“The general aviation industry has been hit hard for the past two years, resulting in massive downsizing in many areas. At Cessna, we are concerned this may draw attention from the need to replenish the work force,” Brad Thress, senior v-p of customer service for Cessna Aircraft, told AIN.
“Skilled technicians brought in over the years to meet increasing demand are now facing retirement and many young people look at the industry with trepidation. We have to continue to focus on and support programs in high schools and in post-secondary schools that offer training to young men and women in airframe and engine maintenance and in production capability,” he said.
Along with other aviation companies in Wichita, Cessna is involved in local education programs offered through the Wichita Area Technical College and its new National Center for Aviation Training. Training programs vary from basic machine shop and production courses to sheet-metal technician training and an approved Airframe & Powerplant (A&P) mechanic course.
While economic concerns have had a negative impact on the industry, at least one person sees an upside.
“There has never been a greater time for career opportunity and advancement in aviation maintenance than now. Following scores of years when the aviation maintenance industry was considered a necessary evil and its workforce was seen as uneducated blue collar [people who] need to be guided and controlled by union officials, we have come to a place where the economic model just described has failed. Evidence of that failure is found at the loss of those highly sought-after airline union maintenance jobs that have disappeared to other shores,” said Brad Townsend, aircraft asset manager for a mid-Atlantic corporate flight department.
Townsend, an A&P, IA, avionics technician and pilot, feels there is an upside to the drain on the maintenance labor pool.
“One of the positive but strange effects created by the draining of the U.S. aviation maintenance labor pool is that the median skill level of the person working in the business aviation industry has become stronger and has increased in value. At the same time the median age of the technician continues to rise,” he said.
According to Townsend, who is also chairman of the NBAA maintenance committee, unofficial estimates from several sources suggest the average age of today’s maintenance technician is in the fifties. “That’s catastrophic for the near future health of our industry but extremely advantageous to leverage necessary compensation increases for the new professional workforce.”
Tom Hendershot, executive director of the AM Society, agrees there is a problem looming on the horizon.
“The projected growth rate of 7 to 11 percent for maintenance and avionics technicians through the year 2018 stems from projected retirements. In addition, some A&Ps will leave to work in other fields as their skills are largely transferable to other maintenance and repair occupations; combined, [these forces will create] significant demand for trained personnel.
in Tech School
“On the downside, there has been a trend toward fewer students entering technical schools to learn skilled maintenance and repair trades. Many of the students who have the ability and aptitude to work on aircraft are choosing to pursue higher education, work in computer-related fields, or go into other repair and maintenance occupations with higher pay and more stable employment conditions. If this trend continues, the supply of knowledgeable aviation mechanics in the coming decade may not keep up with the needs of the air transportation industry.”
Clark Gordon, chairman of the Professional Aviation Maintenance Association, also sees a looming shortage of skilled maintenance technicians.
“The industry has definitely experienced a loss of maintenance personnel due to the economic downturn, lower enrollment in trade schools, limited outreach and exposure of the industry to the younger generation, and a loss of professionals to other industries. There will most certainly be a shortage of maintenance personnel in the next few years,” Gordon said.
As the industry weathers the economic problems it tends to forget that there was beginning to be a shortage of maintenance technicians before the downturn. Since then Asia in general, and China specifically, have begun to warm to the idea of business aircraft, with huge implications for the need for trained technicians.
“Since the economic downturn we have a false sense of balance between job availability and personnel to fill the jobs. When the economy starts to grow, there will be an even greater shortage of aviation maintenance professionals,” Gordon said.
Michael McQuay, president of Bombardier Aircraft Service Centers, pointed out that aviation has always been a cyclical industry that rides economic trends.
“The last few years have been a recessionary period for the world in general and the aerospace industry in particular. There was initially a significant reduction in aircraft maintenance demand due to fewer new aircraft deliveries and smaller utilization rates of the installed base. However, over the last year, we have seen robust recovery in maintenance demand, especially for our Challenger and Global lines.”
Townsend observes that a smaller pool of maintenance professionals from which to draw talent to satisfy growing demand is a formula for better technician pay and incentives, and indeed this appears to be happening already.
The Wages of Tin
While there’s still room for improvement in maintenance technician wages, it wasn’t a primary concern of the people interviewed for this article. Unlike 10 years ago, when maintenance technicians’ concerns about money were the profession’s single common denominator, none of those interviewed this time even raised the subject.
Technology and training are now the major issues, and many interviewed suggested the basic A&P program doesn’t provide sufficient training for a graduate to move directly into turbine-powered aircraft maintenance.
Bill Hoddenbach, v-p of aircraft maintenance for Million Air Salt Lake City, agrees. “I don’t feel that most new A&Ps are prepared for what lies ahead of them. As experienced A&Ps have been saying for ages, the A&P certificate is a license to learn. All maintenance technicians need to keep up with technological changes as they occur.”
Ed Duraka, director of aircraft maintenance for a Chicago-based flight department that operates a Cessna Citation X, also thinks about the significant impact technology has made on the operation and maintenance of aircraft. Duraka has been an aircraft mechanic since 1967 and has twice received NBAA Aviation Maintenance Technician Safety Awards, including one for working 38 years without an accident.
“One of the highest priorities in corporate aviation today is training. When I started we used a test light, a flashlight and a couple of tools. Today it’s totally different, with extensive use of computer-controlled systems. The big issue now is keeping up with the technology,” he said.
Both Townsend and Duraka agreed with many of the technicians interviewed that avionics training is vital. “I think it’s important to get an FCC license to be able to understand the complex troubleshooting required,” Duraka said. “You need a lot of knowledge about computers, diagnostic ability and logic to maintain the aircraft; there’s much less physical work than in the past.”
According to Tim Beatty it’s a paradigm shift that continues to reshape the industry.
Beatty, vice president of business and general aviation customer and product support for Honeywell Aerospace, said his company is actively leveraging technology. “A good example is the smart airplane. We take advantage of the technology we have on the aircraft, but we also use ground-based technologies coupled with our global workforce. This critical recipe is a mix of technological knowledge and people skill to yield a significant reduction in time to get a fix and reduce the cost of ownership for greater mission efficiency.”
The rapidly increasing infusion of technology isn’t the only paradigm shift that’s occurring in aviation. The industry is directing more attention to how best it can support an ever more global customer base.
“It was easy when the overwhelming majority of business aircraft were located in the United States,” one OEM executive said. “If you had a problem there were maintenance facilities scattered across the country; it was no big deal. Today it’s common to have aircraft operating in remote regions of the world, and that can be a thorny issue when it comes to customer service.”
The solution, albeit not a perfect one, is taking maintenance to the operator. Thress said Cessna’s mobile service units have become popular, and not just for AOG events in remote areas.
“Customers love it because they don’t have to fly their aircraft and spend valuable time and dollars at a maintenance facility when the maintenance can come to them. We have already deployed seven MSUs around the country and we will deploy two more by the end of the year. The success of the units in the U.S. has prompted us to plan to deploy a mobile service unit in Europe soon to meet the growing fleet there,” he said.
OEMs and repair stations are dedicating more resources to similar programs. Some, such as Gulfstream, dedicate company aircraft for the purpose; others, such as West Star Aviation, locate a van or truck in a geographic region that is ready to go on a moment’s notice. Many larger MROs have a team and equipment ready to deploy anywhere in the world via airline to help an AOG customer.
Thress said, “Cessna has completely redefined the concept of how to meet expanding service requirements by changing the way service is delivered. Rather than focusing on expanding brick-and-mortar facilities, we developed ServiceDirect, which delivers service to the customer at the customer’s home airport.
“As we have said throughout the downturn, we will invest in our future and that includes traditional support facilities–there will always be a place for our service centers,” he said.
Cessna is slated to break ground on a new maintenance facility in Valencia, Spain, and the company is also partnering with its Textron sister company, Bell Helicopter, on an MRO that Bell owns in Prague. Thress see a lot of merit in bringing service to the customer.
“In addition to our mobile service units with their broad capabilities, our 16 Go Team service trucks are fully loaded and tooled, ready to depart their service center at the customer’s call. We feel that anything we can do to ensure customer ‘UpTime,’ the more successful they will be with their Cessna product.”
Honeywell’s Beatty said the engine manufacturer was also dedicated to bringing service to its customers. “We rely on a network of authorized service centers both in North America and abroad for business jet maintenance and upgrades. An example would be our partnership with authorized service centers to create mobile on-wing teams to support maintenance on Honeywell’s HTF7000 engine. The teams are deployed to a customer’s hangar to provide on-wing maintenance wherever the customer is based. Many of our mechanical service centers for TFE and APU product lines also currently use mobile teams.”
Beatty heavily promotes the concept because it saves the customer time and money. “There is no need to pull the engine off the wing and replace it with a rental bank engine. It translates into a significant reduction of down time and cost. Similarly, avionics repairs and upgrades are also performed through Honeywell authorized service centers. We will be opening a mechanical third-party major service center in the Asia-Pacific region by 2012.”
As compelling a case as there is for bringing service to the customer, at least for the time being it will be difficult to replace a bricks-and-mortar facility.
McQuay said, “The greatest ongoing challenge we face is ensuring we have adequate maintenance coverage for our operators around the globe. [Bombardier is] attacking that on all fronts and currently has a network of 60 facilities in 26 countries and six continents consisting of Bombardier-owned service centers, authorized service facilities and line maintenance facilities.”
...And Going Global
McQuay said third-party MRO providers play an instrumental role in Bombardier’s maintenance strategy. “Our priority as an organization is to provide customers with products and services. In addition to our nine OEM service centers for business and commercial aircraft, we have 51 third-party ASFs in strategically located regions of the world. These 51 ASFs are made up of five commercial aircraft and 46 business aircraft facilities. All have undergone an extensive audit and approval process.”
Laura Schreibeis, customer support director for GE Aviation Business & General Aviation, said they have found over the years established relationships with diverse providers produce a good support system.
Along with its own maintenance facilities, GE has been working to improve support by encouraging the expansion of the number of highly qualified aircraft maintenance technicians working throughout its customer service network, Schreibeis said.
“Premier Turbines is the Designated Repair Center in North and South America for M601 and H80 turboprop engines. It offers heavy repair services, exchange engines and rentals, line-replaceable unit rotable pools and field service support to current M601 and future H80 customers. Smyrna Air Center near Nashville, Tennessee, Cascade Aircraft Conversions in Washington State, Winnipeg River Aircraft in Manitoba, Canada, and Sky Tractor Supply in Hillsboro, North Dakota, are authorized service centers for M601 and H80 engine families and offer comprehensive line maintenance, removals and re-installations of engines and LRUs and engine spares.”
One philosophy that doesn’t seem to change over the years is the OEMs’ opinion of unaffiliated third-party repair facilities.
Cessna’s Thress summed up the OEM position, “Naturally, as the OEM, we believe we offer the best option when it comes to ongoing maintenance based on our training and experience. We literally wrote the book on Cessna Citation support and we carry the brand promise of more than 80 years of Cessna production and support you won’t find at a third-party provider, unless it is one of our authorized service centers.”
And on the subject of non-affiliated PMA parts, “At all of the Cessna Citation Service Centers around the world we use Cessna manufactured parts. We know them, they’re safe, they work and they’re reliable. And when our customers leave the shop, they do so with the knowledge that they are protecting the value and pedigree of their investment.”
Third-party MROs take issue with that philosophy and point out that competition is good for everyone. One retired OEM executive said, “Of course the company line is that we built the product so we’re best suited to maintain it, but the days of the shade-tree mechanic working out of the back of his pickup truck are long gone.
There was a time when non-OEM-approved maintenance was genuinely suspect, but today this is a heavily regulated industry. Independent MROs are using the OEM manuals and sending their technicians to training facilities like FlightSafety and even the OEM’s own factory schools. As far as parts go, the FAA’s PMA process is pretty rigorous; the agency’s opinion is that a PMA part is as good as the original.”
Stephen Maiden, president of Constant Aviation, suggests operators looking for maintenance should discuss their needs with a few different service providers.
“In general, maintenance facilities have been expanding the list of services they offer and focusing on what makes them different from their competition,” Maiden said. “That’s good for customers because it gives them the ability to present their maintenance needs to a handful of service centers to ensure they are receiving the best price and best experience offered for the job at hand.”
Skip Madsen, Jet Aviation’s v-p of MRO operations in the Americas, echoes the sentiment that diversity is good for the customer but cautions it requires the customer to do some research and not base any decision on price alone.
“When pricing comes in at different levels, we hope operators ask questions so they understand the differences. Our quotes contain the cost for interior removal, for example. Some maintenance providers don’t include that cost in the quote; it becomes an additional charge that shows up on the bill after the work is completed. It makes the original quote appear cheaper.”
Madsen also urges operators to do their homework on a vendor’s expertise. “An 8C inspection requires significant maintenance skill,” he said. “Ask specifically what the vendor has in terms of capability and quality. What is its quality assurance program? Find out if it works to high standards.” Many third-party MROs suggest asking for references.
Keeping an aircraft airworthy is an amalgam of good maintenance and attention to detail. Performing maintenance on the aircraft keeps it operationally safe and efficient, but airworthiness also depends on attention to detail such as regulatory requirements and proper paperwork.
Million Air’s Hoddenbach noted that much of what makes a provider’s maintenance good occurs off the shop floor and is about keeping track of the details. Operators should inquire about how an MRO keeps up with regulatory issues.
“It’s a major undertaking just to keep up with all of the regulatory changes. We have to monitor the FAA, EPA, OSHA, TSA and human resources, to name a few,” Hoddenbach said.
In one way or another everyone interviewed agreed that when it comes to maintenance, the devil is in the details.