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Meeting aviation’s maintenance needs tops ongoing efforts of PAMA.
According to an old saying- behind every successful man is a woman. Political correctness aside- that phrase can be rewritten to apply to business aviation. Behind every successful business aircraft dispatch is a mechanic (or a maintenance technician- to observe just a bit of political correctness.)
With forecasts of shortages among the ranks of airframe- powerplant and avionics technicians seemingly old news- helping the industry achieve its maintenance needs is among the many goals of the Professional Aviation Maintenance Association (PAMA). A union it is not. PAMA is the trade association for maintenance professionals and the shops that employ them. A voice of experience guides the association’s efforts. Headed by an industry-savvy Airframe & Powerplant maintenance technician named Brian Finnegan- (a 30-year aviation veteran with maintenance as well as accident investigation experience)- PAMA also concerns itself with helping its members reach their own professional goals through training- certification- continuing education and political- regulatory and industrial representation.
For example- PAMA- through nine regional representatives and 31 local chapters- helps coordinate maintenance community response to rule changes proposed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA); the agency which tests- licenses and inspects technicians and the repair stations where they work.
PAMA also offers a scholarship program to help new technicians train for their careers; a job bank for individual members; and serves as a clearinghouse for maintenance industry news. Additionally- since 1997 PAMA held FAA approval to renew Inspection Authorizations - the certificate Airframe & Powerplant technicians must hold to sign off annual and periodic inspections- STC installations and other work of non-IA technicians. Recently PAMA entered into an affiliation with the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) and will be working with that group to develop new methods for certifying and training maintenance technicians in tune with the new technologies entering aviation. In recent years- working to expand the number and quality of aircraft maintenance technicians has been one of PAMA’s top efforts. We put 10 questions to Mr. Finnegan to gage how PAMA’s efforts are fairing- and on the outlook for maintenance in the future.
WAS: In the past several years we’ve heard a number of dire predictions that the pool of qualified maintenance technicians is drying up - that a shortage either will occur- or is occurring. From PAMA’s bird’s-eye-view of aviation- where do you see things today for business aviation needs?
Finnegan: There’s a reshuffling of the industry- and business aviation needs to accept that it is happening. There are a lot of highly qualified technicians out there who lack the specific experience the business aviation community wants. If the business aviation community finds someone with the right work attitude- who is rated and experienced- we think the business aviation community will find it worthwhile to bring them in and let them get the specific experience the operators need. That’s because business aviation is growing (as the airline industry is struggling)- and quite frankly they need more of that work.
WAS: In comparison with today- and given strong growth forecasts for business aircraft sales- will business aviation be competitive in its growing needs for maintenance workers?
Finnegan: I think it will. I think there’s a little realization that these aircraft are assets and you’re really hiring an asset manager when you hire a good mechanic. The asset the aviation mechanic brings to the table is himself. When thousands of dollars fall off the table because of logbook problems or other record-keeping needs- there’s a realization that the maintenance technician would have kept that up. About 40 percent of all business aircraft have no designated maintenance technician and that makes keeping up with the demands of deploying that asset more difficult. Pilots aren’t really trained or equipped to keep track of all the maintenance needs the way a qualified maintenance technician is. That realization is growing and business operators are realizing the costs of a mechanic is an investment in keeping that asset at top value.
WAS: We’ve heard of local efforts around Wichita to provide more training opportunities and recruit more to the craft. Is the national training scene adequate to meet future needs for business and other segments of aviation?
Finnegan: Not yet. There’s virtually no effort to attract young people to our industry right now. If we’re going to strengthen our industry- we’ve got to find a way to attract young people to make this work a career. We also need to develop advanced certification levels so people can advance. We need to portray this as a career in which people can grow and advance- and achieve financial and professional rewards.
WAS: Technology has taken an ever-larger role in aviation cockpits and engine compartments- from the heaviest airliners years ago to the lightest piston singles delivering today. How challenging is it for the maintenance community to keep pace?
Finnegan: It’s challenging and it’s time for the industry to legitimize avionics work with its own certification. Really- there are people out there that are already working on advanced certification for avionics. It’s time to make avionics a part of our certification infrastructure.
WAS: Beyond the growth in electronics and digital technology employed in avionics and powerplants- technology is also changing in the airframes. Is the maintenance community ready for the influx of composite airplanes that’s already occurring- and the coming entry of metal business jet airframes assembled largely without conventional methods of skins and supporting structure secured with rivets?
Finnegan: They’ve been covering composites in the schools for a long time. The people who are already out there working on metal airplanes will have to come up to speed. Certification for working on composite airframes will likely be coming soon. But the composite users are still struggling with how to build their airplanes; it’s largely different with every one. In our new partnership with SAE- we’ll be working on composites repair certification. So FAR 141 schools will have to have the latitude to start teaching composites repair to some standards. There’s already some experience that parallels composites with wood airframes; wood is like composites in how it’s handled - same with fabrics- too. There are issues of grain or weave- the use of adhesives and bonding and testing those bonds. It’s not a large leap. We have to move away from some of that older technology and modernize. But it’s not a foreign language and we need to understand the specific processes used.
WAS: In a recent conversation with an A&P apprentice- he told me of his encounter with a tube-and-rag airplane – a Stearman – during an annual inspection- and how his instructor told him to enjoy the experience; he’d ‘probably never work on anything like that ever again’. Is the time coming when training needs to focus less on the historical technologies of the past and more on the emerging technologies of today’s new aircraft?
Finnegan: Older technologies may become specialties in the schools. We may need to work toward more specialized certification like the scuba-diving industry (closed water- open water- ice diving- cave diving). So we may need to move away from wood and fabric and radial engine work as mainstays of our training and recognize them as specialties that are less a part of the mainstream. Those older technologies are important to have- but it’s not the standard we want to be teaching our technicians to now. We need to make them a specialty area. We may also need to accommodate regional differences to allow for what’s in demand in a certain area. If a technician is trained in a region where airline maintenance technicians are in high demand- we should be training them to fill those jobs. Or if they are training in a place like Wichita- with a large need for technicians to work on small planes and business jets- we should be training them to fill those jobs.
WAS: We seem to be approaching a day when the home-field shop may face work from clients with four-place jets- Diesel-style engines and the relative mature technology of the Light Sport aircraft category. How difficult will it be for small shops of the future to have the technology and training to service a broader spectrum of private aircraft than in the past?
Finnegan: The European model isn’t that shops broaden their scopes; they pick up a niche- they specialize. A lot of stuff coming may not be stuff that you actually repair in the shop- but treat like an LRU [line-replaceable unit] that you don’t fix but remove and replace- then have the removed parts go out into the community where the niche shop picks it up. We already see that happening with shops that specialize in one model aircraft- or in work on planes from one OEM- and they become favorites of people from that OEM- and those flying that model of aircraft. There are shops that try to be all things to everybody- but I see that as an exception rather than a rule- as more and more shops choose to specialize.
WAS: With business aviation apparently one of the sure-fire growth areas in aviation- is the business aviation community doing all it can to assure itself of depth in its future maintenance needs?
Finnegan: It’s starting to. It recognizes that its short-term needs are going to have to be handled by itself. It’s going to have to work on its own to increase its maintenance capabilities and we want to work with it to grow it beyond that. What’s going on in Kansas is a good example with the Kansas Technical Training Initiative (KTTI) working to expand training opportunities and recruit more people to the (maintenance technician) career. Business aviation requires people who can work on the whole airplane- unlike the airlines where a technician may only see one part of the plane. So I think it’s up to business aviation to work to make things better. Right now- FAA- SAE and PAMA are working on a joint effort to recruit new blood and want to work with the business aviation community and schools. We want to make sure that the training is what the industry needs and the schools are providing that training. The auto companies are already doing that. But then they have to give those people jobs. It does nobody any good if they’re trained and then told- ‘sorry- there’s no job for you’. They won’t stay around. So the business aviation community needs to be prepared to put to work these people or risk losing them to other fields.
WAS: Are small- independent shops going the way of 80-octane fuel – available in limited locations and only for a specialized clientele?
Finnegan: No and yes: They aren’t going the way of 80-Octaine fuel. We’re going to need specialized shops in various areas that keep them accessible to their customers. Trouble shooting- understanding how things work- and being able to diagnose problems is going to be more important as we move to a more specialized environment.
WAS: In what kind of shop would you want to work today if you were a freshly minted maintenance technician seeking employment?
Finnegan: Good question. I think that the first thing you have to remember when you’re a freshly minted technician is take the first job you can get – and never leave the industry under any circumstances. I’ve never stopped being amazed at the value from being a wing sweeper- working on the ramp- fueling- and all the other work that’s here. When you’ve spent years in the industry and you finally break through- it’s going to be because of the variety of skills you’ve picked up over the years- like the ones I learned starting out as a fueler. I always feel a little twinge of disappointment when I meet someone who left the industry and went into- say- sales- and know that their experience elsewhere means nothing to their employability in maintenance.
WAS: So the first job you’d take is the one you get?
Finnegan: Absolutely. Through thick and thin: get in and stay in.
WAS: Thanks- Brian- for taking the time to talk to us.