Too many planes, too little time

Perusing industry media and joining the dots on the different news components – ever-increasing orders for aircraft and aircraft conversions, seemingly more frequent aviation incidents such as the Boeing door coming off or technical landings, human-error during ground navigation leading to aircraft damage, strike walkouts of Aircraft Maintenance Engineers (AME), and Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO) training and certification challenges – points to a worrying future in aviation. AME and MRO are the largely invisible heroes keeping aircraft in the air, and yet, here too, increasing staff shortages pose several threats to smooth operations and air safety.

Daily flight safety depends on perfect maintenance. Image: Canva/CFG

It was actually an article recently published in Aviation Week, talking about constraints and challenges in getting staff into the MRO market, that got CargoForwarder Global thinking about an area that is mostly invisible to the public eye. One that only comes to the fore when something bad happens – such as Fedex’s nose-landing in Istanbul on 08APR24, for example. This event further underlined CargoForwarder Global’s need to look at the risks posed by short-staffing in MRO and AME.

The Aviation Week article underpins the MRO market’s “significant workforce shortage” with figures regarding the U.S.: “Boeing’s Pilot and Technician Outlook projects a global need for 690,000 new technicians over the next decade—125,000 of them in North America alone. Consultancy Oliver Wyman predicts the region will have a shortfall of more than 48,000 MRO staff by 2027, and the Aviation Technician Education Council’s 2023 Pipeline Report says U.S. commercial aviation will be 31,000 mechanics short by 2031.” Figures that are likely relatively similar in other parts of the world.

Safety is paramount
It is too early to say what caused the nose-gear failure in Fedex’ Boeing 767 freighter, and the fact that Boeing has had so much negative press recently, will likely lead to people quickly judging in a certain direction, but past nose-gear failures have often been the result of incorrect maintenance, in which case, Boeing would likely not be to blame. The question then would be: what leads to incorrect maintenance? This could be a result of inadequate staffing levels leading to compromised safety protocols. Where there are not enough staff, maintenance tasks might be rushed or critical safety checks overlooked, not only increasing the risk of injuries in the workplace, but also and above all the risk of accidents and emergencies during flight. Safety is paramount in aviation, and inadequate staffing levels in MRO pose a direct threat to this core principle.

Quality issues and compliance risks
If critical safety checks are skipped or overlooked, defects may go unnoticed, and equipment failures therefore become more prevalent. In an industry where the margin for error is razor-thin, any compromise in safety standards can have devastating consequences. Even smaller quality control issues have long-term negative impacts. Rushed or inadequate repairs may lead to recurring issues, affecting product quality and customer satisfaction.

Quite aside from customer satisfaction, is the topic of aviation standards and compliance responsibility. Aviation is highly regulated, and if authorities feel that inadequate staffing levels in MRO/AME are resulting in compliance violations, then any failures to meet regulatory requirements will lead to fines, legal consequences, and damage to the organization’s reputation.

Delays, increased downtimes and higher costs
With fewer staff available to perform maintenance to the standard required, the result can only be longer equipment downtime. The knock-on effects are disruption to operations, production delays, and revenue losses. The dangerous alternative to having aircraft grounded for longer periods, is the decision to defer preventative maintenance. This is a catch-22 since if maintenance tasks are not carried out in the intervals prescribed, the risks are that by the time maintenance actually occurs, more costly repairs may be necessary. Worse: the equipment’s efficiency may decrease and even fail in the interim, again leading to grounded planes, disrupted flight schedules, decreased asset reliability, and financial losses for airlines and operators. And absolute worst case would be a catastrophic breakdown.

The emotional impact
Financial and operational impacts are one thing. A significant aspect not to be underrated, is the strain that understaffing places on existing personnel. With fewer hands available to tackle an ever-increasing workload, those staff members available are often stretched thin, leading to burnout, fatigue, and diminished morale. In an industry where precision and attention to detail are crucial, the mental and physical strain on maintenance personnel can compromise their ability to perform their duties effectively. Over time, the burden of extra work and responsibilities may lead to higher staff turnover rates.

Guardians of safety and reliability in the skies
MROs and AMEs serve as the guardians of safety and reliability in the skies, yet faced with increasing demands of the industry and the rapid evolution of aircraft technology, insufficient numbers of trained staff pose significant dangers and hurdles. From compromised safety standards to operational inefficiencies, the ramifications of understaffing in these critical areas are far-reaching and multifaceted. Aside from the challenges in keeping existing aircraft maintained, staff shortages in MRO and AME also present a barrier to innovation and technological advancement in an aviation industry that is increasingly becoming more complex and technologically sophisticated.

Concerted efforts are needed, now, to invest in the recognition, recruitment, training, and retention of skilled personnel in MRO and AME, to ensure the continued safety, reliability, and sustainability of air travel and transport for the future.

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