The air travel industry witnessed healthy growth during the 1990s, fueled by an increase in passenger volume, coupled with a booming economy. The tragic events of September 11, 2001, all but grounded air transportation in the U.S., as terrorism fears, a depressed economy and news about the war halted plans for many would-be travelers, which reduced air traffic to pre-1996 levels.
U.S. air travel was soaring at a rapid pace until 2001, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The industry witnessed air travel expand from 172 million passengers in the 1970s to more than a whopping 642 million in 2003. Air travel still remains one of the most popular modes of transportation, and passenger volume is on the rise again.
Aircraft mechanics service, inspect and repair planes. While they may work on several different types of aircraft—jet transports, small propeller-driven airplanes or helicopters—technicians typically specialize in a particular area. Many aircraft mechanics—also known as airframe (body) mechanics, power plant (engine) mechanics and avionics (navigation, communication and electronic components) technicians—specialize in preventive maintenance.
In small, independent repair shops, aviation mechanics usually inspect and repair a myriad of aircraft. This can include the repair of engines, landing gear, instruments, pressurized sections and accessories, such as brakes, valves, pumps and air-conditioning systems.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires that mechanics follow a rigid maintenance schedule based on the number of hours an aircraft has flown, calendar days, cycles of operation—or a combination of these factors.
Employers prefer techs who have graduated from aircraft mechanic trade schools, particularly those who have earned certification or gained experience by serving in the military, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Aircraft mechanics who specialize in airframe or power plant components must be certified by the FAA, which requires 18 months of professional experience—or the completion of a program at one of the 170 FAA-certified mechanic schools around the nation. Most FAA-certified schools issue two and four-year degrees in avionics, aviation technology and aviation maintenance management.
The FAA’s strict standards mandate certified mechanical schools to offer students a minimum of 1,900 class hours. Coursework normally lasts from 18 to 24 months and offers training with the tools and equipment used on the job. According to the FAA, schools now put more emphasis on technologies, such as turbine engines, aviation electronics and composite materials, which can include graphite, fiberglass and boron.
Unlike other segments in the mechanical industry, aircraft mechanics are required to keep up-to-date on the latest technology, improvements and changes in aircraft and associated systems. Without certification, “You can only work when supervised by someone who does have a certificate,” according to the FAA. “You could not approve equipment for return to service.”
To obtain certification, the FAA requires mechanics to take an oral and practical test that covers 43 technical subjects and takes about 8 hours to complete. More than half of the 142,000 jobs in aircraft and avionics mechanics are in air transportation companies.
An estimated 18 percent of aviation technicians work for the federal government, while 14 percent work for aerospace products and parts manufacturing firms. The remaining population works for companies that operate their own planes to transport executives or cargo. The industry has very few self-employed technicians.
Most airline mechanics and service techs work at major airports located in large metro cities. Civilian mechanics employed by the U.S. Armed Forces work at military installations, according to the National Business Aviation Association.