS makes us far more efficient at hiring,” he said. “We see more candidates who are suited to our requirements, compressing the process from the time we have a job opening to the time we fill it.”

The problem isn’t simply the manpower required to hire and train a new staffer, but the lost productivity as someone else covers the opening until the new hire is up to speed. “Let’s face it,” said Dawson, “when there’s an opening the people who want the new employee are pressuring you to hire someone, and that can result in hiring the wrong person. Trust me, the wrong person in aviation can cause problems that are tremendously expensive to fix. You have to be very careful who you hire.”

Employee Retention

Finding and hiring the right employee is only one aspect of the procedure; keeping employees is equally important.

Glenn Brown, Stevens Aviation’s president and COO, cites his company as an example of one that has had great success with employee retention. “One of the first things I did after arriving here was to initiate an analysis of the company’s strengths and weaknesses. We verified we have an excellent workforce with strong expertise and an average seniority of about 15 years.

“Retention isn’t a problem for us for several reasons. First, the cost of real estate in Greenville, S.C., and the quality of life here attract people. Senior technical people who work and live in high-cost markets can sell their homes, cash out and move to Greenville and have a high standard of living while putting some cash in their pockets.

“Another reason is that we are good o our people because we value them and recognize they’re what makes our business work. So while retention has not been a problem for us, the big challenge is attracting the next generation of talent into the industry,” he said.

Brown said Stevens Aviation has been working with local A&P schools and has developed an excellent relationship with Greenville Tech. “We’ve been seeing a lot more people from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, too,” he said. “In fact, we’re talking with them about putting in a satellite facility in this area.

“But in the long run I think one of the most important reasons we have such good retention is that we grow our own management,” Brown said. “We can offer new mechanics a future because there is room to move upward. We prefer to develop our help internally and promote from within. That way we have a way to attract people. This will really be obvious in the not-too-distant future because we have quite a few senior people who are coming up on retirement.”

Richard Komarniski, president of Grey Owl Aviation Consultants in Onanole, Manitoba, lauds Brown’s attitude about training. Grey Owl provides human-factors training for aviation maintenance.

“The next generation of mechanics wants to be recognized by supervisors and given time to grow,” Komarniski said. “The upcoming generation is technically savvy. They’ve grown up on computers using the Internet and other electronic equipment. They simply want to be given the appropriate training, shown how to do the job and be respected for their ability despite their age.”

According to Komarniski, that respect, or lack thereof, might be the root cause of problems they face in the workplace. “They want their bosses to be approachable and patient, though they learn quickly because they enter the field with a lot of high-tech skills. The problem is, sometimes they’re savvier than their supervisors, and that can create friction.

“It’s important for management to capitalize on that knowledge rather than resent it. If a worker feels he’s contributing to the organization he’ll stay and progress. What we’ve found is that most employees who leave a company are actually leaving a specific supervisor.”

As a an example, Komarniski related a story about a company that had not spent much money on training. The management team contacted him because they felt they had a revolving door for mechanics. “I worked with them to establish a reasonable training budget given the size of the company, so they went from nothing to a $250,000 budget for 80 people. Now that sounds like a lot, but almost immediately people began staying and the revolving door locked tight.”

The biggest challenge of all may be attracting people into an industry that rewards graduates of a long, complex training program with unlimited liability, no authority and low pay.

According to the 2005 NATA compensation report, 155 companies reported they pay full-time A&P mechanics between $12 and $36.60 an hour, with the average hourly wage $20.05. Fifty companies reported paying avionics specialists between $11 and $32 per hour, with an average of $22.09. While there is variation by region and the gross sales of the company, compare that to the average hourly flight pay of a charter pilot last year: turboprop pilots made $31.02 an hour and light jet pilots made an average of $50.01.

As one mechanic put it, “Pilots are fond of saying they have responsibility for all the passengers and the aircraft. I don’t?”

Part 145 Repair Stations

Not a single maintenance facility executive interviewed for this report considered mechanics’ salaries something that should be held back tightly to control costs, but these executives do run a business, and labor is based on a percentage of profit.

The real problem, according to experts, is that maintenance facilities simply aren’t charging a realistic rate. Just about any premium car repair facility such as Lexus or Mercedes has an hourly shop rate higher than that of any MRO working on jet aircraft. Their mechanics also work better hours and have dramatically less liability than their A&P counterparts.

Andy Biery, general manager of Cutter Aviation at Dallas Executive Airport, pointed out that by their nature regulations are restrictive and make it harder and more expensive to do business. “Becoming an FAR 145 certified repair station is a choice, not a requirement, and consumers make a similar choice when they decide to use one or to go to a facility that isn’t certified under Part 145,” Biery said. “It amazes me that someone who spends between $3 and $50 million on an airplane would choose not to take it to a 145 repair station, but it happens.

“This company’s goal is to provide the highest quality of service by factory-trained technicians. By volunteering to become a certified repair station, we agreed to FAA scrutiny right from the beginning and on a continuing basis,” Biery explained.

“Those that are not certified repair stations are not, for the most part, regularly scrutinized by the FAA unless for some reason they come up on the FAA’s radar. I guarantee you it is significantly more expensive for a company to do business as a Part 145 repair station than one that doesn’t have any significant FAA oversight,” he added.

Biery explained that Part 145 repair stations require manda-tory training, proper tooling and maintenance manuals with current revision subscriptions for every aircraft the repair station will work on.

“Let’s say you do something as simple as change a part,” Biery said. “Are your tools calibrated so you can actually comply with the required torque values? A certified repair station has a requirement to calibrate its tools and keep a record of that calibration. We keep a master set of tools that our mechanics can use, but we also pay to keep each of our mechanics’ personal tools calibrated too. Even something as simple as a pair of wire crimpers has to be calibrated, costing both time and money, yet there’s no requirement for that in a non-certified repair station.

“People who fly in corporate jets are decision makers; what are their lives worth? When they’re at 35,000 feet the airplane is a life-support device,” Biery said. “There’s a reason the FAA has written regulations on maintenance–to keep that machine operating correctly and to get you back on the ground safely. Is the $20-per-hour labor difference really where you want to save money?

“Let’s take a hypothetical case of a Part 145 operator that has only 10 mechanics,” Biery said. He gave a quick list of some of the costs that have to be factored into a repair station’s rate. “You can’t make a profit if you pay your people (including administrative staff) more than one-third of your shop rate. You have to factor in all the requirements of a repair station that your non-certified counterparts don’t have to worry about, as well as utilities, consumable shop products (shop towels, grease and so on), keeping a spares inventory and many others. Then there’s insurance.

“If the operator is charging $90 an hour he’s looking at about $1.5 million in labor sales a year, but from the perspective of management that work is probably opening up the company to $1 billion of liability,” Biery said. “Depending on the airframe, and who’s riding in back, even a $50 million policy may not cover a potential loss. Now, how much should you be charging to make that type of liability a worthwhile financial risk? At $90 an hour, his profit margin after all is said and done, on a good day, might be $5 an hour!”

Meeting New Maintenance Challenges

The hard truth of aircraft maintenance today is that it’s more complex, more regulated and has more profound liabilities than ever before.

John Mecalo, Sabreliner-Midcoast’s senior manager of product integrity, oversees quality assurance for all of the company’s operations. “I oversee our ISO9100 certification,” he said. “Twenty years ago nobody had ever heard of ISO9100, but large repair stations have seen a lot of changes in recent years.

“We have a new Part 145, we’re in a glass cockpit world, we work with carbon fiber instead of wood and fabric, and we compete in a world marketplace instead of the few states surrounding us. So we have quality systems such as ISO9100 that require oversight because it’s just too complex for one person to do everything on an aircraft any more.

“All that comes at a higher price than operators are used to paying,” he continued. “Sure, all the blue-chip operators understand because their own companies face similar requirements, but a lot of operators don’t understand. They don’t realize the changes that have been required by regulations when purchasing and stocking parts, for example. The issues of traceability go back to the actual development of the raw products. It’s a very different, far more complex environment than even 15 years ago.”

Richard Bergmann, CEO of San Diego-based Avexus, a company that provides solutions for managing the operation and maintenance of aviation and aerospace assets, sympathizes with the plight of the repair station.

“Anyone who hasn’t figured it out yet needs a dose of reality. Times have changed,” Bergmann said. “I used to be in corporate America before getting into consulting. Management had plush aircraft, and if they flew 400 hours a year that was a stretch. They were immaculately maintained and we had enough aircraft in the fleet to cover any eventuality. It was a solid, first-class operation, but it’s the rare company that has that luxury today.

“Cost-effectiveness is what’s important today, so a lot of corporations put their aircraft into supplemental lift programs,” Bergmann said. “The use rate of the aircraft is therefore way up compared to being dedicated to the owner’s use. Increased use means more people are using the aircraft who might not abide by corporate standards on how they treat it. The bottom line is that today’s aircraft are requiring a lot more maintenance, putting a strain on available maintenance slots.”

Bergmann also cited the dramatic rise in fractional ownership as another demand for maintenance, summing it up by saying, “The maintenance hangars are full, and the ramps are full of aircraft waiting to get in. We need more partnerships between OEMs and Part 145 to take care of the maintenance demands. The current infrastructure simply wasn’t designed to deal with the volume and complexity of today’s maintenance requirements.”

With the increase in demand for maintenance and mechanics, the industry is looking to the A&P schools for the answer. Numerous conversations with maintenance schools turned up little insight. Some old, established schools such as Parks College closed their doors for lack of students, while other schools are having no problem with enrollment. The one issue that everyone seems to agree on is the inadequacy of FAR 147.

“I think it’s universally accepted that FAR 147 for aviation maintenance technician schools is inadequate for today’s maintenance environment,” Finnegan said. “Technology changes far too quickly for the regulations to keep up. The FAA is going to have to move the curriculum aspects of Part 147 into an Advisory Circular, where changes can be made easily as technology warrants. FAR 147 can justifiably contain the structure of the system such as the basic numbers of hours required, what facilities a school must have, the student-teacher ratio and so on.”

Finnegan suggested there should also be regional flexibility in the requirements to take advantage of the needs of local employers. “I think there’s going to be less inclination to move around for work in the future,” he said. “A better model would be for future mechanics to learn and work in their own community. If a large maintenance facility needs a lot of mechanics it makes sense for a school nearby to train local residents who want to stay local. So there should be some provision to put in courses that are applicable to the local facility.”

Finnegan said all schools would still be required to cover a large, common body of information, but the flexibility could be in the area of more specialized courses. For example, schools could substitute instruction in composites for instruction in dope and fabric. “Aviation maintenance now encompasses a huge body of skills and knowledge,” he said. “Certainly mechanics need to e able to work with composites and digital equipment, but you know what? There are still wood-and-cloth airplanes flying. There is no one-size-fits-all mechanic any more, and the wise course of action for the future is to be flexible in training to meet the needs of industry.”