AMT Exclusive: An Interview with RAA President Roger Cohen

One of every five domestic airline passengers will travel on one of the 2,700 regional aircraft that serve around 658 cities across the United States and in 470 of those regional airlines provide the only scheduled service. They make about 13,000 flights a day carrying about 160 million passengers a year. Looking after their best collective interest is the Regional Airline Association (RAA), a business association headquartered in Washington, D.C., that represents members’ interests in Congressional hearings and before the Department of Transportation, the FAA, and other agencies.

Roger Cohen is president of the RAA. He came to RAA in December 2006 with extensive experience as an aviation advocate representing Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association, the Air Transport Association, and he also worked for 10 years at Trans World Airlines. Cohen holds a Bachelor of Science degree from Northwestern University in Evanston, IL. Recently, Roger Cohen agreed to an interview with Aircraft Maintenance Technology (AMT) Magazine.

AMT: Roger, thank you for taking time from your busy day to visit with AMT. After reviewing the Regional Airline Association (RAA) web site it appears that the association is very engaged in representing the member airlines in a variety of areas. The issue of airline safety appears to be an underlying theme in many initiatives. Could we start from the top with what is the overall mission of the RAA?

Cohen: The written mission statement is: With safety as its highest priority, RAA represents North American regional airlines, and the manufacturers of products and services supporting the regional airline industry, before the Congress, DOT, the FAA, and other federal agencies.

To take that statement to another level, our primary mission is to serve as our members’ eyes, ears and voice in Washington. Most of our member airlines don’t have full time government affairs people here in Washington so we represent them to the decision makers. As you know, virtually every decision made about our industry gets made here in Washington.

AMT: What is the principle value that RAA provides for member airlines?

Cohen: The RAA has been active since the birth of the regional airline industry. From 1977-78 it was called the Commuter Airlines Association and there were about 230 regional airlines flying about 11 million passengers a year. Today our 28 member airlines operate about one half of the scheduled flights in the United States and last year they flew about 160 million passengers. RAA has been the one constant in all of the growth and change, working to ensure that members have the seat at the table that we enjoy today. RAA has been there every step of the way in that 35-year journey, helping to guide and create a climate so that our industry could grow and operate as safely and efficiently as it does today.

AMT: Last July in a Wichita, Kansas Aero Club meeting, you were quoted by Daniel McCoy, reporter for the Wichita Business Journal, as saying: “There is one issue that keeps me up at night and it’s an issue that anybody concerned about the future of aviation needs to be aware of. The supply of pilots is going to be a major, major issue for us. The pilot shortage is coming and it’s going to have a real-world impact. According to a recent forecast from Boeing, the world will need nearly 500,000 new airline pilots during the next 20 years.” Some say that maintenance operations are facing a similar problem. How is the RAA or specific member airlines addressing the issue of our aging maintenance work force?

Cohen: There is a renewed recognition within our membership, not only our airline members but our associate members also, that our maintenance human resources issues are a challenge for the airline industry and the regional sector in particular. RAA has re-doubled our effort to reinvigorate our members to address these human resources issues. This is going to be one of our primary focuses in 2013 and at our upcoming convention in Montreal.

I think that pilot supply always grabs the headlines, and over the past few years the pilot issue has received all the attention and is a real problem that will hit sometime in the near future. However, at every turn RAA has also been quoted nationwide stating that the problem of an adequate supply of trained maintenance personnel is here today.

While the training problems on the maintenance side may not be as high as on the pilot side, the time and experience requirements for mechanics are substantial. A factor in our favor is the fact that jobs in maintenance are literally beginning to be filled now, and for a young person it is not like making an investment that will pay off somewhere down the road. The payoff is today.

I also think that one of the attractions to this industry is that those maintenance skill sets provide the holder with some degree of flexibility, more so in the maintenance area than for the pilots. The maintenance employees don’t face nearly some of the institutional and built-in barriers to employment that the pilots do. An airline mechanic’s skills can transfer to dozens, if not to hundreds, of career paths. Maintenance is an attractive career path, and I often lament to my son that he should get an A&P.

Back to the staffing problem, one solution is for airlines to be partnering with educational institutions, like high schools with vocational education and community colleges with aviation programs. The government will spend $12 billion on Next Gen and we can and must invest a small percentage of that money in our human capital. Going forward, these people will be responsible to safely maintain and operate this technology and support our industry.

AMT: Are you seeing any maintenance areas or companies where there is promising job growth?

Cohen: I am going to redirect that question to Jim Culora, general manager, Empire Aerospace, one of our member airlines.

Culora: We see a number of our Canadian operators expanding operations by adding additional ATR aircraft to their fleets. This will put a few more regional turbo props in the heavy maintenance cycle. Empire also sees opportunity for Bombardier Dash 8 Q-400 work with several operators adding those to its fleet both in the United States and Canada.

AMT: From your perspective, what are some of the emerging trends in RAA maintenance operations?

Cohen: Today is all about tablets and laptops, and managing data and technology to help manage maintenance operations, help root out problems, and manage risk. All this technology is making maintenance a lot sexier than when people were just turning wrenches several years ago. By using maintenance data and experience, we are making operations more efficient and much safer.

Culora: We see potential growth with Nondestructive Testing (NDT). There have been many new requirements with the aging aircraft and damage tolerant requirements (DTI) programs. We’ve seen an increase in the volume of NDT inspections and MROs must have the equipment and trained personnel to deal with these inspections.

AMT: What is your opinion of the overall level of maintenance currently being performed by regionals?

Cohen: No question, it is top-notch and continues to get better because our industry is more mature now and we know how to react faster and safer. We know how to do things better and safer — maintenance continues to improve.

AMT: Can you comment on the current market outlook for both large MROs and for the specialized component MRO activity in general? Is there work and is more work anticipated?

Cohen: This is a complicated issue and I can comment, but I probably can’t completely answer this question. I think integration and globalization is the trend. Maintenance is becoming a global industry, as with our airframe manufacturers which are in Canada, Brazil, Japan, Western Europe, and now Russia. The leadership in building and maintaining aircraft is a global industry. Maintenance on both mainline and regional airlines is being done around the globe because the level of work has been outstanding. We now have common technology and tools to manage the maintenance process efficiently and safely.

The issue with MRO business is that there is no “one size” that fits all maintenance solutions for all of our member airlines. It is a mix and match, customized maintenance world where everybody that is in this business, or wants to serve the regional airline business, can.

AMT: Are you aware of any regulatory changes in the works from the FAA, EASA, or other regulatory agencies that will impact regional maintenance operations or individual aircraft maintenance technicians?

Cohen: There are always key issues, but the key to solving them has been our relationships with the regulatory agencies. In any regulated enterprise there is always going to be that give and take between the regulators and the regulated. However, the results that we are seeing point out just how well the system is working. This has been the safest period in aviation history. We are identifying and mitigating risk in advance and catching accidents before they happen. We are ensuring that small problems don’t turn into large problems. This is a real testament to everyone in the industry.

As for trends, I think that the regulators are also relying more on data and information when analyzing problems and trying to get out in front of things. They too are facing continuing resource challenges and I think that underscores the need for the government to make a greater investment in human capital. This would help people get careers in maintaining airplanes, as well as regulating the industry.

We really are all in the same business; the regulators, the maintenance professionals; the operations managers. We all have the same goal in mind and that is to ensure that the system operates as safely as possible — it’s all the same job.

AMT: Do you have any tips, suggestions, recommendations or words of advice for regional aircraft maintenance technicians or MROs?

Cohen: Yes I do. Get involved with the RAA. I recommend that any technician or MRO should come to our national convention in Montreal, May 6-9, 2013. AMT

 

AMT thanks RAA President Roger Cohen, RAA Media Relations Kelly Murphy, and Empire Aerospace General Manager Jim Culora. For more information visit www.raa.org and www.empireaerospace.com.

Charles Chandler began his aviation career as a junior mechanic for American Airlines and retired after 27 years of service.

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