AIN Blog: Torqued: Brain Drain in Maintenance Sector Needs Another Look

 - January 3, 2013, 1:55 AM
Aircraft maintenance
At one time supervision meant one-on-one instruction with a certified mechanic, but cost-cutting has reduced maintenance staffs.

Imagine seeing this headline: “Major Airline Uses Student Pilots on Passenger Flights.” There would be universal outrage and condemnation if an airline tried to put students in the cockpit on passenger-carrying flights–even if “just” to handle the radios or practice touching some of the controls in cruise flight. Slow as it is to react to some safety issues, even the FAA would be all over that airline in a millisecond.

Now that I have your attention, let’s substitute student pilots with student mechanics in the headline: Major Airline Uses Student Mechanics To Maintain Its Aircraft. Well, that doesn’t seem to cause the same consternation in the industry that student pilots would. After all, uncertified mechanics can perform maintenance with training and under the supervision of a certified mechanic, whereas an uncertified pilot could not even touch the controls or handle the radios of an airline flight. So what’s my beef with student mechanics working on airline aircraft?

Why am I outraged that there was no sense of outrage from the industry or the public to news recently that a repair station performing maintenance for American Airlines was using aviation students to perform maintenance on its Boeing 757 seats? The same seats, you may remember, that failed in flight. To recap, if you missed the news this past fall, passenger seats came loose on at least four Boeing 757s while the aircraft were in flight, with one such incident resulting in the pilot making an emergency landing at New York JFK Airport. Thereafter, American grounded dozens of 757s while it searched for the cause of the loose seats.

Tepid Response from Regulators

Bad enough the seats came loose, but then a recent New York Times article reports that Timco, the Part 145 repair station that was reportedly responsible for some of the faulty seat installations, used students from the National Aviation Academy in Bedford, Mass., to do some of the seat work. When I first heard this, I thought surely alarms would be going off at 800 Independence Avenue, home of our supposed safety regulators. Clearly, if students are working on airline aircraft and seats are coming loose, something is wrong with the use of these students and the job-specific training as well as Timco’s required oversight. So where does the fault lie? With the students? Probably not. After all, they are students. I would say the fault likely lies in the supervision of the uncertified people who do the maintenance. So far, the response from the FAA, as well as the industry and the public, has been fairly muted.

Part of the reason for the muted response is that maintenance does not garner the attention of legislators (dare I mention once again the Pilot’s Bill of Rights that was snuck through with nary a mention of the fact that it applies to all certified airmen, which includes mechanics), regulators, the industry and the public the way other aspects of flight do. And of course, seat maintenance doesn’t sound all that important, compared with, say, engine maintenance. But improvements in seats are a big contributor to survival rates in aircraft accidents today. 

Once upon a time not too long ago, an aircraft careening off a runway could end up with a relatively intact fuselage and yet cause significant casualties. That’s exactly what happened in one of the first accidents I was familiar with as an airline mechanic: the crash of a Mohawk Airlines (one of the predecessor airlines of US Airways) Fairchild FH-227 on approach to Albany Airport one snowy night in March 1972. I was working for Allegheny Airlines, which was on the verge of merging with Mohawk at the time, so we were, of course, keenly interested in what had occurred. It was disconcerting to learn that while the fuselage remained largely intact, even after colliding with a house, 18 of the 44 passengers died, many of them because of the blunt-force trauma suffered when the seats broke loose from their tracks, crushing them during the rapid deceleration.

Another reason I believe people (even people in the industry and the FAA who should know better) are not shocked that students are performing maintenance on passenger airliners is that the Federal Aviation Regulations allow uncertified workers to perform maintenance under the supervision of a certified mechanic. And therein lies the rub:  under the supervision of a certified mechanic. When this rule was first written, supervision really meant one-on-one mentoring and oversight within the context of a stable airline maintenance workforce. And that was in the days when airlines sprang for training. So even if the workers didn’t hold an A&P, they were trained and watched over closely.

As airline competition intensified, so too did the pressure to save money. And, as we all know, cuts in staffing–especially in maintenance–grew. The more experienced workers who could mentor and oversee the uncertified mechanics were pushed out, forced to retire by either attractive buyout offers or work conditions that made retirement or job changes attractive. At the same time experienced A&Ps were leaving in droves, supervisory ranks were decimated in another cost-cutting move.

And then airlines started outsourcing more and more of their maintenance to repair stations, many of them overseas where labor costs are a fraction of those in the U.S. One way those in the U.S. cut labor costs was to reduce the number of A&P mechanics and increase the number of uncertified mechanics without a corresponding increase in supervisory personnel. Some repair stations went even further in their cost-cutting: a few short years ago the same company that is now hiring students (yes, Timco) was charged with hiring illegal aliens to perform maintenance work.

So my hope is that the FAA and the industry see the use of students to perform maintenance as a wake-up call that we have reached a critical point in maintenance staffing that will end badly if not addressed with a greater sense of urgency than I’m seeing.

And to all the bean counters at American Airlines and Timco, be glad that the American 737-800 that careened off the runway in Jamaica just before Christmas in 2009 had all its seats screwed on tight. The outcome for passengers–and corporate bottom lines–might have been very different if they hadn’t been.


At the end 2001, after 9/11 devastated the airline industry, I retired from a major airline after 35 years. During my carrier I served as an aircraft mechanic, aircraft maintenance instructor, fleet analyst and manager of maintenance training. In the mid 90’s my company was having a problem with aircraft interior maintenance because the time between checks had been stretched further than the interiors could handle. So someone came up with the idea of using aircraft mechanics in training to repair the interiors and have one of our mechanics sign for the work. Now how and where they were going to get these mechanics in training and coax them to work all night for peanuts was never disclosed, but I fought admittedly against this half brained idea conceived by non aircraft mechanic personnel. I brought to their attention that requiring one of our A&P’s to sign off some one else’s work was against FAA rules and regulations. Luckily the program was dropped and never brought up again during my tenure.

After my retirement however, they do now ship their aircraft overseas for heavy maintenance looking for that cheaper mechanic. As the demand for licensed mechanics increase I think stories like these will become more common.

All it takes is money. When most auto dealerships are approaching charging $100.00 an hour for service, I know of no aircraft maintenance shops charging that much. And auto repair shops don't have to signoff anything that if not done right could end up losing their certificate and living, not to mention the lives of persons aboard. Aviation has a bad hungry habit of "eating" its' young. As long as the airlines are thinking only of the bottom line and not quality, the industry will continue to fly itself right into the ground.

As a Quality Assurance rep at a foreign MRO for a major airline who outsources much of it maintenance to foreign repair stations I can attest that the situation is much worse than you describe. The FAA has created/allowed uncertified mechanics outside of the US to be supervised by, get this, unlicensed supervisors.

145.153 Supervisory personnel requirements.
(a) A certificated repair station must ensure it has a sufficient number of supervisors to direct the work performed under the repair station certificate and operations specifications. The supervisors must oversee the work performed by any individuals who are unfamiliar with the methods, techniques, practices, aids, equipment, and tools used to perform the maintenance, preventive maintenance, or alterations.

(b) Each supervisor must—

(1) If employed by a repair station located inside the United States, be certificated under part 65.

(2) If employed by a repair station located outside the United States—

(i) Have a minimum of 18 months of practical experience in the work being performed; or

(ii) Be trained in or thoroughly familiar with the methods, techniques, practices, aids, equipment, and tools used to perform the maintenance, preventive maintenance, or alterations.

(c) A certificated repair station must ensure its supervisors understand, read, and write English.

The supervisor only has to have 18 months experience OR be familiar with methods, etc. No mention of being licensed or HOW familiar with methods, etc.
Furthermore, MRO's have no interest in assuring that the non-certified mechanics are actually being properly supervised. Most instances, the return to service document or the signing for the work performed is rarely, if ever, actually witnessed. In other words, pencil whipped. In the part of the world where I work they have another name for pencil whipping, it's called a "pen repair".

An FAA requirement of supervising uncertified mechanics and the reality of actually supervising said mechanics are two different things. I can tell you that it is NOT happening.

Don't get me started on being able to understand the work instructions which are written in English. It isn't happening, simple, but frightening truth.

A question I'd like to ask regarding your article. Where is the oversight from the airline? They are ultimately responsible for the maintenance regardless of who performs the maintenance.

As an aircraft maintenance professional with over 30 years’ experience I can tell you that the world of aircraft maintenance today from my view is very frightening. It’s a ticking time bomb.

I spent thirty five years as an aircraft mechanic/aircraft maintenance technican, and I can quote numerous times when the company wanted to hire trainees, but the union was against the idea if, it did not include a training and testing procedure that would eventually allow the trainees to take the exam for their certificate. We did at one time invite the local aviation high school to send several of their senior classes to our hanger to observe the maintenance people at work. They were invited to ask questions and observe the workers.
In later years as the older mechanics begin to retire and the newer people pool became less and less and some of the experinced people also left for greener pastures, it became apparent tha work would be shifted overseas. I was an onsite maintenance representative for several heavy checks done by several companies outside of the US, and oversite was the catch word. You had to be aware of the personnel the supervisors and their training procedures. All in all though we received good results as a result of have onsite monitoring in place, but it would be great if we could return the work back to where it really started and belongs, the USA.

I retired from a legacy/marriage carrier last may. I am slowly making a transition to the oil and gas industry.
Not to say there isn't obvious problems there, but at least my liability goes down from 30,000' to 0'.

From 1989 to 1998 I worked at an engine overhaul facility that was truly top notch. That company started out with the industrial GG4 and went on to overhaul the JT3D, JT8D (the little 8) and the JT8D-200 series engines. No one dared do anything without the proper authority or approvals from the customer or the FAA. I was a very proud employee and worked my way up from an Inspector to Leadman and eventually Supervision.

GE bought the company in 1997 and by 1998 closed the doors and sold off the assets. It was a very sad day when the announcement was made on the assembly floor. So quiet you could hear a pin drop on the floor and faint sounds of the female workforce weeping in the background.

Since that time I've jumped around in the turbine engine overhaul field and finally made my way up to an Engineering Analyst processing engineering changes and managing the bill of material for several different engine models in a large corporation. That didn't last either. When things got slow that large corporation decided to shave the senior workforce off of the books and out the door I went.

So I ended up back in a turbine engine overhaul shop and my, how things have changed. Installing unserviceable parts back on the engine, stealing parts from other customers' engines, invalid part numbers on engine records, inspectors and mechanics performing work without any clue what they're doing and unsupervised to boot. The list goes on and on......

As long as there are corporations controlling our government and unrealistic promises made to stockholders the situation will keep getting worse.

I'm getting out of the business.