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Thursday, July 1, 2004

The Aviation Maintenance Annual Salary Survey



Co-Sponsored by PAMA

By Kathleen Kocks

Last year aircraft maintenance professionals gained good ground in terms of compensation. This year they gave some of it back.

There is no pleasant way to report this: According to Aviation Maintenance's 2004 Salary Survey, the salaries of aviation maintenance technicians averaged $2,500 less than last year. This year's overall average salary is $58,400, compared to $60,900 for our 2003 survey. (See Chart 1)

The drop in compensation tells only part of the story. Our survey doesn't include the thousands of aircraft mechanics who lost jobs through layoffs. Nor does it include those who left the industry for greenbacks in more stable and lucrative fields.

Other clouds are also evident. As the U.S. air transportation industry struggles to overcome economic woes, worries about job security are haunting respondents' minds. Respondents are particularly agitated about the trend to outsource work, which not only costs them jobs, but they believe is also detrimental to quality control and safety.

The topic of safety also generated much more comment this year. With employers cutting costs to survive, respondents feel safety is being sacrificed as they endeavor to do more with less manpower, resources, and time.

Who's talking?

These opinions come from 585 respondents (a slight increase from last year's survey). All of them work in the United States and all but three are male. We were hoping for responses from more women, but they only comprise 2.3 percent of the aircraft mechanic and technician workforce, according to the U.S. Department of Labor's Women's Bureau.

Ages of respondents ranged from 23 to 84, with the average age being 49. The largest age group was 40-to-49 years old (34 percent), followed by the 50-to-59 year olds (30 percent). The youngsters (20-to-29) made up only 4 percent of respondents.

More than half of respondents work for companies that employ more than 500 employees. Those companies are dispersed throughout the United States; the FAA's Southern Region contributed the highest percentage (20 percent), while FAA's Central, New England, and Alaska regions generated the fewest responses (5 percent, 3 percent and one percent, respectively). (See Chart 2 and Chart 3.)

Almost a third of respondents have worked less than five years for their current employer. (see Chart 4)Major airlines employ the largest group of respondents (23 percent), followed by corporate flight departments (18 percent), and repair stations (16 percent). (See Chart 5.)This year's survey also attracted higher response from military and government employees (11 percent).

Looking at job titles, maintenance directors make up 31 percent of respondents, while mechanics comprise 40 percent, IA/inspectors make up 12 percent, and avionics technicians comprise 4 percent. (see Chart 6)

As in past surveys, respondents are well-educated; 40 percent have university degrees, 48 percent have A&P certificates, and another 40 percent have an A&P certificate plus an IA and/or FCC license. (See Chart 7 and Chart 8) Nearly two-thirds of respondents also have more than 20 years of industry experience. (see Chart 9)


Compensation matters

The two tables accompanying this article (see above) show average salaries for each job title at each type of employer and within the FAA's nine U.S. regions. As mentioned, this year's overall average salary is $58,400, compared to $60,900 last year. While this is depressing news, the picture isn't so awfully bleak if you add some perspective.

For example, last year's survey showed an extraordinary 13 percent increase over average salaries in 2002. The hike partially reflected a much higher response from corporate flight departments, which pay the best. Additionally, salaries at several major airlines increased significantly (14 percent) because a number of union contracts became effective; nearly a quarter of respondents worked for major airlines.

The bottom line is: although this year's overall average salary is $2,500 less than last year's, respondents are still making 8 percent more today than they did in 2002.

And that is well above inflation. Whether you look at salaries by employer or by job, our calculations show that the average salaries for every category but one are nicely ahead of inflation since our survey in 1998. Oddly enough, engineers (the only job category that is considered "professional" rather than "skilled labor") are losing ground; their average salary today has 10 percent less buying power than it did in 1998. The mechanics whose salaries have improved best since 1998 are those who work for air taxi/charter companies and those who are avionics managers.

This year we did some data crunching based upon age. As expected, the young mechanics (20-29) made the least, but the oldest mechanics (60+) did not make the most. Salaries peaked with the 50-59 year-old group, then decreased slightly. Is this evidence of age discrimination or are other factors, like recurrent training, at play? Most of the older people work at major airlines or repair stations, as maintenance directors, IA/inspectors, or line mechanics.

The overall average raise this year was only one percent (see Chart 10). A whopping 35 percent of respondents reported no salary increase, while 11 percent reported salary cuts. The cuts were painful, whether you look at them as an average value (-13.7 percent) or as a median value (-11 percent). Of the fortunate respondents who got raises, most were 3 percent and below. For some respondents, the raise wasn't worth it: "I got a 3 percent raise this year, but most of it went to taxes, netting me just $36 more a year," reports an instructor at a maintenance school.

The percentages of respondents receiving various benefits didn't vary much from previous years (see Chart 11). Profit sharing dipped again, as it has for every survey since 1998, and employers were a bit more generous this year with reduced-fare/free airline travel. However, many respondents protested the increasing amounts they must contribute to health insurance and the lack of employer contribution to 401K plans.

Nearly everyone gets vacation time, but several respondents said they have a hard time scheduling time off. Respondents report working an average of 45 hours a week. A few overworked respondents called for regulatory limits on work duty, similar to what aircrew have. One energetic inspector at a repair station was thankful for extra hours and wrote, "I work as many overtime hours as I can!" and reported working 50-hour weeks.

An intriguing point: 43 percent of respondents said they are not paid for overtime, and their average work week is 47 hours (see Chart 12). Meanwhile, the respondents who do receive overtime pay typically average only 44 hours a week.

The topic of overtime is timely, because in August a revised Fair Labor Standards Act becomes effective. For detailed information on this subject, visit the Department of Labor's website: www.dol.gov/esa/regs/fedreg/final/2004009016.htm . Aiming to restore overtime protections, the law clearly spells out which employees are exempt (i.e. not entitled to overtime pay) and which are non-exempt (i.e. must be paid for overtime hours).

Although aircraft mechanics bristle when they are called "blue-collar workers," there's a financial advantage this time. The new law states that "exemptions do not apply to manual laborers or other `blue collar' workers who perform work involving repetitive operations with their hands, physical skill, and energy. Thus, for example, non-management production-line employees and non-management employees in maintenance, construction, and similar occupations such as carpenters, electricians, mechanics, plumbers, iron workers, craftsmen, operating engineers, longshoremen, construction workers, and laborers have always been, and will continue to be, entitled to overtime pay." Furthermore, the final rule explaining the new law lists aircraft mechanics in a table titled "Blue-Collar Occupations That Are Most Likely Nonexempt Under the Current and Final Executive, Administrative, or Professional Exemptions."

The law also raises the minimum salary level for exemption to $455 a week ($23,660 annually), and thus "guarantees overtime protection for all workers earning less than the $455 per week," said the final rule. Additionally, salaried employees who make up to $100,000 a year could be entitled to overtime pay, provided they meet new standard duties tests for "executive, administrative, or professional" exemptions.

One example might be an aircraft mechanic who is a company's director of maintenance and is paid on a salary basis. To be exempt from overtime rules, his salary must exceed $455 a week and he must have "executive" duties. His primary duty must be management of the enterprise, department, or subdivision; he must customarily and regularly direct the work of two or more employees; and he must have the authority to hire or fire employees or his recommendations about other employees are given "particular weight."

On their minds

When we asked respondents about issues involving the industry and their jobs, the loud-and-clear response was the need for more money, (see Chart 13)with 41 percent of respondents chiming in. This is the highest percentage since our 1998 survey—5 percentage points higher. Interestingly, salaries are higher for people age 40-59, then pay drops (see Chart 14). Additionally, 53 percent of respondents do not feel they are fairly paid. It also appears that the cutoff point between feeling fairly paid or not is around $30 per hour ($62,400 annually). (See Chart 15 and Chart 16.)

Fair pay is also related to the responsibility that mechanics bear and the implications of legal liability, a topic mentioned by 10 percent of respondents. "We are not paid enough for the responsibility that we have when we sign a logbook," said a mechanic at a repair station. "I am not compensated enough for the liability issues," wrote a lead mechanic at a major airline. "Going to jail! It's out there," warned an inspector at a regional airline. "It is unreasonable liability," wrote a lead mechanic at a repair station, "Maintainers can be found liable in court for things beyond their control."

Safety was the second most important issue on respondents' minds, with 25 percent mentioning various safety-related issues. The need for more training was a dominant theme, and many respondents called for mandated recurrent training, such as that in the new Part 145 regulations. As it is, 80 percent of respondents already receive initial and/or recurrent training from their employers. (see Chart 17 and Chart 18)

Respondents also said that lack of resources and skilled manpower are threatening safety. Many bemoaned the flight of seasoned mechanics to other industries and 10 percent pointed to the need to actively recruit new blood into aviation maintenance. Many believe that recruiting more women into aviation maintenance is part of the solution; one organization fostering that goal is the Association for Women in Aviation Maintenance www.awam.org .

About 10 percent of respondents also believe outsourcing is negatively impacting safety. "Work needs to be done in-house to assure quality maintenance," penned a line mechanic at a regional airline. "Our biggest problem is the company liking to shortcut or farm out work. We are outsourcing to overseas companies that have non-A&Ps doing substandard work that we have to fix later down the road," complained a lead mechanic at a major airline. "We are transitioning from in-house maintenance to a third-party vendor system. A big issue is how to ensure proper quality assurance," said a maintenance director at an airline.

Outsourcing is also related to fears about job security, which is an issue for 21 percent of respondents. "We are outsourcing jobs to low-cost countries," complained a mechanic at a manufacturer. "My biggest issue is not having a secure future. Farm-outs are costing jobs at an alarming rate. Is there no help in sight?" asked a lead mechanic at a major airline. One inspector at a major airline tried to convince management to bring some maintenance back in house: "You show the company aircraft parts that could be repaired in house cheaper, but it falls on deaf ears."

Complaints about management were plentiful, mentioned by 21 percent of respondents. Capturing the most criticism were managers who weren't knowledgeable about the industry but insisted on micro-managing. A good dose of admonition was also issued for managers who want mechanics to ignore regulations or cut corners, then sign off on their work.

Other issues receiving mention were the lack of respect for mechanics (13 percent) and long hours and erratic schedules (10 percent). A spike also occurred in complaints about excessive regulations, something that irked 10 percent of respondents.

"The FAA needs to get back to practical common sense instead of all this paperwork they are coming out with," complained a maintenance director at a repair station. "My biggest issues surround the never-ending paperwork required by the various government agencies," growled a director of maintenance at an FBO.

Despite all their worries, our survey respondents continue to rate their work environment highly, with 65 percent giving it a rating of seven and above on a scale of ten. As a line mechanic at a corporate flight department reported, "after a good deal of thought, I can think of no issues that I have. I have the best job in the country!" Admittedly, his sentiment was very much in the minority. The majority of respondents expressed frustration and weariness. It's been a rough year for aviation maintenance professionals. Losing ground takes a toll.

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