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FAA Gets Pushback On Proposed Mechanic Training Update

Today’s newly minted mechanics graduate ready to fix yesterday’s aircraft. Is FAA’s proposed fix a good one?

The bulk of the FAA’s required curriculum for training aircraft mechanics was adopted a few months after the Boeing 747 entered revenue service. The only update—a minor one—came in 1992, three years before the first 777 began to fly paying passengers.

Suffice it to say that the U.S.’s Part 147 baseline requirements for educating airframe and powerplant (A&P) mechanics are overdue for an overhaul. To many, it is not just that current requirements barely touch on now-common needs like composite repairs, or still require training for work on “wood structures.” Instead, it is the lack of flexibility that causes frustration.

The FAA’s long-awaited notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) revamping the standards came out last fall, and industry had until early February to weigh in. The new proposal, based in part on an aviation rulemaking advisory committee (ARAC) report completed in 2009, addresses some of the shortcomings, such as updating specific topics to reflect newer technology. But many in the industry say it remains too rigid.

“Industry desperately needs competency-based guidelines that allow institutions to design programs that match industry and safety needs,” said a coalition of 14 industry associations, including the Aeronautical Repair Station Association, Airlines for America and the Regional Airline Association, in comments on the draft rule. “The proposal does not provide such a framework; rather, it maintains directives from the current rule that fly in the face of a competency-based system.”

The new proposal keeps the combined hours for an A&P certificate at the current 1,900 level. But it adopts the ARAC recommendation to redistribute the hours, boosting general and airframe work by 50 hr. each to 450 and 800, respectively, while reducing powerplant hours to 650.

“With changes in aircraft technologies increasingly emphasizing electricity, electronics and advanced materials, the FAA concurs with the ARAC Report that adding hours to the General and Airframe curriculum is appropriate,” the agency states in the draft rule.

The rule also proposed a credit-based option, similar to universities, that the FAA pitches as a competency-based standard.

The Aviation Technician Education Council (ATEC), which represents certificated Part 147 schools, argues there is little correlation between class time and real-world skillslearned. “The antiquated hour/credit requirement puts too much emphasis on the time a student spends in a classroom seat at the expense of the skills he or she actually gains,” ATEC argues. Instead, a shift is needed “away from seat time in favor of a structure that creates flexibility, and allows students to progress as they demonstrate mastery of subject matter, regardless of time, place or pace of learning.”

Equally concerning to some is the FAA’s apparent departure from regulating aviation safety and its “incursion into education oversight,” as the 600-member STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education coalition says. “Our coalition supports education policies that are flexible and responsive to the needs of the global economy,” STEM says. “As proposed in the NPRM, the FAA mandates on teaching times, passing norms, maximum levels of instruction, student/teacher ratios and static curriculum topics are not hallmarks of a modern, competency-based structure that industry desperately needs.”

The push to modernize the U.S.’s A&P training curriculum goes beyond academics. While the Asia-Pacific region is the industry’s growth leader, in a decade North America will still retain the largest share of the global commercial fleet—about 23%, or 9,900 aircraft, Aviation Week’s 2016 Commercial Fleet & MRO Forecast projects.

North America’s fleet needs, which are dominated by U.S. carriers, signals a high demand for mechanics. Boeing projects that North America will need 113,000 more technicians by 2034, 19% of the global total of 609,000 and second only to the rapidly growing Asia-Pacific region.

Even though the North American fleet’s compound annual growth rate will be just 0.6%, the region will take delivery of more new aircraft—about 4,700—in 2016-25 than any other. This high rate of replacement—Aviation Week’s forecast projects that 90% of North American deliveries through 2025 will be to replace in-service aircraft—underscores the need for not just more mechanics but ones trained in the latest technology.

Instead, most are starting out with skills more suited to the 1970s.

“It is inconceivable to me that over 40 years later, students are paying tuition that could take half a lifetime to repay in order to receive the same courses I received in 1969 to qualify for a current mechanics’ license,” David Romeau, an airline mechanic with more than 40 years in the business, told the FAA in comments. “We receive these young mechanics in the field totally unprepared and unqualified to work on modern aircraft and have the burden of training them from scratch.”

The FAA’s proposed rule aims to change this—but, many hope, not before a few more changes are made.

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