Sometimes you find a job; sometimes a job finds you. That’s the moral Wichita resident Eric Meitner learned after he retired from a 22-year maintenance career with Cessna. An A&P technician who served as maintenance manager at the Wichita Citation Service Center, and then head of the post-production flight-test division for the Citation 525 series and Caravans, Meitner was prepared to enjoy his retirement when the phone started ringing. Several of his former customers at the Citation Service Center tracked him down and began calling to chat about problems with their aircraft or to ask if Meitner would be interested in taking a look at a maintenance invoice they received from a shop.
It started as a once-every-few-months job, but as word spread, others began calling. After three years of this ad-hoc advising, Meitner’s clientele “politely twisted my arm and said I need to get back in the business.” He contacted several former Cessna colleagues, as well as some from other OEMs with similar backgrounds, and established a consulting company a year ago.
In addition to all Cessnas, the company’s staff of six provides expertise on Gulfstream and Bombardier business jets and has the necessary contacts to handle Falcons. The company has no specific experience with Embraers and Hawkers but would assist with those types as well if requested, said Meitner. In the year since the company started in earnest, it has helped 60 aircraft owner/operators and serves on retainer for some customers.
“The easiest way to explain [the company] to people is ‘rent a director of maintenance,’ but it really encompasses more than that,” Meitner told AIN. “We assist on pre-purchase inspections, and we assist people when they bring their airplanes in for maintenance, making sure that things are done that were squawked, and then making sure the paperwork is correct on the back side.” Those are the two most requested services, Meitner noted. “The final common request is a frantic call from someone saying, ‘I can’t understand my invoice; it seems high, but I can’t figure it out. Can you look at it?’”
The company has encountered billing discrepancies in all of the cases it has handled over the past year, according to Meitner, and has obtained accommodations on the customers’ behalf in all of them. “Everybody has automated their systems, and they are so busy they don’t have time to review the service orders the way they should,” said Meitner. “It depends on how thorough the customer service rep or the billing rep is when they go through it. We’ve seen some that were substantially higher because of a duplication of efforts in the paperwork.”
As an example of duplication of effort, he noted cases where an aircraft was brought in for a periodic inspection and the maintenance team encountered some problem. “They will go and replace that and then do all the operational checks on that particular discrepancy, when in reality you’ve already paid for that on the phase inspection,” explained Meitner. “That’s where you should start getting into a conversation about where these hours should be and where they shouldn’t.”
Identifying many of those billing discrepancies requires knowing how long a certain task should take and how much it should cost based on labor hours. With the industry currently undergoing a turnover in experienced mechanics, some shops are finding themselves with less seasoned staff, and are looking to pass the associated on-the-job training costs on to the customers. “When you start bringing new people into the field, it takes time for them to get up to speed and to be proficient in the profession,” said Meitner. “There’s a certain amount of time it takes to become productive and everyone’s worried about the bottom line, so obviously those costs get shifted. The owner/operator of the aircraft shouldn’t be paying for that training.”
The scope of the company’s projects varies from simply vetting invoices to full on-site event supervision, and before showing up on any site, the first thing Meitner’s company does is sit down with the customer and discuss expectations. “One of the things that we try to bring to the table is value, and part of that value is looking at them and saying, ‘Here’s what it will cost if you want me on the project every day,’” he said. Once the parameters are set, Meitner and his team contact the shop, whether it’s the manufacturer or an independent MRO provider.
“As we’re giving them the discrepancies and bringing the airplane in, we’re letting them know that as a representative of the customer, we’re going to be watching everything and we’re going to expect answers in a pretty timely way,” Meitner noted.
One might imagine that Meitner’s role as a customer-designated ombudsman would foster an antagonistic relationship between his company and the repair providers, but he insists that hasn’t been the case. “I’ve not had anyone look at me as if to say, ‘Oh, here he comes.’ It’s typically, ‘Hey, I’m glad you’re here. The customer is upset. Let’s see what we can do to work through this.’” He then combs through the invoice to see if there is any merit to the customer’s concerns. “If there’s not, I go back to the client and tell them it’s a good honest invoice, which is all anyone wants.”
Overall, Meitner suggests applying due diligence to all documentation, which is where he says the majority of mistakes can be found. “If you’re not a maintenance person who’s used to reviewing these things, then by all means get someone in there on your behalf to look over the work order itself, compared to the maintenance transaction reports,” he said. “Make sure it all makes sense and if it doesn’t, ask the questions.”