COVID-19-related supply chain disruptions have complicated the maintenance mission of keeping business aircraft airworthy and mission ready. Couple that with the ongoing shortage of aviation maintenance technicians (AMTs), and business aviation maintenance is facing unprecedented dual challenges.
Only as Strong as the Weakest Link
The supply chain is composed of many links, and like any chain, it is only as strong as its weakest link, said Frank Krafka, manager of material control for West Star Aviation.
“The supply chain challenges started in 2020 and have intensified during the past couple of years,” explained Krafka. “Chemicals and tires are the big ones, but it affects almost everything now.”
The supply chain links are not recovering at the same rate because each one has its own supply chain of raw materials and needed components, many of them with their own certification requirements. Given those requirements, most manufacturers and distributors don’t rely on just-in-time inventories.
However, the ripple effects of manufacturing shutdowns early in the pandemic are still being felt by suppliers, which are struggling to replenish parts inventories while striving to keep their customers flying. Suppliers are doing their utmost to recover from parts shortages and expedite a return to predictable, reliable deliveries. But no one can predict when the situation will return to a pre-pandemic normal.
“A lot of us got used to getting things quickly, and we need to recalibrate, be more patient and understanding of potential issues,” Krafka said.
“Aviation is adapting,” continued Krafka. “OEMs and distributors are mitigating their challenges. Operators are communicating with their providers to keep current on an ever-changing situation, and operators are prioritizing and planning their maintenance to accommodate any delays that arise. Improvement is around the corner.”
Recruitment is a Longer-Term Challenge
Seeking solutions to meet the chronic AMT shortage has become a top priority for business aviation, including NBAA’s Maintenance Committee, which continues to promote business aviation maintenance careers through several outreach efforts, says Stewart D’Leon, CAM, NBAA director of environmental and technical operations.
Bryan Maloney, sales & recruiting manager at Jet Aviation Staffing, is at the forefront of these efforts. A business aviation recruiter with two decades of experience, he’s a member of the NBAA Maintenance Committee and chairs its Workforce Development Subcommittee, which has a three-prong strategy for meeting the challenge.
The subcommittee has three subgroups, each dedicated to promoting business aviation maintenance careers to a select audience. The Early Education Group focuses on middle and high school students, grades 8-12. The Secondary Education Group targets two- and four-year AMT schools and programs, and the Military Group is seeking to recruit people leaving the armed services in order to grow the pool of business aviation AMTs.
The foundation of each of these efforts is promoting business aviation as a truly viable career option. Traditionally, business aircraft operators have maintained a low public profile, a disadvantage in an era when other segments of aviation and other industries, such as wind energy, are vying for the knowledge, mechanical aptitude and skills that potential AMTs possess.
“We’re creating presentations that members can share with these groups, and we’re developing a program that opens the hangar doors to youth and young adults on or around May 24, which is National Aviation Maintenance Technician Day,” explained Maloney. [May 24 is the birthday of Charles Edward Taylor, who built the Wright Flyer’s engine.] Several prominent Part 91 flight departments, MROs and OEMs are already on board with this outreach plan, noted Maloney.
Another initiative is the ongoing effort by a number of organizations to reclassify AMTs by creating a new Department of Labor classification. Holders of FAA airframe and powerplant (A&P) certificates are now classified as “Aircraft Mechanics and Service Technicians,” a combination of certificated and non-certificated individuals in the major group of “Installation, Maintenance and Repair Occupations.” This combination of different types of workers prevents the accurate count of certificated A&Ps working in aviation, their locations and other information needed to forecast future workforce numbers.
Large maintenance companies that provide depot-level maintenance have done a good job recruiting those who don’t have an A&P certificate because they work under the company’s repair station certificates, said Maloney. “This is a potential solution for larger business aviation operations that need more than a handful of techs, but this requires veteran A&Ps to supervise and mentor them.”
“A lot of us got used to getting things quickly, and we need to recalibrate, be more patient and understanding of potential issues.”
FRANK KRAFKA, Manager of Material Control, West Star Aviation
Filling the Pipeline
Developing an apprenticeship program is another way to attract tomorrow’s AMTs. Generally, in a two-year program, the apprentice earns a paycheck, benefits and the on-the-job training, along with the formal education necessary to earn an A&P certificate. In return, the apprentice agrees to work for a defined period after certification. As the last Baby Boomers approach retirement, this is an opportunity to retain veteran technicians as teachers and mentors.
Meanwhile, retaining experienced technicians is essential to the continuity of aircraft operations.
“Everyone wants the best, most skilled technicians, but those people come at a price,” said Maloney.
Technician retention, however, isn’t all about money, it is about flexibility, involvement and opportunities to expand and develop their aviation interests.
“Life happens to all of us,” said Maloney, “and the employer that works with the individual’s [unique] situation is more likely to retain the tech than an employer who offers nothing more than 9-to-5 work on that airplane over there.”
In hundreds of military recruiting conversations, Maloney said what consistently surprised him was that “most of them had no idea that this world of business aviation existed.”
Changing this situation, says Maloney, “is an excellent opportunity for business aviation, especially when combined with the Department of Defense SkillBridge program, which enables military techs to work for and learn from an industry partner during their last 180 days of active duty.”
“A&P schools can only educate so many people, and right now they are at full enrollment,” said Lynze Price, a maintenance technician at Amway and leader of the Early Education Group of the NBAA Workforce Development Subcommittee. “The key to keeping these programs fully enrolled is to increase the supply of people interested in business aviation careers by showing them when they are in middle and high school what the industry has to offer.” To help achieve that, the work group is now revamping its presentations to incorporate more video.
Modifying Entry Requirements
Business aviation employers also need to reconsider their prerequisites as well.
“Back in the day, MROs and OEMs were more open to hiring and training people off the street who expressed interest,” Price said. “That has changed, and employers are now more interested in hiring certificated individuals so they do not have to deal with training time and expense. Some have resumed their training efforts, but we’re still behind the curve.”
Flight departments often don’t consider A&Ps immediately after they graduate because they want technicians with experience.
“But a growing number of flight departments are filling their tech positions by first interviewing people for an internship program,” said Price, who was Amway’s first intern. “I got hired when a tech retired after 40 years. I give them credit – it was a bold move because I’d just graduated from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.”
Regardless of a tech’s experience, flight department members still need to teach new hires about their aircraft and culture to help develop a model employee.
“If you use an internship to vet, and then train them the way you want, you start with someone with no bad habits and mold them into the quality tech you want for your department,” said Price.
Review NBAA’s workforce initiatives at nbaa.org/workforce.