Airlines are gearing up for their next big hiring need: aircraft mechanics. And to fill that need, some new professional training programs are bringing to Chicago.
Changing aircraft technology, a wave of pandemic exits and, in some cases, an expected increase in the number of aircraft in the skies have led some airlines to look for ways to expand the pipeline of available aircraft mechanics.
If airlines don’t have enough maintenance technicians, passengers are likely to experience more flight delays, said industry analyst Bob Mann. And even if airlines are able to add new mechanics to training programs, the need for experienced technicians is unlikely to go away anytime soon, he said.
Airlines also faced other, more immediate hiring needs, and at times this year struggled not only with their own staffing shortages, but also with staffing restrictions at airports and air traffic control towers, which they said presented challenges. The upcoming holiday travel season follows a busy summer marked by passengers eager to disembark after years of delayed travel, high fares, canceled flights and delays that left passengers stranded at airports or on the tarmac.
Airlines have hired thousands of people this year to work in maintenance, airports and other functions while recovering from the pandemic. The industry was facing pilot shortages even before the pandemic, and some airlines already have partnerships and training programs in place to try to build a pool of budding pilots.
American and United Airlines, both of which operate major hubs at O’Hare International Airport, are also now creating programs geared towards aspiring mechanics.
Chicago-based United is launching a training program aimed at strengthening and diversifying mechanics in the pipeline, the airline announced Wednesday. The airline embarked on a similar program to expand and diversify its pipeline of pilots when it bought a flight training academy, which opened this year.
Right now, the airline’s mechanics pipeline is strong, Kate Gebo, executive vice president of human resources and labor relations, said during a call with reporters. But United announced last year that it would order 270 new planes and intends to hire 7,000 maintenance technicians by 2026 to support the new planes. The airline also anticipates many retirements, she said.
“Although the pipeline is good now, in two, three and four years, we want to make sure that pipeline stays with us,” Gebo said.
The new 36-month training program allows participants, paid-as-you-go, to complete training required for the Federal Aviation Administration certification exam and receive mentorship from United technicians. It is open to people with a high school diploma.
The first class of internal employees begins in Houston next week, and the program will open to external applications in early 2023. It’s also expanding to other cities, and United expects to bring the program to Chicago in the third quarter of next year.
United plans to have more than 1,000 people trained through the program by 2026, with the goal that at least half will be women or people of color.
American Airlines announced a partnership with the Aviation Institute of Maintenance campus in Chicago in October. The partnership offers top candidates from the school guaranteed interviews with the airline and offers students access to American’s maintenance facilities.
The partnership with Chicago comes after the airline opened a major maintenance hangar in O’Hare in 2019.
American doesn’t see a shortage of mechanics just yet, either, but many employees have left the company or retired during the COVID-19 pandemic, said Evie Garces, vice president of line maintenance.
“We’re trying to avoid that shortage,” she said.
American hired more than 600 maintenance technicians in 2022 and plans to hire several hundred more over the next year, she said. Before the pandemic, the airline saw more demand for maintenance jobs than vacancies.
Part of the anticipated need for more maintenance technicians could be because the job has changed for many of the longest-serving technicians, Mann said. Aircraft technology has evolved, which means mechanics require new skills. In some cases, technicians’ working conditions have also evolved, such as changes in the way scheduling works, he said.
As skilled, experienced workers age or choose to leave, airlines may struggle to convince potential new hires that working on aircraft, where they are exposed to all weather conditions, is more appealing than working in one air-conditioned garage. said man.
Even when hiring, the level of experience is important, including familiarity with specific types of aircraft. And that may take several years to build, he said.
“Anyone can be a Formula 1 mechanic,” he said, drawing a comparison to top-class car racing. “Only the good will produce Formula 1 winners.”
Garces said American has retained experienced employees who can help newer workers. Even with hundreds of new hires this year, the average American mechanic has been with the company for 21 years, she said.
It’s rare for an airline to attribute a cancellation to a mechanical problem, Mann said. But mechanical problems often lead to delays.
“All of this requires people, whether they’re third parties or union workers,” he said. “Only from the top down there isn’t enough of it and there are delays.”
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