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Anyone who drives the American average distance in a year is probably familiar with this sight: a lone vehicle stranded next to the thoroughfare- its hood probably up- maybe with a little smoke or mist drifting from the vehicle to affirm that something disabling just occurred. “These things happen”- you may think to yourself while trying to recall your vehicle’s last trip to the shop for routine needs – an oil-and-filter ...

Dave Higdon   |   1st November 2007
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Dave Higdon Dave Higdon

Dave Higdon writes about aviation from his base in Wichita Kansas. During three decades in...
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Ten Questions For PAMA

Future maintenance needs still a challenge.

Anyone who drives the American average distance in a year is probably familiar with this sight: a lone vehicle stranded next to the thoroughfare- its hood probably up- maybe with a little smoke or mist drifting from the vehicle to affirm that something disabling just occurred.

“These things happen”- you may think to yourself while trying to recall your vehicle’s last trip to the shop for routine needs – an oil-and-filter change- maybe a coolant flush-and-fill or a check of the running gear- the shocks or struts and tie rods- ball joints and elbows.

Unlike in aviation- a breakdown of our personal transport is usually more of an inconvenience than a safety threat – you just coast to the side and use the cell phone to ring the auto club. Still- sitting alone on the shoulder while traffic whizzes by at 80mph isn’t exactly a stand-out safe zone.

There’s usually a maintenance schedule spelled out in the owner’s manual- but large numbers of people never open those pages- instead falling back on tribal knowledge about oil changes and tire rotations. Most of the time- this is enough to get by. Oil change shops and tire-rotation jobs are cheap and plentiful. In aviation- though- maintenance is more critical- hence- pilots tend to be more attentive to the airplane than they may be to the car that drove to the airport.

Aside from the maintenance required by the calendar or the Hobbs meter – annual- 100-hour and hot-section inspections – things not working is unsettling at the least- and unsafe at the worst. Needless to say you can’t just coast over to the shoulder and wait for a tow to the closest local wrench manipulator. Off-field landings can be tragic.

So pilots and aircraft owners tend to get things fixed as fast as possible – before the next flight- ideally. Whether that’s possible depends on a number of elements falling together: a convenient shop and access to any needed parts. And they all need to come together seamlessly and without delay.

Most of all- the ability of that scenario to play out most expeditiously depends on the availability of a qualified mechanic with time available. No licensed maintenance technician- no licensed aircraft; no aircraft- no go. As we’ve heard in the past- the prospects for such a trouble-free flying future is in question – unless the aviation community finds a solution to a shortage of aviation maintenance technicians. And that’s where we’ll pick up with Brian Finnegan- president of the Professional Aviation Maintenance Association (PAMA) in Washington- DC. Finnegan understands both sides of this issue as well as other challenges facing today’s maintenance technicians- whether regulatory or technology issues- manpower or training issues.

Not only is Finnegan an experienced aviation maintenance technician- he also has in his background time spent working as a maintenance supervisor- serving as an accident investigator and- most-recently- Washington lobbyist and association executive. It’s rare to deal with someone of Finnegan’s perspective and experience. Is the industry making progress- in attracting and keeping the maintenance people it needs? Is it coming to grips with the new demands of technology without losing the skills base needed for the old-tech stuff- such as airframe repair and upkeep? Brian Finnegan has some views to share.

WAS: A year ago- you told us the industry needed to develop a tool - a metric - to help technicians quantify their experience- training and capabilities so that managers could have some help placing the right people in their flight departments: Has the industry made any progress towards such a tool?

Finnegan: When we spoke last year- we had nearly developed that important tool – a system of aviation maintenance and production certifications that focused on validating an individual’s aviation maintenance capabilities – but were not yet funded. Then- in January of this year- we received the necessary capital to develop our first baseline exam.

This certification identifies the knowledge necessary to work productively and safely on the hangar floor- the shop floor- and on the flightline. These certifications are called Aviation Maintenance Engineer for FAA-certificated Airframe and Powerplant Mechanics and Aviation Maintenance Specialist for non-FAA certificated technicians (including pilots- managers- sales and marketing professionals- etc-). We have worked very hard to earn the trust and support of a broad base of our industry – including from the insurance sector. For more information on the whole program- visit our website at www.pama.org.

WAS: Growth forecasts remain high- both for traditional business aircraft and the VLJ segment that just started delivering this year. Propjet sales are forecast to decline but not disappear. Even piston sales are holding strong and the new Light Sport Aircraft segment seems to be taking off with sales already beating conventional FAR 23 piston aircraft. There seems to be no end to the need for more mechanics and technicians – but is the industry gaining or losing ground?

Finnegan: I hate to be difficult- but we are both gaining and losing ground. We’re gaining ground in that the aircraft are so much more reliable than ever before. They simply need less maintenance. We’re losing ground (and badly) because aviation maintenance is just not that attractive to young people leaving high school.

We are not promoting our industry like it needs to be – though those winds are changing now. Complicating that problem is that even though we may not need the sheer numbers per aircraft we once needed to ensure airworthiness- the mechanics we do need must be very well educated with a strong mechanical and avionics background- good communications skills- and a positive attitude. That can be tough in an industry that can (and does) “down-size-” “right-size-” “outsource-” or otherwise eliminate or relocate your job on any given afternoon.

WAS: A seeming return to stability in the airline industry hasn’t resulted in much growth in fleets or hours flown- despite the swap of some older jets for regional jets flying more segments. That means a lot of furloughed airline maintenance people are not looking at recalls. Is the business-aviation community taking full advantage of this potential pool of plane workers?

Finnegan: Notwithstanding the occasional pejorative comment from members of both aviation maintenance segments toward the other- many are making the necessary effort to hire displaced workers- regardless of their segment pedigree. However- it has not always been successful.

In reality- there is a fairly large learning curve – in lifestyle and philosophy- if not in the performance of the work – for both employers and employees attempting to transition between air carrier and business aircraft maintenance. The hours are very different- union representation is often different- the pay is different. The rules are essentially the same- but the playing field is not… and that can make all the difference.

WAS: With so much of the technical maintenance of aircraft evolving toward pull-and-replace work rather than true hands-on upkeep and repair- is it harder to hold the guy who spent years and thousands of dollars getting their license?

Finnegan: No- I don’t think so. In truth- those older professionals are getting rarer because they are older. There are opportunities for those folks to learn more and move up- for sure. But a seasoned mechanic is a jewel to have on the team and many do earn good wages. If there is anything that would drive them away- it would more likely be the lack of stability.

Everyone wants to know their families are well cared-for. Southwest Airlines founder Herb Kelleher is famous for preaching “Employees First- Customers Second.” That philosophy sounds like heresy to most employers- even though Southwest is the most successful airline ever.

WAS: Does the educational community offer adequate slots for training new talent- or do we need some sort of aviation community-effort to develop more and better training programs with more student slots? For example- in this area the Wichita Area Technical College plans to offer 400 student slots for the A&P track once its new campus opens. Sounds like a lot- but nationwide- are there enough such slots?

Finnegan: Nationwide- maintenance training slots are dwindling with the closing of each additional school. So- no- there are not enough slots to meet our future needs.

The good news is that the Department of Labor has engaged industry with its Aerospace Workforce Revitalization Summit at which government- industry- and academia are gathered to attract young people to the aerospace industry in general through a strong focus on Science- Technology- Engineering and Math (STEM) education in the K-12 grades. However- that only leads the horses to water- if you will. It is up to the aviation maintenance industry to pique the interest of these young STEM-interested students and attract them to our world.

This is a large part of what the PAMA/SAE Institute certification program is about: conferring baseline- inclusive certification on new technicians and exposing them to the beauty and awe of aviation through some of the most sophisticated tools- equipment- and technology ever developed. Once exposed- it will be very hard indeed to leave. It is that exposure that is everyone’s challenge.

WAS: Are the schools currently available capable of accurately portraying the opportunities – both position and pay – to get the attention of young people looking for a solid- stable- good-paying career?

Finnegan: To be honest- I don’t know. Some are and do quite well. In the end- the only reason to go to school is to get a good or better job- to help us better provide for our families. If schools are not focused on the employers and providing graduates with the skills they are wiling to pay money for- then they are wasting their time.

WAS: Are retirements and defections from aircraft shops starting to impinge on shops’ ability to handle their work and owners’ ability to get work done in a timely manner? If not- how close are we to that time?

Finnegan: Absolutely – big time. “Mandatory overtime” has entered the lexicon of overused aviation terms. Duty time constraints has not. Although I cannot speak to delayed work- even with mandatory overtime- many shops are turning work away because they do not have the skilled workers they need to perform the work.

WAS: PAMA no longer participates in AS3- the joint trade show that tried to cater to the FBO and charter- ground-equipment and maintenance-technician communities. Next year PAMA will have its own event. How is this event progressing through the planning stage – and who should consider attending?

Finnegan: Next year’s new event marks PAMA’s return to hosting its own show and providing a forum for industry leaders to convene- learn- and communicate. Training and education are important ingredients.

However- before we can actually announce our plans and the target audience- we have established an advisory board of industry professionals to help steer us in the right direction.

Soon we will provide the results of their recommendations in the form of an agenda. Stay tuned!

WAS: PAMA’s position as an affiliate of another organization seems to have had little recognition outside the trade-association community. How has it changed PAMA and its ability to serve its membership?

Finnegan: It has changed us very much. We are better able to serve our members with the enormous staff that SAE International has in its stable. But organization is not content and it’s only the PAMA members and staff that can provide that. We are still a very small PAMA staff and we are constantly challenged to provide the necessary industry information – in a timely manner – to our members.

With the success of our certification program- in which both SAR and PAMA has invested- will come the necessary wherewithal to grow the PAMA staff and our ability to produce the content our members demand.

WAS: We’ve heard the forecasts for growth in the business aviation community for the next 10 years: If you had a crystal ball that revealed the aviation maintenance community in 2017- what would you expect that community to look like?

Finnegan: UAVs – that’s Un-manned Aerial Vehicles- not Un-maintained Aerial vehicles! Pilots will be obsolete as cockpits across the globe are staffed by highly educated maintenance professionals that can monitor- troubleshoot- and repair aircraft in-flight.

Hydrogen fuel cells will be standard and the skills needed to ensure their safety will be a new specialty. Intercontinental airships with onboard maintenance crews will stay aloft for weeks at a time. Orbital excursions will be common- necessitating maintenance professionals stationed permanently in orbit and ready to perform critical repairs.

Actually- pilots won’t be obsolete… they will still have their LSAs and be able to work on them with two week’s of training.

WAS: Brian- as always- thanks for your insights.

More information on the maintenance industry- contact PAMA at: 400 Commonwealth Dr.- Warrendale- PA 15096: Toll free: 866-865-PAMA (7262); Tel: 724-772-4092; Fax: 724-772-4064; Email: hq@pama.org or Web: www.pama.org

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