If you ask Michael Wassel what he’d do to augment the offerings at Tipton Airport, he’ll have a quick answer. It concerns an issue that’s being felt across the aviation industry, as well as many others.

While covering a variety of topics during his talk with Executive Director Gina Stewart at the recent BWI Business Partnership Signature Breakfast, Southwest Airlines CEO Bob Jordan said that the carrier would be on board with a new local program to train airplane mechanics. (TBM/Mark R. Smith )

That problem is the lack of workforce; in the aviation industry’s case, it’s the lack of airplane mechanics. And Wassel, the airport manager, knows Tipton can accommodate students who want to break into a field that would offer good-paying, family-supporting jobs. All he needs, he said, is partnerships with academia, the corporate world and the government.

He’s been working on making that happen for about five years and remains hopeful.
“We have several hundred square feet available in one of our hangars that used to be a back-of-house maintenance space,” said Wassel. “We can turn it into a lab and get this effort off the ground.”

Program outline

Wassel said the crew at Tipton initially approached the Anne Arundel County Public Schools in 2019 to see it there was an opportunity to work together on such a program.

“At that point, the AACPS had us visit the Center of Applied Technology-South, in Edgewater, where it conducts drone development and similar programs,” he said, “but not really airplane maintenance. They liked our idea, then started to see what it would take to develop the program and talk with the Federal Aviation Administration to see what was needed.”

But then came the COVID-19 shutdown. So that momentum was lost.
Today, the AACPS are again considering starting the program, but this time at CAT-North, in Severn, for three modules of classroom instruction. It would include an advanced placement program, “some of which would be held at Tipton for hands-on-instruction,” said Wassel.

But that’s not all. The AACPS is also partnering with the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, which has an airframe and power plant program to complement the entry-level license program offered at the university, “where some of this training is already happening,” said Wassel.

Airport growing

Lori Ratzburg, senior director at the Maryland Department of Commerce, was involved in this effort “from the beginning, about five years ago. Then,” she said, “the AACPS was investigating putting a training facility at Tipton.

“There were many people at the table, including representatives from Northrop Grumman Corp.” (which gave an old plane to AACPS to help establish the program),” said Ratzburg. “We had the companies coming together. Then AACPS came and we did the due diligence on the Tipton building.”

She said “Things were going well, but there was a point where it stopped due to a gap in funding that was to come via the AACPS.” Then with AACPS searching for ways to cover the gap, COVID-19 threw the effort off schedule.

“It’s a fantastic opportunity because of the shortage of mechanics in the industry,” said Ratzburg. “With all of the expansion taking place at BWI Marshall, this would be a fascinating opportunity for students to learn about and enter a continuously growing industry in this region.”

While that sounds promising, the most recent word from the AACPS via spokesperson Bob Mosier is that “the Maryland State Department of Education has not yet approved aviation as a Career and Technical Education Completer Pathway. Additionally, we are still working through the logistics of what the program would look like and have made no final decisions.”

Mosier added that the AACPS have “had extensive discussions with officials at Tipton Airport about its role in a prospective program and look forward to continuing to partner with them in the future on this initiative, should it move forward, and/or on other initiatives that would benefit our students and our county as a whole.”

Numbers crunch

While Ratzburg noted the growth at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport, Robert Cush, director of government affairs for the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association, crunched some numbers to illustrate the need for certified airframe and power plant mechanics.

“The industry will need 48,000 more airframe and power plant mechanics by 2027,” said Cush, citing a recent Oliver Wyman industry report.“Meanwhile, many organizations are forecasting a shortcoming of roughly 27% that will still be required by the various airlines to maintain the fleet size that year.”

It looks like the issue may get worse before it gets better, simply given the march of time.

“Southwest Airlines is forecasting by that 2027 that 30.9% of the aircraft maintenance part of the workforce will be qualified for retirement,” he said. “While we realize that not all of those employees will retire at once, we’re expecting the head count in that part of our staff will take another hit.”

Like Wassel, Cush was in attendance at the recent meeting of the BWI Business Partnership when the guest was Bob Jordan, CEO of Southwest Airlines. Toward the end of the discussion, Jordan was asked by Wassel about the carrier’s needs for plane mechanics.

While noting that Southwest has already established an academy for pilots, Jordan acknowledged a similar issue with mechanics and said he “would love to talk” about establishing such a training program for the sector with the local concerns.

Cush concurred. “Even with the recent slowdown in plane production at Boeing due to the FAA’s heightened oversight and due to certification issues with its MAX -7 planes,” he said, “the need for thousands more maintenance workers is still very pronounced.”

So there’s still ample reason for hope.

“The state is moving forward with apprenticeship programs,” said Ratzburg. “This is an opportunity for collaboration with all of these partners to help assist with the workforce shortage.”

Caption: While covering a variety of topics during his talk with Executive Director Gina Stewart at the recent BWI Business Partnership Signature Breakfast, Southwest Airlines CEO Bob Jordan announced that the carrier would be on board with a new local program to train airplane mechanics. (TBM/Mark R. Smith)