Change is nothing new to aviation; it is very much a part of the fabric of the industry. New materials and technologies are all aimed at improving the way we work and enhance the resilience of our various systems. But despite this, some fundamental issues remain, not the least of which is managing human factors, which is always a challenge.
Human error is still a constant threat that must be actively managed, and technology has assisted in doing this to some extent. It has been said that the best defense is a well-trained crew, and this applies as much to maintenance personnel as it does to pilots. Human-factors training was once primarily focused on pilots through crew resource management training but is now an accepted part of an overall risk-mitigation strategy for maintenance personnel across many organizations.
However, despite technological improvements and human-factors awareness training, the MRO industry still faces some fundamental challenges—including maintenance personnel shortages, increasing use of nonlicensed engineering personnel performing work under supervision, fatigue, production pressures and cost control.
For many years now, we have been aware of the increasing average age profile of maintenance personnel, with shortages in some trades more pronounced than in others. This workforce shortage has been offset somewhat by the flow of maintenance personnel into the civil sector after they leave the military. The military used to recruit and train young men and women, many of whom would eventually enter the civil market. However, partly due to budget cutbacks, not as many are entering military maintenance fields because MRO for a number of military aircraft is now outsourced to private companies. This reduces the number of new technicians entering this field while at the same time increasing the demand for technicians in the civil sector.
The position of a maintenance technician doesn’t hold the allure it once did, as the present generation is increasingly attracted to more technologically driven industries. We need to find new ways to attract our young people into the industry, which should provide more outreach programs, create internships and establish associations at the middle school and high school levels. We need to participate in career days, provide classroom discussions with students and join with student organizations to build interest, as well as explain the rewards of working within aviation. Actions such as these are necessary to spark youth interest and involvement in aviation from a young age.
To mitigate the shortage of maintenance technicians, some MRO providers hire personnel with complementary trade and skill sets from outside the industry. Although unlicensed, these personnel perform activities under strict supervision. This places increasing responsibility on licensed maintenance technicians, who invariably have to conduct their own tasks as well as perform a distracting supervisory function.
Skill-set shortages, increasing reliance on supervision by licensed maintenance personnel, distraction, growing production pressures and overtime all add up to greater stress and fatigue, raising the risk of accidents.
Although our safety systems have evolved over the years, we must never allow ourselves to become complacent. We always must be aware of the condition of the organization—of where change is occurring and which areas are under stress—and be ready to intervene to address the threats that can easily result in an accident. We must be ready to break that chain. A sense of “chronic unease” should be endemic within every aviation organization, never accepting the status quo, always asking “what have we missed?” Or “where could our next accident come from?” This sense of unease should permeate organizations, including front-line employees. But it can only be truly effective if a company listens to its employees and supports a system of voluntary reporting within a “just” culture.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the formation of the Flight Safety Foundation, which was established in 1947 by a man whose name has become synonymous with aviation safety—Jerome Fox “Jerry” Lederer. It’s fitting to note that Lederer began his career as an aeronautical engineer with the U.S. Postal Service in the 1920s and later became the chief engineer for Aero Insurance Underwriters. His early and subsequent work recognized the importance that maintenance plays as an integral part of safety, both within aviation and later with his involvement in the space program.
From his earliest days, Lederer recognized the need to maintain a sense of constant inquiry to detect the precursors of incidents and accidents and to eradicate or mitigate them. At a time when our industry continues to grow while facing skills shortages, complacency is our enemy. That sense of “chronic unease” may just help to prevent your next accident.
Greg Marshall is vice president of global programs at the Flight Safety Foundation.
The views expressed are not necessarily shared by Inside MRO.