The time will come when you’re faced with selecting the shop to do the majority of the maintenance on your airplane. Choosing well can mean the difference between a good ownership experience and a level of frustration that causes you to give up on aviation.
In this article, we’ll give you suggestions on making your initial search, then how to narrow it down; a list of attributes of professional shops, guidelines for making your selection as well as shop practices that are red flag alerts to avoid.
Successful and effective aircraft maintenance is a partnership. Your mechanic/maintenance technician works for you, at your direction—because FAR 91.403 makes you ultimately responsible for maintenance on your bird—while the tech puts his or her career on the line with every logbook signature. Each of you needs to know what the other is doing and have a good working relationship.
Begin the process by networking. There is no master list of good and bad shops, so get out and talk to pilots in the area and get recommendations. Take advantage of type clubs, get on the boards and ask questions. Go to a meeting of local pilot groups, everything from the EAA chapter to a CAP meeting to safety seminars and ask about the shops. You’re looking for a list of names of A & Ps and shops that other pilots say do good work.
Narrow down the search by determining which shops on your list have knowledge and experience swinging wrenches on your type of airplane. Put simply: there are far too many types of airplanes out there for any A & P to know the intimate details of maintaining all of them. The philosophy that went into the design of the airframe and systems of a Mooney is significantly different from that of a Cessna, a Cirrus or a Navion.
Once you have limited your search to a few shops, it’s time to have a face-to-face visit with the head of each one—that might be the sole technician at a small shop or the head of maintenance at a large one.
During the interview, plan on discussing the topics below, communication, experience, recurrent training, written estimates, scheduling maintenance, your presence on the shop floor and prices while paying attention to his or her willingness to work with you.
An absolute deal-breaker with any shop is if the tech says for you to drop off your airplane and he’ll call you when it’s done. That’s a virtual guarantee that you’ll get bills that can generate immediate need for a defibrillator. A professional shop will troubleshoot and then discuss the problem and potential fixes with you. Before making any repairs, a reputable shop will give you an estimate, in writing, of the cost of repairs and get your approval for the work.
Written estimates and approvals (email works well) are important. We think that failure to agree to that basic practice is a no-go item on your shop selection checklist.
The biggest problems we’ve seen between owners and maintenance shops have involved lack of communication. Too often a shop does involved, expensive maintenance that it felt was necessary, and an owner was stunned by a huge bill.
A professional shop will never surprise an owner with a bill. The owner will know what is coming and have expressly approved the work and the estimate ahead of time.
What experience does the tech/shop have on your type of airplane? What recurrent training have the techs taken? Are there any certificates of graduation from courses relevant to your airplane hanging up in the office? Ask for names of customers who have airplanes similar to yours and call them up to get their take on the shop and the quality of the work.
There is no requirement for recurrent training for A & P maintenance technicians. For those with Inspection Authorization, there is an annual recurrent requirement, but it is not terribly involved.
Talk with the mechanic you are thinking of using about some of the technically advanced features of your airplane. For example, if he or she is not familiar with the benefits of lean of peak operation or how to interpret the download from an engine monitor, it’s probably time to terminate the interview.
If the shop doesn’t have and regularly use a borescope, move on.
The rules for maintaining turbine aircraft over 12,500 pounds are more rigid than those for pistons operated under Part 91. Piston airplanes are maintained under Part 43 and Part 43 Appendix D which, simply put, means that many items are “recommended” rather than “required” as they are for turbines, particularly when it comes to the time for repair or replacement. We’ve observed that turbine shops often get into the “required” mindset and start inappropriately applying it to pistons, making for some eye-watering bills.
Some of the worst maintenance horror stories we’ve heard have been with piston twins in turbine shops.
We strongly recommend that you not keep the logbooks for your airplane at the shop. Lost logbooks knock from 10-20 percent off the value of the airplane, so those books are worth a minimum of $2000 on a $20,000 Cessna 150. Keep electronic copies of your logs with the originals locked up.
Reputable shops are used to getting electronic copies of logs. They will give you the maintenance endorsements on stickers for you to place in the original books. If your prospective shop doesn’t do this, it’s a yellow flag.
We’ve seen too many shops hold logbooks hostage to force payment of a bill for work the owner didn’t agree to. We’ve also seen too many times where logbooks simply disappeared from the shop.
There should be nothing that keeps you from being present or helping when work is done, and getting an explanation as to what is happening. Be aware that you should expect to pay for the mechanic’s time if you’re slowing things down—after all, a tech’s stock in trade is knowledge, judgment and experience; the way she or he has to bill for it is by the time spent putting that knowledge to work.
The price for shop work should be stated up front, with no hidden charges. That being said, the more expensive hourly rate may not be more expensive than the cheaper rate—the quality of the result is what matters. We’ve seen too many “inexpensive” shops that take three months to do an annual on a Cessna Cardinal—something that should take no more than three to five days.
Can you get your airplane scheduled in for work in a reasonable period of time when it breaks? How much trouble is it going to be to get your airplane to the shop and then get home? By the same token, there are specialty shops for certain types of aircraft that have such good reps that owners fly their airplanes halfway across the country and remain there for each annual inspection.
Any of these are a signal to stay away: a cluttered, dirty shop; a tech who makes promises regarding work on your airplane without ever seeing it; a tech who is willing to work on anything; a shop that has more than one airplane that has been there for more than a month with no apparent progress.
Because the annual inspec
tion is usually the big money contact you’ll have with a shop, it’s a good idea to know what it does and does not involve.
A mechanic with Inspection Authorization inspects the airplane, maintenance records and applicable ADs, creates a list of unairworthy items and other squawks (the list is not put in the aircraft logbooks) and stops. A professional shop will then give you that list along with an estimate to repair each squawk.
You and the tech go over it. The airworthiness items—the tech makes that call—must be repaired. You, the owner, make the call on repairing or deferring the remainder of the squawks. A good tech will make suggestions, but it’s your decision.
The IA signs off the inspection itself. The repairs of the items on the squawk list can be made and signed off by the IA or by an A&P.
If done in this fashion—inspect, squawk, estimate costs, approve, repair—you have no surprises when the annual is complete. It is the way a good shop operates. If your prospective shop is unwilling to do an annual in that basic, organized fashion, your wallet may at risk.
If a tech tells you that he or she inspects a little and repairs a little, or inspects and fixes everything without talking it over with you, it’s a giant red flag. That means you don’t know what the annual is going to cost until it’s all over, something that puts you well into the area where it’s going to hurt, or even where you may wind up in a lawsuit simply because the tech is not professional enough to communicate effectively.
It’s your maintenance dollar and your responsibility under the FARs when work is done on your airplane. When selecting a shop, choose one that recognizes the partnership between you and the shop, is willing to communicate openly, gives estimates in writing and gets approval before doing any work, understands the difference between recommended and required, is owner-friendly, has experience with your type of airplane and is willing to keep learning.