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TEN QUESTIONS FOR PAULA DERKS
AEA - bearing the brunt of technology’s relentless advance

When World Aircraft Sales Magazine caught up with Paula Derks- the president of the Aircraft Electronics Association (AEA) was guiding the association through preparations for its 49th annual meeting and convention (April 19th through 22nd). As usual- Derks and her staff were readying for three days as packed with new avionics products and service information as any three days in the annual calendar of aviation industry trade shows.

Nearly 90 percent of the booth space at the Palm Springs Convention Center was spoken for; and with more than a month to go a full floor remained a distinct possibility. Also on tap were more than 75 hours of training- including 28 workshops specific enough to count toward both the Aviation Maintenance Training Awards program and a biennial Inspection Authorization Renewal.

Add to this busy show schedule the annual marathon session of new-product announcements – with more than 30 companies signed up – and you have an event that translates into a significant working experience for the typical AEA member delegate. There’s so much to see- hear and learn at an AEA convention that idle time is a rarity. In fact- AEA is among the very few trade events that limit exhibit-floor hours to better accommodate the learning opportunities crammed into the three days.

There’s a reason for this ‘drink-from-the-fire-hose’ scheduling. Avionics- perhaps more than any other segment of aviation- faces changing times – and at a pace more rapid than at any time since the dawn of instrument flying decades ago.

Flat-panel display technologies- data link- WAAS- TAWS- FIS- TIS- ADS-B- Mode S and Satellite links- all represent systems or hardware designed to improve the utility and flight safety of aircraft. And these technologies are all relatively new compared to the VOR- LOC- ILS/GS and Mode C technologies that have underpinned our national airways system for decades.

Adding to the complexity and demand on the avionics technicians’ skills is the fact that the older platforms must remain viable for years more as the aviation community transitions to the point that the newer acronyms are pervasive enough to take over from the old systems and technologies.

New technologies or old- however- they all need shops authorized- qualified and experienced in installation- maintenance and repair work. As needed as those businesses are- none function without trained technicians to route the cables- solder the connections and calibrate the systems.

With aviation seemingly on the cusp of two upheavals – a forecast retirement-driven staff shortage in virtually all-professional jobs and the rapid advance in avionics technologies – AEA faces a formidable time for helping its members stay healthy and competitive.

From its headquarters in Independence- Missouri- far from the political upheavals of the Nation’s Capital- AEA under the guidance of Paula Derks seems well positioned to find the balance needed by the association’s membership.

WAS: Can you give our readers a sense of how AEA came about and why- unlike most other trade groups- your HQ is in the Heartland- not inside the Beltway?

Derks: AEA was founded in 1957- by a small group of dedicated avionics shop owners seeking to create better communications between the original equipment manufacturers and the shops. This forward-thinking group of individuals realized that in order to grow and succeed in this small niche of the general aviation industry- they would need to set aside any competitiveness and work together to gain a voice for dealer support- service and recognition.

Today- nearly 50 years later- their original mission is still being carried out. From that handful of founders- the AEA of today counts nearly 1-300 company memberships located around the world.

Quite honestly- we find it refreshing to locate our headquarters office outside of the Beltway. It helps us maintain a clearer perspective of the issues our members face. Of course- we staff a full time office in Washington- D.C.- to handle all regulatory and legislative issues and I spend a fair amount of time in that office.

WAS: What concerns loom largest for your typical member?

Derks: Regulatory issues are always a priority for our members in every corner of the world. Keeping pace with the rapid introduction of new technologies and the challenges they present is another concern.

Our third challenge is in the area of training. Beginning April 6 of this year- Part 145 repair stations must begin submitting a Training Program for FAA Approval. The FAA Repair Station Training Program purpose is to ensure technicians are capable of performing their assigned task. AEA has been working for the last three years to gear up for the release of this AC.

We are providing our repair station members with a software program to easily write their Training Program Manual at no charge and we are providing training opportunities that are computer-based- on-the-job- and in-the-classroom training.

Our European members are quite concerned with EASA issues - Part 21 approvals and Part 147 training to name just a couple. Currently- AEA is considering ways to better represent our members before EASA. Our annual AEA European Meeting will take place on 5-6 May- in Geneva immediately following EBACE.

WAS: Brian Finnegan at PAMA is one of many inside the industry to express concerns about industry meeting its future staffing needs; how is AEA’s membership dealing with a similar challenge in maintaining its workforces?

Derks: The demand for avionics technicians has never been higher. Our annual rate and labor survey for 2005 showed a 30 percent increase in shops looking to hire avionics technicians. And- the biggest area of concentration for new hires is for installation technicians.

The days are gone where a repair station is lucky to hire a tech with five or more years of experience who can be put to work immediately in the hangar or on the bench with little or no training or supervision. Nowadays- the cream of the crop- highly skilled technician in the GA community is highly compensated and well taken care of by the smart employer.

Shops today and in the future will have to look at new graduates to fill the rapidly growing empty positions. They will have to set aside precious time for extra training and supervision once they are hired. They will need to look further than the classifieds or the military to find skilled labor.

They may have to create mentorship programs or internships with local schools and universities. AEA is working on steps to help them accomplish a mentoring program. And- of course- the quality and lifestyle of an avionics technician career will have to continue to improve in order to compete with other competitive hi-tech industries.

WAS: In the Wichita area- the private aircraft industry is working with public institutions to launch an all-new- high-quality training program aimed at producing trained- qualified production personnel and maintenance technicians; should/is the avionics industry undertaking a similar effort just to meet the industry for qualified- trained electronics techs?

Derks: AEA sits on the executive advisory board of the National Center for Aircraft Technician Training (NCATT). This new venture was initiated by Tarrant Community College in Fort Worth- Texas. In seeking funding from the National Science Foundation- the mission of NCATT is to create a standard for avionics curriculum and possibly the creation of an actual certificate for avionics technicians.

A lot of work has already gone into NCATT. Knowledge requirements for the basic technician already have been established under industry standards. So far- NCATT has received consensus from all military branches- some major airlines- and a majority of repair stations. In recognizing the need to attract the brightest young people in today’s computer-savvy world- the avionics technician industry must take steps to ensure its future.

WAS: How does the advance in avionics technologies impact the shop owners? Does the advance make it tougher or easier to stay in business?

Derks: We recently surveyed our repair station members and our manufacturer members to capture their thoughts on what the future direction for our industry is. The repair stations are overwhelmingly in agreement that bench repair will continue to decline as factory repair increases. Troubleshooting integrated systems will become the livelihood of the repair station.

The manufacturers’ are driving the repair of new avionics back to the factory where they have factory-trained technicians waiting to diagnose problems using a laptop instead of expensive field test equipment. And with liability costs on the rise- manufacturers control their costs by repairing the work in-house with their own factory-trained technicians.

Repair stations that do not recognize this trend and make plans for different sources of revenue in the future will definitely struggle to survive.

WAS: How about staying abreast of the technological advances themselves? Are manufacturers making life easier or harder on the shop owner and the line technician?

Derks: From the manufacturers’ viewpoint- their authorized repair stations will have to change their emphasis to the sales and installation of new systems with less emphasis on field repair. The technology for production of surface mount components makes field repair prohibitive and the reality is more towards 'board swapping' using production line-produced components.

New technologies are dictating that tomorrow’s technicians be trained on software-based systems. Many technicians simply do not have a basic understanding of the importance in using the software in the avionics systems to aid in troubleshooting and/or properly configuring the system.

However- manufacturers’ are still assuring technicians that the old skills are as appropriate today as always. Troubleshooting skills are still essential in the new integrated environments. Only with a methodical and organized approach can you determine what may be causing a system fault with an integrated system.

The appropriate skills to handle advanced technologies found in the glass cockpit- modular systems- software configuration- ADS-B- datalink and in-flight entertainment will be a must for the technician of the future.

WAS: Would today be a good time to start an avionics shop- and if so- why- or why not?

Derks: While I have always admired the entrepreneurial spirit- a person considering starting an avionics shop today will have to carefully weigh all of the challenges they may face as they prepare to open their door for business: increasing liability costs- more requirements mandated by manufacturers to obtain an authorized dealership agreement; training issues; lack of skilled technicians; new technologies to rapidly learn; and more and more regulatory oversight.

Of course- for those who forge ahead- AEA will be there to assist them in any way we can.

WAS: Is there anything the FAA should be doing to help streamline this technology march – maybe in its advanced planning for the next-generation of ATC- or in a roadmap to ADS-B?

Derks: Obviously- the FAA must be adequately prepared to face this onslaught of new technologies. This is no small feat. I applaud FAA Administrator Marion Blakey for taking steps to position the FAA as a business-minded entity and not as a bureaucratic force that industry must reckon with.

In reorganizing the FAA through her strategic planning initiative- it will be a smarter organization to handle the significant changes that will take place over the next 10 to 15 years. Of course- there will be stumbling blocks along the way- but Congress must realize the need to adequately fund our air transportation system to make way for these new technologies that promise safer- more economical air transportation.

WAS: Does AEA have a position on the latest attempts to recast how the FAA is funded- in light of the recent proposal forwarded to the FAA by the ATA?

Derks: We strongly oppose user fees to fund the FAA. The reality is there is nothing broken with our current method of funding. Not once in the last 10 years has the FAA received less funding than what it asked Congress for. The funding stream is not unstable; it is not antiquated. It works.

FAA says its goal is to become more efficient in budgeting and running the organization like a business. Yet- it has not specified in a ‘business plan’ where the monies collected from its suggested user fee scheme would be spent.

The commercial air carriers complain that GA doesn’t pay its fair share- but the facts prove otherwise. Paying at the pump through fuel taxes is the fairest- most reasonable way for the GA community to pay its fair share. Because every American citizen benefits from our nation’s air transportation system- we also support an increase of FAA funding from the General Fund.

WAS: Your vice president- Ric Peri- has a penchant for riding motorcycles across long distances; another association executive we know enjoys soaring in sailplanes. What does Paula Derks prefer to do when off the clock and away from the office?

Derks: Definitely not anything as adrenaline spiking as riding motorcycles or soaring in sailplanes- although last fall I did paraglide off the side of a 3-000 foot mountain in New Zealand. My favorite method of unwinding is feeling the sand between my toes on a favorite beach on the Gulf Coast of Florida. Lately- my husband and I find ourselves becoming amateur wine connoisseurs. A good pinot noir shared with good friends is about as exciting as it gets for me.

WAS: Paula – thank you!

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