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Sunday, October 31, 2010

Women in blue overalls

MYLENE EBREO, a crew chief for avionics with Lufthansa Technik Philippines, joined the male-dominated and indeed macho world of airline mechanics more than 10 years ago. The company was then still exclusively providing ground maintenance, repair and overhaul services to Philippine Airlines, and Mylene was one of the few women to be admitted to the mechanics’ ranks.

“The men would look askance at us as we walked by,” Mylene recalls, “and some of the older male supervisors refused to deal with us directly.” But through sheer hard work and reliability “My” was able to gain the trust of her supervisors and today finds herself supervising crews of as many as 80 mechanics, most of them men, per shift.

The skepticism and resistance of their male co-employees are part and parcel of the job, says My and two other women contemporaries at LTP: Shirleen “Pinky” Estrada and Ditas “Ditz” Velasco-Salayon. “We should be strong,” declares My.

Pinky is a foreman (foreperson?) dealing with the structural integrity of the aircraft they service, while Ditz is a foreman with primary responsibility for coordinating interiors.

What special qualities do women bring to their jobs with LTP? Mylene believes it is women’s natural eye for detail. “Matiyaga ang mga babae (Women are more persevering),” she notes, adding that working on aircraft demands painstaking attention to the smallest details, from using the right airplane parts to finding the tiniest cracks in airplane bodies.

* * *

ASIDE FROM being “mabusisi (painstaking),” the women mechanics are also important for what LTP vice president for marketing Dominik Wiener-Silva calls “customer interface.”

“Beauty is an asset, especially with Europeans,” says My with a smile. Since they work with client representatives from different parts of the world, it’s important for the mechanics to be able to communicate well and convey all the issues involved in the MRO—maintenance, repair and overhaul—of aircraft. Certainly a winning personality and ability to win over clients is an asset.

“We also do our job faster,” adds Pinky, who says that keeping “turnaround time” to a minimum is a prime demand of clients who of course want to keep their aircraft in the air as long and as often as possible.

Ditz tells the story of one assignment that brought her to Hong Kong to consult with an airline

that wanted their fleet interiors refurbished. At first, she says, she sensed that the client representatives couldn’t seem to bring themselves to trust her until she realized that “the common image of the Filipino woman in Hong Kong is that of a domestic helper.” One client even told her: “I couldn’t believe that you are intelligent!” But she proved her mettle, says Ditz, during a discussion on the configuration of the lavatory and she cited from memory the part number of a particular type of lavatory door lock. The clients were properly impressed.

Their work, the women concede, has brought them to foreign assignments a number of times, including training stints at Lufthansa Technik’s global headquarters in Hamburg, Germany. But Ditz, for one, says she’s no longer as eager for foreign assignments, especially long-term ones. “Our children are growing up, and six months is too long to be away from home.” Both My and Ditz are married with children while Pinky is single. “By choice,” Ditz interjects.

* * *

LUFTHANSA Technik Philippines employs 366 women out of a total of 2,700 employees, about 13 percent. Not an impressive number really (the United Nations recommendation for achieving a gender “critical mass” is 30 percent), but as Wiener-Silva points out, “it’s the largest percentage in the world,” and in the industry.

The women of LTP assume the same responsibilities as the men, and go through the same four-step training until they reach the status of Mechanic A. While Tess Fajardo, LTP vice president for human resources, doesn’t cite salary figures, she says that when ranged against the wages of the only comparable occupation of an auto mechanic, the airline mechanics at LTP are certainly compensated well.

A definite plus are the pretty short and regular work hours. “If we start work at seven in the morning,” says Mylene, “and we work fairly fast, the entire team can go home around three in the afternoon.” Mylene, as team leader, is crucial in this aspect, as it is her responsibility to plan the day’s work scope and assign the people to their tasks.

Ditz, for her part, is an active member of the Employee Council, with gender relations in the workplace as a special concern. While the still-lopsided gender balance provides fertile ground for sexual harassment, the problem seems to have been tamed at LTP. “We’ve had about one or two cases of sexual harassment in the last 10 years,” says Ditz. My, who is the most senior of the three women, concedes that the problem was much worse at the start, but now “the men have gotten used to us.”

* * *

A VISIT to LTP’s five-bay hangar is necessary to fully grasp just how impressive is the work done by this German-Filipino partnership. At the time we visited, crews were working on two aircraft of Virgin Atlantic Airways. The planes were stripped to bare metal in parts and surrounded by a metal exoskeleton of scaffolding. Around them swarmed mechanics in dark blue overalls, looking like Lilliputian villagers swarming over the two beached giants.

Air passengers rarely give a thought to the work done while the airplane is grounded. But the quality of the MRO work, as much as the skills of the pilots and cabin crew, will determine the quality of the flying experience, especially whether passengers and crew survive. They may be unseen, but the men and women of LTP are key to ensuring we arrive alive.

Posted via email from Aviation Professionals dot Org

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