You Never Call!

||| |---|---| | | | Every time the phone rings I think-and hope-it's the shop calling to tell me the annual inspection is done and I can come retrieve my airplane.

The shop was very good about telling me whenever it ran into problems like a cracked ELT case or stabilator tips that had been stop-drilled one too many times. Two weeks ago I got a call advising me the annual was almost done, that there had been no surprises and that the airplane should be finished early the following week. I began to call in favors for a ferry flight to get to the airport where the annual was being conducted.

But then I heard nothing. That next week came and went; the call never came. I'm a patient man-often frustrated-but almost always patient. Anytime I have work done on my airplane I always assure the technicians that how fast they get the job done isn't as important as how well they do it. Maybe that's a mistake. That attitude might invoke Parkinson's law: "Work expands to fill the time available for its completion."

The Monday following the week during which I had expected the airplane would be ready, I still hadn't heard anything; I called again. Nope. Not ready yet. It had needed a new fuel flow/manifold pressure gauge and when the new one was installed, it didn't work properly and had to go back to the manufacturer. The shop was waiting for the second replacement.

"When do you think the airplane will be ready?" I asked.

"If the part comes in early enough tomorrow morning, we should be able to have it ready by the end of the day."

OK! That would work. I arranged for Robert Goyer to come up the next morning. We'd do the ground portion of his biennial flight review (BFR) over coffee, fly the inflight portion and then have lunch. After we ate, if the airplane was ready, Robert would drop me at the shop on his way back home. It was a plan.

The next morning things looked promising. It was the first real spring day we'd had and perfect for flying, ideal for conducting a BFR and a great day to collect my airplane. We followed the plan. We started by reviewing the regs and Pilot's Operating Handbook (POH) over coffee at Meadowgreens, the restaurant at the north end of the Columbia County Airport, promising to come back for lunch and to help Sarah, the waitress, celebrate her 21st birthday. For the inflight review we worked with the controllers at Albany who willingly slipped us into their traffic flow for some practice approaches. With the BFR successfully completed, it was back to Meadowgreens for lunch. After we'd eaten, I called to see if the airplane was ready. It wasn't. The gauge hadn't arrived. The earliest it could be ready would be Thursday.

Again, I waited patiently by the phone, but no one called. Friday I called. The part had arrived and the airplane should be done sometime Monday. I called Robert and again arranged a ride. Tomorrow, if the snow stops in time, we'll go get my airplane.

During the past year and a half, I've had a number of what I call "elective surgeries" performed on my Cardinal. None of the things had to be done-the airplane was working fine-but they were upgrades and new equipment installations, things that wouldn't necessarily make the airplane fly any better but that would make things easier for me.

Without exaggeration my airplane was aircraft on the ground (AOG) and out of service for eight out of 15 months (in blocks of four, two and two months). In addition to the time the airplane was "in hospital" I made at least six "outpatient" trips to have things re-adjusted, reconfigured and rewired while I waited. The reasons for the extensive spates of downtime ranged from artic cold temperatures and an epidemic of the flu to new equipment from manufacturers that didn't work and had to be returned (many more times than you'd expect, considering the FAA's certification requirements), incorrect wiring diagrams, a lack of a common "language" that kept plug-and-play, mix-and-match avionics equipment from talking to one another, parts that were hard to locate or were back ordered at the manufacturers and finally-and most telling for future problems-a lack of qualified maintenance technicians.

Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady tells Liza Doolittle, when she complains about the way he treats her, something to the effect that it's not how badly I treat you, but whether I treat anyone any better. I don't think I'm being treated any worse than anyone else; I'm not being singled out. In fact, friends have suggested that as a writer with Flying I must be getting better service than other owners. But I remember the response to the guy who tried to pull rank and complained to an employee, "Do you know who I am?" The employee paused for a moment and then called out, "If anyone recognizes this man could they please come forward; he doesn't know who he is!" Unfortunately, my experience isn't unusual. Comparing experiences with others who have recently elected to have their avionics upgraded or maintenance performed, I've found that invariably both the downtime and the expense were greater than estimated-or expected-both by the owner and the maintenance facility. Another Cardinal owner reported, "I just got my RG back from the avionics shop, where it has been for almost four weeks to build in the Garmin 430 and new S-Tec 50 autopilot as a replacement for the old 200 Cessna autopilot. I never realized this operation would take so long and would be this difficult." Welcome to the club.

We're all going to have to get used to the work on our airplanes taking longer than we'd like-and having to wait longer to schedule shop visits. It's not just the complexity and interface problems caused by the lack of a common language with the new equipment that's going to require longer shop stays. There's a triple whammy. At the same time that the shops are confronted with aging airplanes that require more and more work to keep them airworthy, owners are requesting installations of a proliferation of modern avionics, and the number of qualified technicians is dwindling.

And the situation is only going to get worse. According to industry figures, the number of technicians entering the job market has steadily declined from a high of some 24,000 in 1991 down to some 10,000 in 1997. A report by the U.S. Department of Labor said that by the year 2006 there will be a need in the United States for 155,000 A&P technicians, a 13 percent increase from the some 137,000 now employed. Estimates of the number of new maintenance students needed to fill the expected void are as high as 50,000 a year.

In response to the growing shortage, the industry has launched an effort aimed at encouraging more people to become aviation technicians. Dubbed "Make It Fly," the program is designed, through education, outreach and career counseling, to reverse the decline in the number of A&P technicians. If we want to be able to continue to operate our airplanes, it's a program worth supporting.

In the meantime, we have to learn to communicate with the people working on our airplanes-and they need to communicate with us. The conversations between the owner and the shop shouldn't be limited to the list of squawks from the owner and calls from the shop when something unexpected is found. There should be continuous communication. As the owner-and the one who's going to be paying the bill-I want to know what's happening. A call that says, "The annual's going fine. No surprises yet," or an update on the schedule, such as "We're done with most of the work but waiting for the overhauled ELT to come back. It should be here Friday," are helpful and reassuring. But it's even more important, if the ELT doesn't show up on schedule, to be told that. One of the shops I've been dealing with is very good about sending me e-mail to let me know what's happening-or not happening-and why. Thanks Larry, that helps.

I don't think I'm asking for a lot. I realize that the people working on our airplanes don't want to keep reporting back to the owners, but they should know how important it is for us to know what's happening-and how frustrating it is when we don't. Having decided to go ahead and spend the money, it's the downtime that causes me the most pain. I recognize there are valid reasons things don't always go the way they're supposed to, and I can appreciate a shop's problems-if I know about them. But you never call!

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