Air Transport World

Computers a boon to E&M, but at a price.

Computers a boon to E&M, but at a price The promises and problems facing airline engineering and maintenance in the computer age were on the official agenda of the Air Transport Association's recent E&M Forum in Kansas City. The promises are being fulfilled rapidly, and perhaps that is part of the problem. It takes time to develop the human skills to use the powerful new computer tools efficiently.

Not on the agenda but very much on the minds of the attendees ATW discovered in conversations with E&M chiefs, was the creeping shortage of skilled mechanics and particularly avionics specialists capable of managing the upkeep of the hardware and software of new computerized, digital systems. And the pool of entry-level applicants is drying up as well, the chiefs noted. But they also noted, optimistically, that knowing a problem exists is the first step toward solving it. Whether the situation will get worse before it gets better remains to be seen. In any case, the shortage of personnel has not been felt equally by all airlines. Smaller airlines, commuters and general aviation seem hardest hit. Also, geography seems to play a role. Ray Valeika, VP--maintenance and engineering at Pan Am, suggests that when there are more jobs than bodies to fill them, applicants tend to migrate toward the more attractive parts of the country.

Reasons for shortage

A number of factors contribute to the tightness of the airline M&E labor market. For one, the rapid expansion of some fleets and the post-deregulation birth of new airlines has increased demand. For another, the rapid expansion of airlines into new cities has spread the supply of experienced crew leaders thin. And lastly, as a result of the two-tier wage system which has lowered starting pay, potential applicants can make more money in industries other than the airlines. This has reduced the number of applicants formerly coming from the military, schools and lower-paying sources such as the commuter airlines and general aviation.

In general, the shortage of avionics specialists is real, but that of airframe and powerplant mechanics is still for the most part potential rather than actual. Richard D. Tabery, senior VP-maintenance operations at United Airlines, reports that although the number of airframe and powerplant applicants has dropped, there are still enough to meet United's needs. However, with the large number hired in the last year and a half, the average experience and productivity level has dropped. Tabery figures that the productivity of new hires is only half that of experienced help but increases about 5% a month. G. Edward Ballinger, VP-M&E at Alaska Airlines, says that new hires put on the payroll as a result of the airline's strike last year have dropped the average mechanic's longevity to 10 years from 20. But that's not all bad, he says: The new hires are "eager beavers and very productive."

Northwest Airlines is beginning to feel the shortage of mechanic manpower, says Ben H. Lightfoot, VP-M&E, especially since the enlargement of the carrier's route system. Since less-experienced personnel are not as quick in finding and fixing problems, planes are kept on the ground longer. This is costly, he says. If the shortage does not ease, NWA may have to start its own schools, says Lightfoot.

Delta has no great problem in filling the ranks of its A&P staff, says C. …

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