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How Owner-Operators Can Find the Right Maintenance Partners
Unlike most flight departments, many owner-operators of smaller business aircraft don't have a dedicated maintenance support system or on-site technicians who are responsible for keeping the airplane airworthy and compliant with all Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs). For these aircraft owners – many of whom are flying sophisticated light jets such as Eclipses, Phenoms or Cessna Citation Mustangs, as well as turboprops such as King Airs – finding the right maintenance partners and keeping up with all inspections and maintenance requirements can be a daunting task.
Are You Up for the Challenge?
Eli Cotti, NBAA's director, technical operations, cautions that for owners moving up to a more complex aircraft, especially one that has been pre-owned and is no longer under manufacturer warranty, keeping up with maintenance is a lot more challenging than with an entry-level aircraft.
Ray Berg, vice president of engineering for Perform Air International, calls it the "automotive mentality," whereby some owner-operators initially "get in their aircraft like they get in their car" – because they don't know any better.
Berg, whose Gilbert, AZ-based company is a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) – and European Aviation Safety Agency-certificated repair station, maintains that it is the duty of the certificated flight instructor (CFI) who trains the owner-operator to begin the education process by explaining maintenance basics. "CFIs need to establish a solid foundation regarding maintenance of the aircraft," says Berg.
Tom Norton, president of Norton Aviation, agrees. He and his team of instructors specialize in flight and ground training in the Eclipse 500, Phenom 100 and Mustang, and have instructed more than 200 pilots who have transitioned into their first jet.
"As instructors, we are the first people that see them and talk to them about their jets," said Norton, who is also one of two FAA-designated pilot examiners (DPE) for the Eclipse 500. "We almost become a 'mini-manager' for the first two to three weeks of their jet ownership, and give them a wealth of information on how to maintain their airplane. At the check ride, I absolutely expect the [owner-operator] to determine if the aircraft is airworthy, and to know who is going to maintain the jet," said Norton.
According to Norton, about 30–40 percent of his clients buy their light jets with virtually no knowledge of how to maintain it. The other owner-operators have done quite a bit of research in advance and usually join an aircraft type club or go to the original equipment manufacturer or a manufacturer-certified maintenance shop, said Norton.
Norton and his instructors will recommend a maintenance, overhaul and repair (MRO) business to their clients, but Norton believes that most light jet owners choose their MRO based on location, all other things being equal. "Geography is king," said Norton. Other important factors, according to Norton, include manufacturer certification, recommendation by others in aircraft type clubs and word-of-mouth.
Know What to Look For
David Green, president of the Eclipse 500 Owner's Club (E5C), believes "it is absolutely critical for small-jet owner-operators to get involved with an owner's group." With fewer than 300 airplanes flying, qualified Eclipse repair shops are limited, but Green notes, "The number one way to get real information about multiple aspects of the aircraft – including maintenance – is from other owners."
"It is absolutely critical for small jet owner-operators to get involved with an owner's group."
As an Eclipse owner-operator who moved up from a Beechcraft Baron, Green primarily looks for three factors when choosing a repair shop. First is expertise and familiarity with the aircraft. "I want to know they are not experimenting with the airplane," said Green. Second is customer service. "The ability and flexibility to get it in and get it done." Green likes the daily updates he gets from his MRO when his Eclipse is in the shop. Third, "How does the shop look? Do they look professional?" Although cost is an issue, Green suggests that most owners are seeking quality, professional service: "an MRO that you can trust, call when necessary, and get timely advice."
Brigido Natera of Opa-Locka Executive Airport (OPF)-based Fox Management International, which manages Learjet 31, 35 and 55 aircraft for their owners, agrees that the top criteria he looks for in an MRO is experience with the aircraft. Natera likes the personal attention of smaller repair shops, as well. And although cost is fairly standard across MROs, bigger shops often have more fees built into their structure, said Natera.
At Boca Aircraft Maintenance, which is certified to work on Eclipse, Falcon and Learjet aircraft (among others), President Todd Wilkins tries to help his owner-operator clients who handle their own maintenance by sending out reminders for maintenance coming due, inspection schedules, and by keeping the data on a spreadsheet. Wilkins also participates on the Eclipse 500 Club web site.
NBAA resources regarding maintenance for owner-operators include Section 4 of the NBAA Management Guide (www. nbaa.org/management-guide), as well as the various NBAA technical subcommittees. Aircraft type clubs abound, including the E5C (www.eclipse500club.org) and the Phenom Jet Association (www.phenom.aero).
What to Look for in a Repair Shop
Perform Air International's Ray Berg recommends that owner-operators consider, at very minimum, the following factors when choosing an MRO:
- Operation specifications – Make sure the shop has a valid FAA repair station certification and capabilities for your make, model or type of aircraft.
- Anti-drug and alcohol misuse prevention program.
- Other certificates – Are they certified by the OEM? Do they have other certificates?
- Go on a tour of the facility; find out who is actually going to work on your airplane. Ask lots of questions, and make sure shop personnel are willing to answer them.