What got you interested in the aviation maintenance field?
Being around my older brother—I kind of idol-worshipped him. He became a helicopter pilot and he was in Civil Air Patrol before that, so I went into Civil Air Patrol because he did. I got very active in that and that’s how I got interested in aviation. Then I went to Aviation High School in New York City, which is where most of my friends in Civil Air Patrol went.
You were the first female to graduate from Aviation High School. What was that like? Were there any challenges in that regard?
There was an admissions test back then when I went there, and I did very well on the test and the interview. The principal of the school did not want me there because I would have been the only (and the first) girl in the school, so he called my father, and my father had to be interviewed for me to go to a New York City high school. He had someone take us around the school and he told my dad that he couldn’t guarantee my safety; that they didn’t have a bathroom or locker room for me. My dad told the principal that he was a business man and he didn’t tell his customers his problems, and he really wasn’t interested in the principal’s problems, so I would be there on Monday.
I was about 14 when I started, and at the time it really didn’t seem like a big deal because I was going to school with my buddies. So it really wasn’t a bad deal—I have to say that I loved it. The students were great to me; it was like 2,700 guys and me my freshman year. Now the teachers, on the other hand, some of them had a bit of an issue. I had a teacher my senior year who gave me essay tests and the rest of the class short answer tests. He said it was a man’s world and a man’s industry, and I should get used to that kind of thing. The assistant principal of the department found out about it, and he came to me and asked me why I was suddenly doing so badly when for four years I had done so well. I told him that I really couldn’t get the essays done in time, and he said, “What do you mean, essays? He marks the tests in my office and they’re short answer.” That’s how they found out he was doing it, and they straightened him out and told him that he had to give me the opportunity to take the tests like the rest of the class. So although there were challenges, I think that it was always handled.
A common industry topic is the “image problem” maintenance careers suffer from and the impending workforce shortage. Have you had challenges in hiring skilled workers in your department, and if so, do you think this has contributed to it? What are the biggest challenges still to come?
The image problem has always been in the industry—that’s not new. When I was a mechanic, and before everything was digitalized, they used to say mechanics were knuckle-draggers. I think what’s different is that when I was a kid, people like me worked on cars, lawnmowers, snowblowers and things like that, and we didn’t have computers—whereas with today’s generation, you can’t work on a car anymore unless you have a computer. It’s not like when I was younger. It’s more computerized now, so the skill set is different. I think that smear against technicians has always been there—that the sexy part of the industry is to be a pilot or in-flight crew member—but I don’t let that bother me. We have such a unique culture here at JetBlue and technicians want to come here. I wouldn’t say that we have a problem hiring here.
Now, going forward in the industry we see this bow wave of retirees, and if we don’t do something about it, we might have a problem. I think we need to be forward thinking and make sure that we’re always changing what we do to attract new talent and younger thought. When I was in school, we learned on a chalkboard, and it’s not like that anymore. We have to adjust with how the newer generation of prospective employees learns.
What does your position at JetBlue involve? What’s a typical day like?
I have multiple roles. As a maintenance director, I have regulatory responsibility and accountability to the FAA for all maintenance activities at JetBlue. I also have operational responsibilities and I have to make sure that we have the right people doing the right things at the right time, so all the technicians here at JetBlue are part of my team. In addition to that, I oversee maintenance control and I have responsibility for our crewmembers and their health and well-being. The final part of my role is materials operations; they are the crewmembers that make sure we warehouse and stock the parts, as well as distribute them to the technicians at the time they need them.
What is on the horizon for JetBlue’s maintenance operations? Anything new planned for the near future?
We always want to make sure that we’re not only technology-forward with our training, recruitment and culture, but that we refresh our facilities and invest in new tooling and equipment for our technicians. In the last year alone, we spent about $1.1 million on additional tooling for our technicians system-wide. We’ll spend about $1.8 million on maintenance stands and about another $1.9 million on vehicles for tech ops in the near future. So we’re always looking to invest our money and make sure our technicians have what they need to do their job in the way that they want to do it.