September 11, 2000
JIM LEHRER: Now finding skilled airline workers, we have a report from Ted Robins of KUAT-Tucson.
TED ROBINS: A problem aboard a 747: Normally cause for alarm, except when the plane is on the ground, and the problem is a training exercise for a group of mechanics and their supervisors. This is the Evergreen Air Center, about 30 miles northwest of Tucson. Evergreen is an independent contractor. It does maintenance on jets for dozens of domestic and international airlines. Like most aviation companies, it desperately needs skilled maintenance personnel.
GERALD KOENIG, CEO, Evergreen Air Center: We have the infrastructure available. We have the tooling. We have the training available. All we need are the people.
TED ROBINS: Evergreen CEO Gerald Koenig says he could immediately fill jobs for 100 additional trained technicians.
GERALD KOENIG: And if I had access to that type of manpower consistently, I probably would want to expand and build a multi-bay hangar, and I'd need even more people. I'd need another 500.
TED ROBINS: The U.S. aviation industry currently employs 137,000 mechanics. The federal government says there's a chronic need for another 6,000 to 12,000. The industry and the government say the labor shortage is a minor cause of this summer's delays and cancellations. Bad weather, an over burdened air traffic control system, and a dispute between United Airlines and its pilots get most of the publicity. That labor dispute was settled, but United is still negotiating with its 15,000 mechanics, who have been without a contract since July. The Federal Aviation Administration is now scrutinizing maintenance records at the nation's nine major airlines. That action follows the January crash of an Alaska Airlines jet. Faulty maintenance is suspected as the cause. And twice this year, Phoenix-based America West Airlines has faced disciplinary action from the FAA over incomplete maintenance records. The topic seems difficult for airlines to discuss. A half-dozen major airlines, including America West, refused interviews or access to their maintenance operations. Even Southwest Airlines, which told us it has no shortage of mechanics, declined an on-camera interview. The reason: Evergreen's Gerald Koenig says it might upset passengers.
GERALD KOENIG: It spooks the horses. People are going to be less confident in the product if we make a point of saying, "oh, we've got a critical shortage of mechanics, and we need to do something about it." It creates an image that, well, when your aircraft needs maintenance, maybe it's not getting all the maintenance it needs because there aren't enough mechanics around.
TED ROBINS: Eva Mims is deputy director of flight standard service for the FAA. She says the mechanic shortage is an industry labor issue, not a public safety issue.
EVA MIMS, Federal Aviation Administration: If an airplane is not in a condition to fly, then it's not flown. And so therefore, if it's... you know, if there's maintenance that has to be done that isn't done, and it's up to the air carrier to make sure that that airplane doesn't fly, if we find out that it has, then we take the appropriate action. You know, you've been on flights in which the pilot has come over and said, "we're not moving because, you know, there's some maintenance being done." That's a responsible action. I think that the system is working well.
TED ROBINS: Think of the maintenance checks the same way you'd service your car. Every 3,000 miles, you may do an oil change. Every 50,000 miles or so, you do a major service -- the same with airplanes. Hydraulic, electrical, mechanical, and structural systems are generally repaired or replaced long before manufacturers predict they are likely to fail. Still, problems turn up. Mechanics Michael Stutz and Will Stafford are repairing structural damage in this plane. In order to certify to the FAA that the work is completed correctly, an Evergreen inspector watches as the work is done. The FAA will then inspect his records before granting the plane an airworthiness certificate.
TONY GUGLIELMINO, Pima Community College: Now, I know that sounds a little funny, because, you know, that's like putting the fox to watch the chicken coop, but we are a very, very proud industry.
TED ROBINS: Tony Guglielmino is a former FAA examiner and safety councilor. He now heads the Aviation Technology Department at Pima Community College in Tucson.
TONY GUGLIELMINO: We pride ourselves in quality. We pride ourselves in knowledge. We pride ourselves in being able to accomplish the job with a great deal of skill and knowledge, and so we have always policed ourselves. The use of the regulatory agencies, specifically the Federal Aviation Administration, is another check.
TED ROBINS: This 747 is more than 20 years old. That's just about the length of time its maker, Boeing, estimated it would fly. But to keep up with the increase in air transport, both passenger and freight, older planes are still flying. The aging fleet and the shortage of mechanics to care for it worries Paul Hudson of the Aviation Consumer Action Project.
PAUL HUDSON, Aviation Consumer Action Project: If we maintain the present level of maintenance, both in terms of the number of people and the quality of their training, and the fleet ages, as it is doing rapidly, then it is virtually certain that planes are going to get less safe. We have to increase maintenance capacity if we're going to be flying more and more aged aircraft.
TED ROBINS: The problem is likely to get worse before it gets better. Thousands of aviation mechanics who came into the industry over the last several decades are nearing retirement age. The type of young person who might be attracted to this job is being lured away by the better pay and the perceived glamour of the computer industry. Aircraft mechanics, like pilots, traditionally came from the military. That's how Michael Stutz got his job 24 years ago.
MICHAEL STUTZ: My dad was in the service, and he was an avionics and became a supervisor. I kind of liked airplanes, so I got into it. I learned most of it in the service. I was in the service for four years.
TED ROBINS: When the industry went through an economic slump in the late 80's and early 90's, aviation schools turned out fewer mechanics, and with government budget cutbacks in the 1990's, so did the military.
SPOKESMAN: Remember, no cheating and talking to each other. Try to shoot the ribbons just using the tetna.
TED ROBINS: Now companies like Evergreen are teaming up with community colleges and tech schools to recruit students. This is a class at Pima Community College for airframe and power plant or engine mechanics. The opportunity to work with their hands and fringe benefits, such as free travel, appealed to Martha Thomason. She is changing careers after 21 years as an elementary schoolteacher to work at a local aircraft manufacturer installing interiors.
MARTHA THOMASON, Student, Pima Community College: I do admit that I'll take a pay cut when I first get started into industry. I was probably making about $15 an hour as a teacher with a Masters degree and 21 years' experience here in the state. And as I'm going into this new industry, it will drop down to $10 to $12 an hour. But I'm figuring within two years, I should make up that difference and move straight up from there.
TED ROBINS: After five years, mechanics can make $50,000 a year. After ten years, with overtime, yearly salary can reach $70,000 to $80,000. Industry analysts say there are at least three ways to increase the number of mechanics. One way to do so and avoid high salaries is to move maintenance operations overseas. Those operations are not inherently dangerous, but the potential lack of oversight worries some safety experts. But the Air Transport Association, which represents air carriers, says only a small portion of maintenance work on U.S. aircraft is done overseas. In fact, the association says it's more often the case that foreign airlines come to the U.S. for high-quality work. Another alternative for attracting more mechanics may be to raise wages-- supply and demand. Evergreen's Gerald Koenig says that's inevitable, and airlines ought to accept it.
GERALD KOENIG: What I think the airlines should talk about is not so much, "oh, we have a shortage of competent people." What they should say is, "the price of this talent is increasing. So flying public, you buckle your chin strap because the airplane's going to be as safe as it always was, but you're going to get the shock at the ticket counter when you pay."
TED ROBINS: A third alternative would be to slow the growth of the aviation industry. More than a million and a half passengers fly in the U.S. every day. Within a decade, that number is expected to rise nearly 60%.
TONY GUGLIELMINO: Something has to give, and what will certainly give is the availability of aircraft. Today there's lots of flights. If we continue in this fashion, I would envision that we would have to cut some of the flights, because safety is the number one issue. You've got to do the maintenance. You've got to do the modifications. You've got to be inspecting these airplanes, and that takes time.
TED ROBINS: The U.S. Department of Transportation says flying is still the safest way to travel. To keep it that way, the aviation industry is stepping up its search for more mechanics. In the meantime, the flying public will apparently have to accept more maintenance-caused delays, fewer scheduled flights, or higher ticket prices.