The rise in global demand for commercial and business aircraft has not been accompanied by a proportional increase in the number of technicians ready to service those airplanes and helicopters; in fact, the number of qualified maintenance personnel continues to dwindle. The Flight Safety Foundation (Booth No. 3532) recently formed a new Maintenance Advisory Committee (MAC) to examine issues affecting aircraft maintainers and find ways to encourage new talent in the field. Committee members are consulting with industry personnel on these topics throughout NBAA’12.
FSF COO Kevin Hiatt told AIN the MAC is tasked with developing programs to assist the aircraft maintainer segment on safety issues, as well as identifying and offering solutions for maintenance and engineering concerns. “We took a look at our committee structure and determined there was a gap where maintenance organizations weren’t being adequately represented in our international, European, and business advisory groups,” he said. “We simply didn't have many maintenance people involved to discuss the safety issues needing to be addressed.”
Fatigue and Filling the Ranks
Formed in August, the maintenance committee met for the first time in early September. Hiatt said members came away from that gathering with two key areas to address, including concerns about fatigue. Though many think of pilot and crew rest concerns when discussing fatigue issues, it’s a significant problem for aircraft maintainers as well, especially in Part 91 operations.
“Technicians work long hours, often outside their normal circadian rhythm,” Hiatt noted. “The bottom line comes down to when the operator wants to use the airplane; they expect to use it now; and maintainers are expected to work until a problem is fixed. Fatigue inevitably begins to set in when the mechanic is continually working, and many operations don’t have a lot of structure to deal with that.”
Of arguably even greater concern, though, is the lack of new personnel choosing to enter the aircraft maintainer field.
“The industry isn’t as lucrative for people coming out of college and going into the job as it’s been in the past,” Hiatt acknowledged. “People are starting to retire, and there are not enough people with the time and experience coming up to replace them. We’re not seeing as many people getting excited about those career paths, and the places that educate pilots and mechanics aren’t seeing the enrollment numbers we’d like.”
The number of qualified and eager candidates transitioning from other aviation-related fields or coming out of the military has also declined, leaving commercial training programs as the primary source for new candidates. “There are particular schools that turn out mechanics, but we’re not seeing the enrollment there to support today’s number of business aircraft, never mind the growing market in the future,” Hiatt said. “We’ll have to do the best we can by working with these people to develop a suitable talent pool and maintain the high current level of safety.”
While pay rates certainly factor into the low numbers, Hiatt believes another significant reason lies in competition from other career fields that might appear “more glamorous,” many of which offer technically skilled job candidates the opportunity to work in plusher surroundings than a maintenance hangar.
“In Europe and Asia, aircraft maintenance is considered a more professional trade, with a specific path to follow through schooling and into a job,” Hiatt said. “The situation is somewhat sketchier in the U.S., and to compete, those offering jobs in these fields have to modify their hiring practices and style. There needs to be a better path for moving that individual from the learning role to being an employee.”
A greater focus on ad initio training–with companies assisting not only with hiring the student but also in tailoring the educational program–may be one possible method to address this issue. Hiatt noted the MAC “will be taking a look at the industry from a global perspective. Worldwide demand for commercial airline maintenance personnel is tremendous; we’re already seeing a shortage there, and that leaves the business aviation community clamoring for people to work on their aircraft.”
As with other FSF committees, the MAC will function primarily in an advisory role to companies and the industry. “We’ll definitely point out the gaps that need to be covered and then use the resources available within the committee and the foundation to speak on those topics,” Hiatt said. “Like all of our committees, the MAC will examine the issues to ensure that aviation safety remains paramount.
“We try to stay out of the political, labor and industrial sides of the issue, and instead focus on particular issues affecting aviation safety and ways to keep aviation among the safest forms of transportation,” he concluded.