Why is the aircraft maintenance sector in dire straits?

A slight turbulence in any aircraft, as it is thousands of feet above the ground, makes fliers edgy and unsettled. And what if there is a technical snag? Hundreds of fliers in a snag-hit Hyderabad-bound flight recently heaved a sigh of relief after their plane landed in Karachi. Under normal circumstances, they wouldn’t have been that happy.

Against the backdrop of a spate of emergency landings this year, the government told the Parliament on August 1 that airlines have reported 478 technical snags between July 1, 2021 and June 30 this year.

The recent incidents also forced the Directorate General of Civil Aviation or DGCA to direct SpiceJet to reduce its flights by half for eight weeks. The airline had reported a maximum number of snags in the last few months.

So what do these rising incidents of technical snags say? Are airlines cutting corners to stay afloat and are compromising on safety? The DGCA report suggests so.

The aviation regulator found that airlines were deploying staff with Category A license as the final authorities in certifying planes. On July 18 it issued an order that only aircraft maintenance engineers or AMEs with category B1 and B2 licenses should do that job as they are more qualified and trained.

Category A license engineers or technicians carry out minor line maintenance tasks based on their knowledge and experience,

While category B1 and B2 license holders get specific type-rated training by airlines. Category B AME license holders are also approved to do major maintenance works including repair, overhauling of mechanical components of heavy aircraft. Airlines usually determine the number of type-rated engineers required at any station.

Jitendra Singh Rawat, Former Joint DG in DGCA says airlines are type-training very few engineers for commercial reasons. Airlines are looking at this only as a way to meet their requirements, but not to establish an MRO. Major flight maintenance activities are outsourced by airlines to other countries.

Experts say the aviation regulator had adopted the European Union Safety Agency model for the aircraft maintenance staff that allowed airlines to issue Category-A license to technicians. As a convenient measure and to conserve cash, the airlines started utilizing Category-A license holders at the transit base.

Clearly, there is a need for more well-trained manpower with Category B1/B2 licenses. The DGCA says it issues enough licenses. Between 2014 and 2022, it has issued 7,232 AME licenses.

While the aircraft maintenance engineers with DGCA-approved licenses get paid relatively well in line with the industry norms, the technicians at the bottom rank of the hierarchy argue that they get very less amount when they enter the industry as freshers. The pay-scale varies from airline to airline. But it is usually in the range of Rs 14,000 to Rs 19,000 per month for technicians, they say. As they move up the ranks, the staff get paid over Rs 20,000 per month. The trainee technicians are non-certified and do not have DGCA-approved licenses. IndiGo has about 2,000 non-certified technicians on its payroll.

Currently, there are over 50 AME institutes approved by the DGCA. Experts say AME institutes only equip students with basic knowledge that is needed to get licenses.

Airline executives have recently told Business Standard that high jet fuel prices and nascent recovery from the pandemic have been holding them back from increasing the budget towards all this.

Globally too, technicians get paid less. According to an Aviation Technician Education Council (ATEC) survey in the US, the average entry-level hourly pay for a mechanic was $22.36 in 2021. Aircraft maintenance workers and pilots are demanding higher wages to cope up with high inflation. Recently, German carrier Lufthansa’s ground staff, including aircraft mechanics, went on strike seeking higher pay of at least $358 per month.

Apart from the manpower, the DGCA has found that there is an increased trend of minimum equipment list releases of aircraft, which allows the plane to be flown for a specific time period even if there is a minor problem.

With new aircraft getting added to airlines’ fleet every year, the DGCA must step in and reconsider whether airlines can regulate the well-trained manpower requirements. The airlines also need to resolve their issues with employees to ensure that passenger’s safety is not compromised.

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