There is no question that it’s getting hard to find qualified aircraft technicians. It’s partly a demographic problem (baby boomers not having enough babies) and more likely due to crappy pay and benefits and quality of life. The result has been low levels of new entrants into aviation maintenance and consequent shortages causing higher prices for service and companies scrambling to find qualified personnel.
Despite all the talk about the shortage, I see nothing new on the horizon on how to solve this problem. Watch any group come together to discuss a personnel shortage, and the only solution they ever come up with is to try to get kids as young as kindergartners interested in aviation careers. Guess what? Every other industry on the planet is doing the same! Those poor kids, their heads must be spinning with all the opportunities.
Seriously, it’s time to get creative. If airfares, charter prices, and labor charges aren’t going to rise so that people can be paid better to keep them happy and attract new entrants, then we have to come up with other solutions. Here’s one that might actually have an impact.
There are roughly 200,000 certified mechanics in the U.S. (those holding a mechanic certificate with airframe and powerplant ratings, or A&Ps), but a surprisingly large number of them are not qualified to work under their certificates.
To be current to work as an A&P—FAR 65.83—a mechanic must have documented having had some recent experience. To maintain currency, an A&P must have been working actively as a mechanic or supervised other mechanics for a six-month period in the previous 24 months. To regain currency, the mechanic must work under another mechanic’s supervision for those six months. The FAA has defined “active” as full-time work.
What this means is that there are likely thousands of A&P mechanics who hold licenses but cannot work under their A&P, that is, complete a task and sign the aircraft’s logbooks to return the aircraft to service. Probably many of these mechanics are not even working in aviation, in part because of this obstacle.
If there is a shortage of A&P mechanics, there likely is also a shortage of those that hold the Inspection Authorization (IA), a higher level of certification required for certain jobs and also in demand by many maintenance organizations.
To maintain currency as an IA, the individual must have worked actively as a mechanic for the previous two years and either signed off a specified number of inspections or major repairs or attended annual training. Both the experience and the sign-offs/training are mandatory.
The problem for both A&Ps and IAs is the experience requirements, which are too stringent and discourage participation in the industry. As in any human endeavor, the more obstacles, the lower the chances of achieving a goal. Those who aren’t willing to flout the regulations aren’t available to work, and there is plenty of maintenance work available.
Obviously, not all mechanics need to meet the recency of experience requirement if they work for a Part 145 repair station and aren’t signing off logbooks under their A&P. But A&P mechanics’ skills are best put to use in a variety of work situations, and Part 145 repair stations are just one type of maintenance entity.
The simple way to free up this underused labor pool would be to change the applicable regulations. Instead of requiring a certain amount of recent experience, why not replace that with a training option? An IA or A&P could maintain currency by attending, say, a week of training every year. This would also help fulfill the task requirement if the training covered the specific tasks that the mechanic would be accomplishing.
Why change the rules, you might ask? Is there a safety problem with the current system?
Not necessarily, but if the regulations don’t meet the needs of the industry, they should adapt. Changing the rules would eliminate the pressure on mechanics to violate the experience rules, lessen the need for FAA oversight, which is inadequate anyway, and encourage more certificated mechanics to rejoin the industry.
We know that training can be a suitable replacement for experience, judging by the light sport aircraft rules that allow a person to become approved to perform an inspection on these aircraft after taking a two-day class or maintenance after taking 80 to 120 hours of training. LSAs haven’t been falling out of the sky due to inadequate maintenance.
Also, pilot experience requirements are far less stringent, and why shouldn’t the same hold true for mechanics? A private or commercial pilot need only complete a flight review every two years, consisting of one hour of ground school and one hour in the air. Even business jet pilots need only complete recurrent training once a year. Add to that a fairly minimal experience requirement of six instrument approaches, holding, and tracking, and that’s all that pilots need to stay current for IFR flying.
It just doesn’t make sense for mechanics to be subjected to far more stringent experience requirements, and taking this small step would be a win-win for the industry, not to mention giving the FAA an opportunity to eliminate some unnecessary regulations.