Chris Moore is an international representative with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and chairman of the Aviation Mechanics. Moore acknowledges challenges in staffing maintenance departments, but says progress has been made. But his view of progress may depend on stiff hikes in wages that not all shops can or want to pay.
Technicians are attracted by three things, Moore says: wages, benefits and retirement. The concern about retirement intensified in the past as major airlines went through financial convulsions and laid off maintenance staff. “Stability is important, it did not exist for years.” Few working mechanics recommended their careers to their children.
Now, at least for the three major U.S. network carriers, stability appears to have returned. Moore attributes this to better control of capacity and pricing and says it matters a lot in seeking new workers. “When we came up, we knew there was a lot of hard work and graveyard shifts, but the payoff was stable employment and a decent retirement.”
The necessary stability has not returned so strongly to regional carriers, which Moore says still operate at the discretion of their major partners. “The regionals still have a stability problem. And the average top wage in a regional airline wage is the first-hire rate in a major airline.” If regionals do not attract mechanics, they will not be able to feed major carriers. Mechanics used to progress from regional to major airlines. Now, Moore says, majors are often hiring “off the street, and that did not happen before.”
Moore says the 2016 contract between Teamsters mechanics and United Airlines is a good model for retaining and attracting maintenance talent. He believes around $50 per hour in average wages seems to be the level necessary to hold techicians, and “the airlines can tolerate it.”
The Teamsters recently reached an agreement that raised wages by 20% at an airline where pay has been stagnant for a long time. And sometimes a signing bonus, for example $1,000 for each year of service up to $30,000, can help.
So progress has been made from the unstable, lower-paid technician jobs of three or four years ago. “We are almost there,” Moore says. Other majors are close to United, and there are also differences in benefits, vacation and sick leave that matter.
But Moore’s goal of $50 per hour represents a sharp increase in technician pay. In 2016, U.S. aircraft mechanics earned an average of $29.42 per hour, and 90% were at or below $42.45. Pay is higher for airline mechanics, more than $34 on average, and even higher for major airline technicians.
Independent shops generally pay less than airlines and likely face the toughest recruiting challenges. But these shops have come to perform a crucial part of aircraft support, largely because they have kept costs lean.
What else besides higher pay might be done to speed the turn? Moore has been trying to develop a better pathway to get ex-military mechanics into commercial maintenance without having them recertified. “We are losing a lot of people who do not want to go back to school for two years. And military families have kids, and they are usually going backward in pay.”
He also favors more vocational program for youths who are mechanically inclined but not interested in college. “They can go to school and get part-time training during the day. Then they gradate high school with two years of training done.”
These kinds of vocational programs are easier to sell in major airline hubs like Houston or Atlanta. They might even work in United’s very expensive San Francisco base. Anything that avoids those $10,000 to $40,000 student loan debts would make aircraft maintenance more attractive.
In any case, U.S. mechanic wages are clearly going up. The Producer Price Index for aircraft repair and maintenance, which includes both parts and labor, rose 3.1% in 2017. Part prices were generally stable, with engine parts down 0.1%, landing gear up 2.1% and other aircraft parts down 0.2%. That implies labor compensation rose 5-7% during the year.