The Aircraft “Mechanic” Misperception

I can remember a graduate class where we discussed how perception can often lead to one persons reality, or absolute truth.  That is, if an individual perceives a brand of automobile to be unsafe.  They often will not purchase that make, whether it is true or not, “I’ve seen lots of VW’s pulled over on the freeway so they must not be reliable cars.” But logic tells us that these automobiles could be pulled over for a myriad of reasons: an important phone call, a sick child, or an ill timed argument.  The observer really has no idea whether these cars are reliable or not but presupposes that since they see them pulled over on the Freeway, that they must be broken down and therefore, “would never buy that brand.”  This same flawed logic can be labeled to occupations.  People often say, “I despise Lawyers, they are simply out for the money.” Yet when one gets falsely charged with a crime, they want the best lawyer they can afford.  It’s a paradox.  The same holds true for aircraft mechanics. Yet the term mechanic has very little to do with what they actually do or who these people really are.

Mechanic_at_work_on_automobile_in_garage_-_NARA_-_285817

Somewhere along the line, the term mechanic began to personify a greasy, gruff, often feeble minded individual, who simply beats customer’s cars, aircraft, and boats into submission.  Iconography contributed to the stereotype.  Iconography is, “the visual images and symbols used in a work of art or the study or interpretation of these.”  Iconography is largely attributed to artistic interpretations of religious movements, social and political movements and advertising.  It is the perceptual and visual fuel that turns ordinary people into, “Icons.”  Advertisers use this to draw in customers with incredible success, think of Walt Disney without Mickey Mouse, or McDonalds with out Ronald McDonald.  Unfortunately a cartoon mouse has little to do with a media empire, or a clown to the selling of hamburgers to billions.

War PosterThe above Army Air Corps painting illustrates this point. The art work glamorizes the mechanic and romanticizes the idea of becoming a mechanic in service to your country.   The photo of the mechanic with the cigarette butt in his mouth personifies a more laconic individual, who looks blue collar, dirty, and rough.  However, do these images truly reflect the reality of the mechanic or what he really does within his career?  It’s true that he fixes things that are broken.  The Oxford dictionary states the term mechanic means, “archaic, A manual laborer or artisan.” Even the origin of the word seems inappropriate for todays mechanics.  The word in, “late Middle English (as an adjective in the sense ‘relating to manual labor’): via Old French or Latin from Greek mēkhanikos, from mēkhanē (machinery).”

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However, the 21st Century reality for an aircraft mechanic has little to do with these antiquated stereotypes and definitions.  Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) officials are now calling A&P (Airframe and Powerplant) Mechanics, Aviation Maintenance Technicians.  The European equivalent to the FAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has several levels of licensure but the apex is titled, a Base Maintenance Certifying Engineer.

GEnx-1B-with-person-d42657BAviation and Aerospace technology has evolved beyond the, “grease monkey,” mentality that many still associate with aircraft maintenance.  In fact, 80% of the job is utilizing logic, common sense, and systemic knowledge of the aircraft.  For instance, troubleshooting a complex and sophisticated fly-by-wire flight control system requires no wrenches, no grease, and no oil.  Instead, the technician needs to utilize their ability to analyze symptoms, dismiss erroneous indicators, and find the root cause of the problem.  Once the problem is found, 10% of their effort is spent replacing a line replaceable unit (LRU), such as an electronic control unit, rewiring of a connector, or perhaps a wire repair.  After that, the final 10% of skill has the technician documenting the maintenance they performed in a clear and forensic manner.  This requires a vocabulary that is rich in FAA approved language. The technician’s paperwork is regulated by intense protocols by the FAA.  Drug tests are mandatory and felony convictions are disqualifying factors to work in this prestigious field.  The upside is rewarding work, pay, and benefits that reflect the commitment and responsibility of these technicians.  Many senior technicians at well paying airline or cargo haulers can earn well over $100,000.00 a year.  However, the national average is around $55,000.00.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports:

In May 2012, the median annual wages for aircraft technicians and service technicians in the top five industries in which they worked were as follows:

  • Beginning Scheduled air transportation $59,110
  • Federal government, excluding postal service 55,940
  • Aerospace product and parts manufacturing 55,650
  • Nonscheduled air transportation 54,910
  • Support activities for air transportation 49,120

Furthermore, Aerospace giant Boeing:

…released a long-term market outlook report and it contains good news for those interested in a career in avionics. The report predicts that as global economies grow and tens of thousands of new commercial jetliners are produced, the demand for pilots and educated technicians will also grow exponentially. The company anticipates more than 400,000 pilots and 600,000 airline maintenance technicians will be needed by 2031.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics(BLS), job prospects will be best for technicians who hold an Airframe and Powerplant (A&P) certificate and keep up with technical advances in aircraft electronics and composite materials. The BLS states many older aircraft mechanics are expected to retire between 2010 and 2020, allowing management and entry-level positions to open up for younger mechanics.

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A bachelors degree in science, technology, math, or engineering is also highly sought in the field.  Regrettably, the High School diploma for the, “millennial generation,” will most likely not be sufficient to take them to a level of well paying sustainable careers.  Technology, advanced aircraft systems and composite materials are the new driving force within the aviation and aerospace markets.  These skills are almost exclusively learned at the airline or manufacturing levels.  However, many employers will not consider a candidate who lacks license’s and does not have the most up-to-date technical education.  Lewis University teaches these new technological disciplines.  Lewis does not see our students as simple mechanics, or grease monkeys.  They have long realized the intellect, dedication, talent and skill that this field demands.  Being a mechanic is surely not a dirty word (no pun intended).   But it is not the same as a being a well qualified, educated, safe, experienced, and certified aviation maintenance technician.

 

R. Eric Jones

About R. Eric Jones

-Assistant Professor of Aviation and Transportation Studies -Director of Lewis University's Boeing 737 program -Turbine Operations Director

10 thoughts on “The Aircraft “Mechanic” Misperception

  1. October 26, 2014 at 10:35 am

    Interesting article yet it does miss a few points. There are those such as yourself that like to point out how technical our field is yet seem to miss some obvious reasons for the perception of “grease monkeys”. I especially like how the airline mechanic, technician, or A&P is the mark of success in this field, yet in reality ( and my experience) is the least “educated” of the skilled force of A&P’s. Airlines want you to know only what they want you to know and nothing more. Shotgunning parts was the norm. Add to that the “average” look of the typical airline employee on the ramp, unkempt and slovenly, moving about with no purpose or sense of urgency to serve the customer, never mind the employer. Stand at the window over looking the ramp next time you go to the airport and tell me I’m wrong. This example IS the face the viewing public sees on a daily bases. Being professional involves more than just getting paid to do a job!

  2. Julio M Bedetti
    July 24, 2014 at 5:30 am

    Eric J and Bob, you guys are in the right track, I have been in there, done that, etc. Key element now adays is : Educate as much you can. Period.

    1. R. Eric Jones
      R. Eric Jones
      July 25, 2014 at 7:57 pm

      Amen Julio!!!

  3. Dave Reid
    July 2, 2014 at 1:28 am

    Ironic that an article which mentions the importance of language to a mechanic/technician contains the statement “many employers will not consider a candidate who lacks license’s [sic]“.

    1. R. Eric Jones
      R. Eric Jones
      July 5, 2014 at 12:15 am

      Just out of curiosity and as an advocate for proper grammar, especially from my students, what do you see is wrong with “many employers will not consider a candidate who lacks license’s [sic]“? It is plural possessive because two FAA certificates are required to work on commercial aircraft, therefore “license’s.” Do you contend this spelling is appropriate, “Licences’s,” or perhaps it should simply be plural, “Licenses’?” Or is it the lack of capitalization you take issue with. Please help?

  4. ken janicki
    June 30, 2014 at 8:23 am

    Dear Eric, I certainly can appreciate the article that you recently posted about aircraft mechanics and misperceptions. Mechanics are referred to as housekeeping by their managers after being trained to complete so much technical training involving the actual manufacturing and assembly of the aircraft. Thanks again for the post and I would be pleased to know more about Lewis University and the 737 program.
    Ken Janicki

  5. Kerry Duckett
    June 28, 2014 at 10:31 am

    Hi Eric, Thank you for your very insightful and informative blog/article. I’ve been an active participant in aircraft maintenance for almost 60 years. I am currently involved in writing a white paper regarding international standardization of licensed aircraft mechanics/engineers. My colleague in this endeavor is an EASA licensed engineer with many years experience in European, Middle East, and Asian commercial aviation.
    I am currently a member of the ARINC 672 NFF Steering Group. I have attended the industry NFF Conferences for the last two years at Cranfield University in the UK.
    My profile is available to you on LinkedIn.
    I’m sure your plate is very full, but would it be OK if I contacted you regarding licensed aircraft maintenance personnel questions from time to time.
    Thank you for your kind consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.

    BRDGS,
    Kerry Duckett

    Email: jubalapp@yahoo.com
    M #828 508 7998 USA

  6. June 27, 2014 at 4:37 pm

    Finally a heartly and touchful arrengement of facts concerning the – mechanic- word; in my fifty years at the Aircraft industry, I have been exposed to uncounted and unfair gossip about the -mechanics- that I never wanted to get involved into discussion due to the fact I also been one of them here and there, most of the times the involved characteres were Desk Jokeys and above who were wanna bees and people in the administration offices who said they work in the A/C Industry behind the scenes ( ? ), passengers just walk into the A/C and look for their seats, no one ever knows what is involved in their safety, the mechanic with dirty hands, the one going inside the fuel tank to repair a fuel leak and a lot more, just mechanics. My respect to those Mechanics who sometimes fall from above six or more feet trying to make a repair at the last minute. I have been in there under the heavy rain in the middle of winter closing panels at midnite, at three in the morning looking for the problem in a nose gear light and more. I thank for your close description to real life of a Mechanic. Julio M Bedetti

  7. Bob Owens
    June 27, 2014 at 1:50 pm

    “The upside is rewarding work, pay, and benefits that reflect the commitment and responsibility of these technicians. Many senior technicians at well paying airline or cargo haulers can earn well over $100,000.00 a year. However, the national average is around $55,000.00.”

    The pay and benefits are punitive not rewarding, its obvious that the airlines and the government think very little of us. I have three kids and I feel it would be abusive to encourage them to become aircraft mechanics. Getting a paltry extra four hours pay for working the five Holidays some airlines recoginze is hardly “rewarding”, neither is working odd shifts and weekends when most people are off as well, lets not forget only one week of vacation for the first five years. So for their first five years they can plan on having just one Friday night, Saturday and Sunday off, all the rest they will be at work. In 1984 the starting pay for aircraft mechanics at American Airlines, the largest carrier in the country was around $14/hr, now thirty years later its as low as $10. Those numbers are not adjusted for inflation. Time to go from entry to top has gone from two years to to as high as twelve. in real terms compensation is less than half what it was thirty years ago and working conditions are much worse. Airports have become prison-like places to work, not only are we subjected to unreasonable search and seizure (random drug and alchohol testing). As far as your numbers only three carriers pay their mechanics anywhere near $100,000 a year, UPS, FED EX and Southwest, and that’s less than 10,000 jobs for the 330,000 A&P license holders, and most of those jobs are in densely populated areas where all salaries tend to be higher.

    The government is particularly hostile to workers in the airline industry. They have construed law to segregate Airline Unions and force them to accept whatever terms the carrier wants to impose for however long they want to impose them, no other entity is forced to accept terms in bankruptcy.

    Sure its a great job for someone who goes home at night, instead of going to work, is home on the weekends and holidays as well but for those who actually work on live aircraft where the average age is in excess of 50 years old you would be very hard pressed to find one that would encourage any young people to follow their footsteps. Don’t bother with the myth of how a shortage will drive compensation up, we heard that same lie thirty years ago and wages have been sinking ever since, they deal with the shortage by lowering standards, shipping work overseas or having the courts issue injunctions.

    1. R. Eric Jones
      R. Eric Jones
      July 5, 2014 at 1:09 am

      Hey Bob,

      I see many of your points and agree with some of them. I worked midnights for years and used to joke with my colleagues that I had watched more fireworks displays on the flight line than with my family. Their is also no question that the airline industry is volatile, takes-over’s, layoffs, robust contract negotiations, job actions; I’ve been there. I also agree that ALL Unions have declined since the air traffic controller firings in 1980. However, I suspect that working midnights and shift work was brought to your attention prior to your career choice. Nurse’s work midnights, Doctor’s work midnight’s, store’s clerks work midnights, truck driver’s work midnights, and many other career fields. They all work holidays and weekends as well. I wonder if they get a “paltry four extra hours” for their efforts. During the Great Recession I wonder how many people who lost their homes and could not feed their children would have traded places with you and loved to have our jobs.

      You are right, compensation is definitely down for the middle class, it has been steadily declining since the late 70’s and early 1980’s. It’s an economic fact. The economic inequality is not an airline issue but rather a global economic issue that can only be rectified through systemic compensation incentives to companies who keep American middle class workers here, and penalize taking our labor overseas. But I often wonder if this strategy would even work. Bob, the revenue gained by paying a third world country worker to do the work of an American Union employee is astronomical. One that almost any Company would be crazy not to take advantage of, and most American CEO’s have. They then receive huge bonuses for successfully increasing their company’s revenues. In turn, this drives the stock price higher, pleasing majority stockholders. It’s a shame, I agree in totality.

      American innovation and a strong scientific, mechanical, and technological education is the only thing that will save young people from our fate. Education is the key Bob. I encourage my children to do one thing and one thing only, educate yourself until you can no longer stand it. It’s easy to take that retro contract check and buy a Harley Fat Boy or GTO. But some people financed degree’s and trudged through graduate, MBA, medical, or law school, to escape our current middle class conundrum. I firmly believe this and empirical statistics support it. An “A&P Mechanic’s license” is not enough anymore to survive in aviation and aerospace maintenance, and this was the larger context of my article.

      Regrettably, I also disagree with your assessment that 50 year old’s would not encourage other’s to follow in their footsteps. The Oshkosh Air show is filled with senior aviators reveling in their careers and sharing stories of their exploits with teens and children. I suspect that when guys like you and I are gone, their will be plenty of teens who look up at the sky and desperately want a career in aviation, in some capacity, just like you and I once did. You make great points Bob and I have heard other’s echo your sentiments. My only humble response is educate, educate, educate. Thanks for reading and the insightful comments.

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