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Tuesday, July 1, 2003

2003 Salary Survey results

The number crunching is complete for Aviation Maintenance’s 2003 annual salary survey of aviation maintenance professionals, and we have a somewhat surprising picture this time.

The survey indicates an overall average salary of $60,900 ($29.28 per hour), which is a robust 13 percent boost above our 2002 survey’s overall average salary of $53,900 ($25.91 per hour). However, the level of increase seems incredulous, given slumps in the economy and the aviation industry. So we checked the median figures (often a truer measure than averages)—and are puzzled to discover it is even higher, at $62,000.

But other factors are at play in this year’s survey and, in our opinion, the overall salary figures should be taken with a few grains of salt.

One grain: This year’s survey received higher percentages of response from maintenance managers/supervisors and from corporate flight department employees than our four previous surveys (back to 1998). Traditionally, these are the highest-paying situations. Another grain: We received 7 percent fewer responses from line mechanics, who are appreciably lower on the pay pole.

Together these factors might be nudging some salary figures higher than they should be. In other words, the spike in this year’s figure may be reflecting “who” responded, more than it reflects true economic gains.

Another point to consider: Salary levels are extremely fragile right now, particularly at the aviation mechanic’s Number 1 employer: the airlines. With some airlines in bankruptcy and others teetering near it, thousands of airline mechanics have been laid off, and the carnage isn’t over.

In early May, United Airlines had petitioned a bankruptcy judge to allow it to close permanently its Indianapolis, Indiana and Oakland, California maintenance facilities. American Airlines was laying off 1,300 mechanics in efforts to avoid bankruptcy. Boeing was letting go an additional 1,150 employees, adding to the 33,000 people let go since 9/11. And Northwest Airlines had cut 17,000 people since 9/11. One news source says the entire U.S. airline industry has lost a staggering 177,000 jobs since January 2001.

As one of our respondents, a maintenance manager at a major airline, warned, “All the info in your survey is subject to possible big change if the respondents indicate they work for a major U.S. airline. Salary and benefits will continue to decrease at all major airlines. The main thing that would make my job better is economic stability in the industry.”

A large chunk of our respondents (26 percent) work at major airlines. Amazingly, some of them reported salary increases, but many more reported taking cuts in pay and benefits to save their jobs.

A line mechanic with more than 10 years at a major airline whose salary was cut 6.8 percent in December paints the picture. “We lost two holidays, one week of vacation, uniform allowance, paid lunch, two days of sick leave a year and about 20 percent of our workforce. We also are paying for more of our insurance. To me, all that is okay, if we just had job security,” he said.

Airline mechanics aren’t the only ones worried. Our survey received a boost in comments across the board about the economy, fiscal management at employers, and job security. On top of this, 35 percent of respondents said they received no raise this year and 7 percent reported pay cuts. Some cuts were deep, resulting in an overall average chop of 12.4 percent. (However, counting all responses, this year’s overall average raise was on the plus side, at 2.3 percent.)

But all is not dark. Although we frown over accepting a 13-percent increase in overall average salary since last year, a study of the salaries for each job title and each category of employer clearly shows that salaries are higher than last year—with one exception. Engineers have lost some ground.

Salaries for most job titles are well ahead of inflation since 1998. Engineers have lost 2 percent and training directors have lost 7 percent of their buying power, but salaries for the group representing lead mechanics, line mechanics, mechanics assistants, and avionics technicians are 39 percent ahead of inflation since 1998. (See charts “What is Your Hourly Pay?” page 16 and How Much Was Your Raise This Year?” page 17.)

Another comfort: No one reported making less than $10 an hour—that’s a first for our surveys and it’s about time. In fact, 59 percent of our respondents make more than $25 per hour—and even better, 29 percent makes $30 to $40 an hour. In our four previous surveys, the largest group of respondents was making $15 to $20 hourly.

Another positive sign: A majority of respondents (58 percent) believe they are fairly paid. This is a flip-flop from responses since our 1998 survey. Let’s take a deeper look at what the 2003 salary survey reveals.


Who responded?

This year’s survey attracted 507 responses from aviation maintenance personnel employed across the United States. We had to toss out responses from a handful of unfortunate mechanics who responded even though they were laid off, leaving 502 useable responses. This is not the highest response rate, but within the ballpark of our previous surveys.

The breakout of employers saw a 9-percent jump in response from corporate flight departments, so hey, maybe the economy is doing better than we think. In all: 45 percent of our respondents work for major airlines and corporate flight departments (the highest-paying employers). This is nicely counterbalanced by 41 percent of respondents who work for repair stations, FBOs, and air-taxi/charter operators (the lesser-paying employers).

Lead mechanics, line mechanics, mechanic assistants, and avionics technicians comprise 41 percent of respondents; maintenance managers/supervisors comprise 32 percent; and IA/Inspectors make up 13 percent. So our survey has strong representation from the management and working sides of aviation maintenance.

As to longevity with an employer, the largest group of respondents (28 percent) has worked from one to five years with their current employer. This is not a happy fact, because job-hopping is detrimental in this industry. It hurts more when the choice is not yours.

“I’ve worked 12 years in the aviation maintenance field and I’m tired of the layoffs,” wrote a line mechanic newly employed at a manufacturer. “Every new job starts you back at the bottom and you must start building seniority again. It’s a never-ending cycle.”

This is why you see technicians with more than 20 years’ experience and every certificate imaginable employed as line mechanics, at the same starting pay as someone far less qualified, working the night/weekend shift and looking forward to five days of vacation that year. These are also the fundamental reasons some respondents explain why they are leaving aviation or why they tell others to avoid aviation careers.

But here’s a silver lining, because this year’s survey shows far less job-hopping. The percentage of mechanics employed one to five years with their current employer dropped to 28 percent this year, compared to 30 to 35 percent in three previous surveys. This year’s survey also shows fewer people working less than one year with an employer, and it shows favorable jumps in respondents employed five to ten years and respondents employed more than 20 years with their current employers.

Longevity on the job also translates into more vacation. Most respondents (27 percent) get around 10 days annually, but this year’s survey also sees more respondents getting up to 15 days (24 percent) and up to 20 days (16 percent) vacation.

On the experience side, 58 percent of respondents have more than 20 years in aviation. This percentage has risen steadily since our 1998 survey, but we’re not seeing increases in responses from mechanics with less than 20 years experience. Where are the younger mechanics who must soon fill the shoes of the huge population rapidly facing retirement?

On the education side, we’ve seen no significant change during the past six years. Nearly 90 percent of our respondents were educated at a vocational school or a college/university, split evenly between the two venues. On certificates held, 47 percent of our respondents are A&Ps, while another 33 percent hold A&P and IA certifications—a nice boost over previous years.

Most respondents (40 percent) work for companies employing more than 1,000 people and most respondents (82 percent) are not union members. Union membership among respondents has declined since our 2000 survey, when 30 percent reported membership.

Benefits received declined since last year’s survey in every category but one: bonus (27 percent receive). Profit sharing held steady at 23 percent of recipients, but a big drop occurred in 401Ks, from 84 percent receiving last year to 75 percent this year.

Worse yet, some benefits have lost ground for every survey since 1998. They are: health benefits (88 percent receive them), vacation (86 percent receives), pension (42 percent) and reduced/free airline travel (25 percent). And 6 percent receive no benefits, the highest since 1998.


Making it better

Asked what would make your job better, the majority of respondents (34 percent) gave no comment. This is a jump of 10 percent over our previous four surveys and is perhaps another indicator of being content with the job.

This supposition is further supported by how respondents ranked their work environment. On a scale of one (worst) to 10 (best), 70 percent ranked the environment at seven or above; of those, 30 percent ranked it at nine or ten. This it the best ranking since our 1998 survey.

Of comments received, money was, as usual, the Number 1 topic—mentioned by 19 percent of respondents. Of note, this is a big drop from our past four surveys, when a third of respondents broached the topic. Many comments talked about pay and its relation to responsibility.

“I really enjoy my job,” wrote a repair station line mechanic. “However, I feel like the responsibility of never making a mistake deserves a better salary.”

A line mechanic with more than 20 years at a major airline wrote, “When signing off airworthiness on a B-757 with 158 people on board, it sucks knowing a mechanic changing ball joints on a Chevy pickup makes $80,000 a year. Talented people are not rushing to airlines. We need quality pay to attract quality people.”

That point was echoed by some respondents who said they are leaving aviation. Car dealers, computer companies, and high schools will be recipients of their talent.

As in past surveys, the disparity between mechanic and pilot compensation continues to sting.

A corporate flight department lead mechanic said, “I feel that our jobs are just as important as the flight crews, therefore our earnings should be comparable. Why should we have to accept half of pilot’s pay when our certificates hang out there for the life of an aircraft and the pilot’s responsibility ends when the aircraft’s wheels are chocked?” (See chart “What Would Make Your Job Better” page 21.)

One major airline line mechanic added a good point about pay levels within mechanic ranks. “I’d like to see incentive pay for greater systems knowledge. Every mechanic here is topped out in pay, but knowledge levels vary greatly. Since a lead mechanic’s task is to ensure the planes keep flying by whatever means possible, he ends up using his heavy hitters to get the job done.

“This leads to over-utilization of the sharper mechanics by giving them the harder more difficult tasks that take longer to complete, while the lesser-skilled mechanics enjoy more break time. Incentive pay might motivate the guys on the sidelines to catch up, and this might offset the ill feelings of the sharper guys.”

Second on respondents’ minds was management. Although only 12 percent aired the topic, good suggestions for management were sounded.
One is that managers need to know more about aviation maintenance and the mechanics’ legal responsibilities.

“We need management personnel that have just a little idea of how to run an airline and how to work with the employees so we aren’t getting slapped for stupid, immaterial infractions when we are just trying to do our jobs,” said a major airline line mechanic.

“I’d like to see a system for promotion that doesn’t put the least able employees into management. We need managers who can solve problems, listen to techs when needed, and leave techs alone the rest of the time,” wrote a repair station IA/Inspector.

“The oldest mechanic is not automatically the best manager. I want supervisors with some management training, not just good mechanics who have been promoted to their level of incompetence,” commented a corporate flight department avionics technician.

“My company needs fewer managers that know nothing about aviation,” wrote a repair station mechanics assistant. “The company needs to tighten its belt with labor and parts management, instead of resorting to cuts in pay, benefits, vacation, etc. They could save money in many other ways if they would just listen to the laborers and mechanics.”

Better communication was another oft-mentioned topic.

“I’d like to know a bit more about future scheduling and customer problems, instead of being hit all of a sudden with ‘Stop what you are doing because so-and-so needs this or that NOW!’” wrote an FBO line mechanic.

“Our aviation department has no vision of where we are going or need to go next because of a lack of oversight by company management,” said a corporate flight department lead mechanic.

“I would like more communication about how the cuts being made will return us to profitability,” stated a major airline engineer.

Mechanics also called for more support, from management, the FAA, and equipment manufacturers. And they want more efficiency on the job.

“Mechanics tend to get tasked with unrealistic expectations, but we get the jobs done by jumping through the hoops on a daily basis,” wrote a repair station line mechanic.

“Companies must find ways to support the mechanics, by obtaining parts, helping with paperwork, improving their organization, etc. We understand all this is at a cost, but in the long run, we can be more efficient and cost effective.”

“I’d like to see more thought about the maintenance needs of tomorrow, less thought about the maintenance needs of the moment. It’s sort of like just putting out fires,” wrote a regional airline lead mechanic.

Can management do anything right? Here’s an answer.

“I love my job, and the people make the difference,” stated a corporate flight department IA/Inspector. “We have a manager and supervisor that give us much freedom, equipment, and training to do the job right every time. Sharing the work load fairly keeps us all happy and allows us all to enjoy our other life [family, hobbies, etc.].”

The one topic mentioned more this year than previous years is job security. A major airline line mechanic spoke for many:
“My company is in Chapter 11 bankruptcy, so everything is gone. The money, the pride, the self-worth, the dedication. The only thing left is a job. “My job would be better if I knew I was going to have a job. Because after all this, after all that’s been taken from me, I still love aviation.”


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