Desperation in the air

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The aviation industry should be jumping for joy; airlines are ordering record numbers of planes, profits are up, and the price of fuel is relatively low compared to years past. But at the recent APATS 2018 conference in Singapore, there’s something else in the air. Matt Driskill explains.

Ask just about any high school student anywhere what they want to be when they grow up and you’ll hear lawyer, doctor, fireman, computer programmer, etc. Pilots also score high on the list as well, which is good news given the forecasts by major manufacturers like Boeing and Airbus as to the hundreds of thousands of pilots needed over the course of the next 20 years.

The problem – at least for the aviation industry – is that very few of those high school students name airplane mechanic as their life goal, even though it offers an almost guaranteed job once that student graduates and is certified. It seems no one wants to be the next “Joe Patroni” (from the 1970 film Airport) and would rather be a code monkey at Microsoft or Google than a grease monkey at Cathay Pacific or SIA Engineering (even though those “grease monkeys” will be using some of the latest technology available today to keep planes flying).

And so it seemed in Singapore there’s a whiff of desperation in the air as conference attendees and speakers all wonder how their organisations will fill pilot seats, cabin attendant slots and hold off a looming safety crisis from the lack of trained maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) technicians.

A look at the numbers shows why APATS attendees are concerned. Boeing, in its latest outlook, says the Asia-Pacific region will need 240,000 commercial pilots by 2037 and will need at least 242,000 technicians by the same time with 317,000 cabin crew needed. The manufacturer broke the numbers down by region and said China will need 128,500 pilots, 126,750 technicians and 147,250 cabin crew. Southeast Asia will need 48,500 pilots, 54,000 technicians and 76,250 cabin crew while South Asia will need 42,750 pilots, 35,000 technicians and 43,250 cabin crew. Boeing also projects that Asia alone with need nearly 17,000 new planes by 2037.

So while your average high school student might want to be a pilot or a cabin crew member, the problem is keeping those thousands of planes flying. At the APATS conference, that shortage of trained technicians actually presents a safety problem, according to Dr Bill Johnson of the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Johnson, who is the chief scientific and technical advisor for human factors in aircraft maintenance systems, told his audience during an MRO panel that more MRO  technicians are retiring than can be replaced by incoming graduates.

Citing statistics from the US, Johnson explained that ”MRO technical schools in the US are operating at 50 percent capacity, 40 percent of those that do graduate do not get certified and 20 percent of those who do get certified go into other industries.”

Johnson said the overall MRO industry, globally, needs to change. “Schools need to get the message to the right audience,” he said, calling the technician shortage “desperate”. He said schools needed to be “relentless” about getting the message out to prospective students and emphasise that “the jobs are there, good jobs”, for people who graduate and are certified. He also said schools need to modernise their facilities and their training technologies and more importantly, schools need to diversify their students by attracting more women into the field.

He also stressed that the entire industry – including government regulators – need to look at changing from “time-based” training where students are required to complete a set number of course hours to “competency-based” training where students who are able to complete the work are certified and not required to complete X number of hours.

Johnson told his audience that industry players need to work with the schools and said with a smile that industry could attract more people to the MRO field by the simplest measure of all – money. “You offer enough money and people will flock to the industry,” he said.

He added that industry needs to work with, or simply “work” government regulators and their political bosses to change things like time-based training to competency-based training.

Christian Delmas, an Airbus Training Services official, echoed Johnson’s comments, saying the “new generation needs to be recognised and you have to make the career path attractive to them”. Today’s students, he added, “will not be attracted to the industry by using a PowerPoint presentation.”

Other programmes, like apprenticeships, are proving popular as a way to beef up the supply of MRO technicians. Aviation Australia has started a programme at its Jandakot, Western Australia facility, which started training apprentices in April. “Prior to Aviation Australia’s facility in Western Australia, the training situation for aviation apprentices was deplorable. There was no government-funded registered training organisation (RTO) in Western Australia delivering Part 66 licence outcomes,” said Sheridan Austin, group quality manager at Australian MRO Avair.

The launch of the Jandakot-based training has enabled employers such as Avair to educate their apprentices, providing them with an academic and regulatory pathway that is also supported by the Western Australian government. “It is very important to us to have our apprentices attain a Part 66 outcome, not only for their careers but also for the longevity of our engineering departments and indeed the industry,” said Austin.

On the pilot training side of the equation, BAA Training, one of the largest aviation training centres in northern Europe, is expanding and has created a new company in Vietnam, BAA Training Vietnam, which it says will operate a training centre of four full flight simulators and ab Initio flight school by 2023. The company said the first Airbus A320 full flight simulator is set to be deployed by the end of 2018 and increased A320neo and Boeing 737 MAX full flight simulators are planned to be assembled by 2020. In addition, BAA Training Vietnam aims to open an ab Initio flight school in the next five years.

“The Vietnamese aviation market has been growing by an average 8 percent per year and is expected to continue its growth in the upcoming 20 years. By establishing BAA Training Vietnam we aim to share an exceptional know-how built through years of experience of BAA Training operations as well as securing region with the transparent and high-standard aviation training for both corporate and private clients”, said Egle Vaitkeviciute, CEO at BAA Training.

The industry is also turning to alternative methods of learning. CPaT Global and Astrom Aviation announced earlier this year that they intend to partner up to provide “training solutions to airlines and airline training organisations” by coordinating resources, distance learning courseware and training management systems. The two companies will combine their expertise in aviation training to provide computer-based training programmes and training management systems. CPaT Global is well known in the aviation world for its programmes, but Astrom Aviation Technology less so. Astrom is headquartered in Beijing and features its “Galaxy” training management system, AR/VR simulation and aviation big data analysis.

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