Airlines Suffering a Shortage of Mechanics, Raising Safety Concerns
AMFA — Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association — is the only union 100% committed to representing airline mechanics and related employees at passenger airlines, including Southwest Airlines, Alaska Airlines and Horizon Airlines. Conversations with various AMFA local chapters have revealed concerns regarding the rapid increase of commercial air traffic. These concerns include maintenance of service standards, limited on-the-job and equipment/tooling training, maintenance of compliance, and pressure to take shortcuts or workarounds while performing maintenance tasks
The extensive early retirements offered at the onset of the pandemic led to a historic talent drain that is only now being felt by an industry chronically short on experienced mechanics. The drain is not just on the mechanic side but on the management side as well — specifically, the managers who train and develop the mechanics. This has led to a workforce disproportionately staffed by less experienced people, including the people charged with making the less experienced people more experienced.
This issue has been further complicated by the rapid growth in daily flights and the recommissioning of planes that were temporarily taken out of service or put into long-term or short-term storage. As you might imagine, when a plane that has been in storage is brought back into service, a thorough service cycle is required. This has pressured airline mechanics to move faster and the airlines to hire new mechanics to work with limited or bare minimum training, which in some cases may be insufficient. Adding to this are issues related to bringing the Airbus 319, Airbus 320, 737NG and 737 MAX back into service after the FAA-mandated grounding. The 737 MAX aircraft will require extensive work and training for the mechanics to meet the new Boeing/FAA agreed-upon requirements, placing additional pressure on the mechanics and related maintenance workers.
It is important to note that becoming a certified mechanic takes two years of school to pass a sophisticated certification process, and it can take an additional five years to become truly proficient at the craft. This means that fully replacing the retired mechanics will take a long time.
In an effort to keep up, some airlines are asking non-mechanics to pick up work from mechanics; for example, uncertified ramp workers are performing maintenance duties that should only be performed by certified trained mechanics.
It is amazing how quickly all this came to be. As little as five weeks ago, the airlines were still discussing furloughs and extending voluntary leave extensions. Today, they are trying to hire as fast as they can and are projected to hire to mitigate understaffing and shortages over the next 12 months.
And if this wasn’t enough, Southwest Airlines just launched a new software system for updating logbooks and tracking parts inventory, etc., that is much more complicated than previous processes, adding as much as two hours to a typical maintenance task.
In the long run, the mechanics and management support at the airlines will catch up with the demand and a new generation of mechanics will grow to become experienced experts. In the shorter term, however, there is reason for concern. AMFA is asking airlines to supply valuable aircraft training (recurring training, not just check the box) and proceed with greater caution. Just because the demand is growing, management should not pressure teams to shortcut safety protocols and demand too much of inexperienced mechanics. The carriers’ maintenance programs dictate what staffing levels should be in regard to scheduled and unscheduled aircraft maintenance and how task cards are packaged. At AMFA, we firmly believe that safety in the air begins with quality maintenance on the ground, and safety must be every airline’s first priority. We are all eager to travel again and to see air traffic demands return to pre-Covid levels, but we must do so in a manner that puts safety, training, and compliance ahead of profits.