Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time hanging around maintenance shops like the proverbial fly on the wall, watching the comings and goings of airplanes and owners and listening to the mechanics talk. In the process, I’ve noticed that owners often wind up inadvertently sabotaging the maintenance of their aircraft by imposing inappropriate time or money pressures.
One of the worst things an owner can do is to put his aircraft in the shop on Monday for an annual inspection and tell his mechanic “Bill, I’ve just gotta have the airplane by Friday…big weekend family trip!” A week might be enough time to get the work done if there are no surprises, but maintenance is seldom surprise-free.
In the case of an annual that starts on Monday, it might well be Tuesday afternoon or Wednesday morning before the IA has gotten the aircraft all opened up, inspected everything, and actually knows what repairs need to be done and what parts need to be ordered. Now the mechanic is working with a gun to his head. In a good-faith attempt to please you (and avoid a confrontation when your aircraft isn’t ready when promised), he’s likely to rush the work and defer any maintenance that is less than absolutely safety-critical.
Lather, rinse, repeat a few times, and you wind up with an aircraft that isn’t as well maintained as it should be. Is that really what you want? Not to mention you’ll be launching off on your big trip in an aircraft just out of annual without leaving time for a proper post-maintenance shakedown flight (sans passengers). Not smart.
Whenever you put your plane in the shop for annual inspection or major maintenance, be prepared for the plane to be downed for twice the estimated time. Tell yourself that when it comes to aircraft maintenance, it’s better to do it right than to do it fast. If the airplane is done on time, be pleasantly surprised. If it runs over due to unforeseen contingencies, keep your cool and be happy that your mechanic cares enough to do the job right.
Also high on the shoot-yourself-in-the-foot list is arguing over the bill after your aircraft comes out of annual or major maintenance. This is a great way to win the battle but lose the war. At next year’s annual inspection, your mechanic will remember last year’s argument, and will do everything in his power to keep it from happening again—by deferring any maintenance that is not absolutely critical in a good-faith attempt to minimize the bill. Those deferred items will inevitably come back to bite you, because in the long run it’s always cheaper to fix problems sooner rather than later.
Let me be clear: I’m not advocating a money-is-no-object approach to maintenance. Anyone who knows me or has read my stuff knows that I’m a world-class skinflint who will do almost anything to avoid spending a nickel more than necessary on maintenance. But arguing over the bill after the job is done is not the way to save money, trust me. All it will accomplish is to sabotage the quality of maintenance you receive.
If you want to keep control over the cost of maintenance (and I’m definitely in favor of that), the way to do it is to get involved early in the process. Tell the IA to call you as soon as he’s completed the inspection but BEFORE he’s started any repairs or ordered any parts.
When the IA calls, pay him a visit and go over the discrepancy list with him. Ask him to give you a time and cost estimate to repair each item on the list. For items that aren’t safety-critical (yet), make a joint decision whether to fix now or defer. (In my experience, most owners will elect to fix more and defer less than what the mechanic would decide on his own.)
When you’re done going through the discrepancy list with your IA, you’ll have a pretty solid estimate of what the final bill will be, so there shouldn’t be any unwelcome surprises. And your mechanic will know that his final bill had better be pretty close to the estimate he gave you, or he’d better have a darn good explanation for why it isn’t.
There’s no better way for an owner to learn how to work effectively with mechanics than to do an owner-assisted annual. By the time you’re through, you’ll have learned how the process works and have a much better idea of how things look on the other side of the wrench. I think every owner owes it to himself to go through this experience at least once. Even if you never do it again, the knowledge you’ll gain will pay dividends for as long as you own an aircraft.