Other than having to write big checks, one of the toughest things about aircraft upgrades, including avionics retrofits and paint work, is dealing with the downtime. Shops tend to be optimistic in estimating completion times when trying to close the sale. And when it’s finally time to fly, expect some debugging, tweaking and maybe a couple of runs back to the shop. Pick one that’s reasonably close to home. I got to thinking about the heartburn when an owner called and asked the simple—but impossible to answer—question of how long his airplane should be in the shop for a Garmin avionics project. I certainly wasn’t qualified to give him an accurate answer because it wasn’t me who had his airplane all over the hangar floor—for four months. That’s a long time for the proposed GPS, big-screen EFIS and ADS-B transponder installation. While it was in, the radar was shipped for repair and a maintenance shop was changing the brakes. Four months? No way.
The aircraft is a pressurized piston single and the shop never really committed to an exact downtime, but figured it would be down for a few weeks, “more or less.” That might have been a red flag, or not. I’d plan on four weeks for that project. But the big red flags came on week six when he showed up to find the airplane not in the work hangar, but in a transient tiedown spot across the field. Looking into the cabin he could see the new equipment was in, but the interior was mostly removed and there were still some holes in the panel and worse, holes in the fuselage (covered with tape) where new antennas were to go. When asked what was up with his airplane, the shop manager said the schedule was behind after the ADS-B rush, plus it had closed for a bit during the pandemic. That’s fair, but the shop never called him off, and the owner got the plane to the shop a bit early. Behind the scenes, the shop was dealing with outside engineering approval for some antenna work that required drilling through the pressure bulkhead. Mental note: If you bring a pressurized aircraft to a shop for major work, it’s worth asking if it has the in-house capability to sign off modifications to the pressure vessel. If it doesn’t, what are the costs and expected downtime to get the approvals to make it legal. Many shops don’t have the capability in-house.
The relationship changed forever when the agitated owner threatened to deduct money off the invoice, presumably as a payback for blowing a few trips. This penalty might happen in the jet maintenance world, but it’s not common for privately owned pistons. Shops don’t like to be threatened, and as you might expect this one didn’t speed the job along after the customer got hard-nosed. It was obviously in no hurry to finish this guy’s airplane and finally handed it back to him six months after he dropped it off. These stories are somewhat rare, but they happen during engine swaps, avionics work, paint work and interior upgrades. The moral of the story doesn’t change. Do everything you can to pick a shop that knows how to communicate and make accurate estimates on completion times before you commit to the work. In this case, the shop failed every test of good communication. It didn’t return calls or emails, and the owner had to chase the shop just to get a written proposal. That should have been an early clue.
As we reported in the paint shop satisfaction survey in the August 2020 issue of Aviation Consumer, the shops that keep their customers happy absolutely nail the communication. They send photos and progress reports as the project reaches milestones. Many invite the owner in to see the progress and do what’s practical and reasonable to involve an anxious customer in the project. But owners need to do their part. This means abiding by payment terms, checking the shop’s references and being realistic and flexible when it comes to downtime. But there’s a limit. If a shop says the aircraft will be down for two weeks but it’s down for two months, that’s certainly too long, unless it runs into major problems that are out of its control. Maybe equipment is put on engineering hold or the shop is waiting for additional approvals (if a complicated FAA field approval is required, you shouldn’t bank on a hard completion date—ever).
This current pandemic is creating longer than expected downtimes because parts and people simply aren’t moving as fast as they once did, so you want to give the shop some slack. And if key employees or their family fall ill, you can certainly expect smaller shops to fall behind—perhaps even temporarily close. Last, don’t schedule important trips directly after you fly it away. Add a healthy buffer to work out the bugs, and expect to be pleasantly surprised if there aren’t any. We want to hear about your most recent upgrade experiences—good and bad—so others can learn from it. Let us know how it went. —Larry Anglisano