We all start somewhere. At one point or another, our total aviation experience is a grand total of nada, and often considering where to start can be daunting. Those attending an institution with a complete aviation program are particularly advantaged as most will have partnerships to feed interns. If you are interested in aviation but are studying a broader field, such as communications or business, it is not a fatal problem; the responsibility for finding an internship will likely fall on you.
For example, I was fortunate enough to intern with the Federal Aviation Administration at the JFK Air Traffic Control Tower (ATCT), which sounds all good and dandy but did not get me where I needed to be. Though I had ample time, I neglected this consideration and still did not entertain the idea of working part-time during school. After graduation, I ended up paying for it when I was told I did not have the required work experience for an entry-level Operations position.
I could not see it then, but this played out for the best. I thought, "I have four years of college and two solid internships; what more could they want?" After only a day as a ramp agent (which I would like to take a moment to point out is separate from line service technician), I ascertained why it is so important to spend time at an entry-level job. I thought I had appreciated all aviation had to offer, but I was very wrong.
Now is the time to Bolster Your Resume
Most of what you hear is about the shortage of pilots, but realistically the staffing crisis spans far wider. Flight crews, airport or airline management, flight support roles, and any organization that touches aviation are struggling to maintain adequate staffing levels. If you aspire to become a pilot and have the resources to land 1500 hours, this is a golden employment opportunity. Otherwise, it would be best to realize that competition in our field has never been healthier.
Our department has seen progressively stronger resumes across our desks, often leaving us to pass over well-qualified individuals. Staffing crisis aside, I realize that a steady stream of talent is a good problem for an organization. My point is that ensuring your resume stacks up against the best is more important now. A line service technician is a great place to start for those just getting their feet wet.
So, let's get into it; what exactly is a line service technician?
Similar to the workers required to load bags onto commercial aircraft, general aviation has a similar function that entails various job duties. General aviation, which ICAO defines as "all civil aviation aircraft operations except commercial air transport or aerial work," involves everything from small aircraft, such as Cessna 172s, to the largest commercial aircraft you can think of. This means you get to do pretty cool stuff with pretty cool planes.
Examples of typical job responsibilities:
Fueling. For now, all aircraft need gas. Due to its high overhead cost, fuel is often the determining factor in establishing how profitable an operation is. At airports with more than one FBO, there will often be competition to see who can afford to offer the lowest price.
For example, I remember when a well-known private charter operator left the competition for us over the difference of a penny. At first glance, this sounds ridiculous in consideration of the lucrative industry. That is until you figure this operator accounted for 1,000,000 gallons of fuel annually in Bedford.
For others, fuel is seen as more of an opportunity cost because the jet allows them to travel to Europe to close out a multi-million dollar business deal.
Additionally, at most airports, not medium or large hubs, FBOs will provide the fueling services for scheduled airlines contractedly. All three FBOs hold a fueling contract at the airport I work now.
Baggage. The primary difference between a line service technician and a ramp agent is how they are expected to handle luggage. On the one hand, I have never heard “ramp agent” and “delicate” used in the same sentence before. Meanwhile, for the line tech, handling a customer’s luggage delicately is expected and taken very seriously. In the same way, a bellhop at a five-star hotel handles luggage, so does the line tech. They are often rewarded (*cough* tipped *cough*) for their efforts, too.
Potable Water/Lavatory Servicing. I won't sit here and pretend it is all sunshine and rainbows. Line service is a skills-based job, and part of that skill set is servicing…well….the service tanks (not at the same time). This is where you will learn to hate every Hawker ever made.
Towing. This is self-explanatory and was my favorite part of the job. The towing of aircraft occurs constantly and requires precise skill. Believe it or not, the smaller aircraft are far more complex to tow than the larger ones. Just know that it is normal to spend some time on the job before being trained to tow.
Valet. For the most part, at airports that allow cars plane-side, FBOs will offer a car valet service to their customers. I have heard of a couple of places hiring dedicated valet staff; however, for insurance purposes, it is scarce. So, yes, you get to drive that cool Tesla you are drooling over.
Ad-hoc Charters. Often, an airliner chartered for service will operate out of an FBO instead of the airline terminal. It makes sense for various reasons - primarily relaxed security measures, logistically less complexity, and fiscally far cheaper. Depending on the airport you are at, this could be a rarity or an everyday occurrence.
De-Icing. Planes have to fly in the snow, as well. For the most part, corporate flights are not scheduled around the weather. Commercial flights may be impacted across the board. However, general aviation operates under more lenient flight regulations. Further, more versatile performance capabilities often require less complexity to ensure a safe flight.
Miscellaneous. Like any other job, there will be random assignments outside your daily responsibilities that you may have to tend to. This may be fueling the ground service equipment or even plowing the ramp in the winter. Each FBO is different - I even had to clean the bathrooms at the first FBO. It was very humbling!
All I am saying is Think About It.
Line service is always the first suggestion that comes to mind whenever I am approached for advice about entry-level aviation jobs. I find this isn't easy to take at face value, and I understand why. Especially for someone just graduating with a four-year degree, it may be hard to sell the value of emptying lavatory tanks, even just for a little. However, please understand aviation already has enough egos running awry - no reason to exacerbate another. Your days as a line tech will keep you humble and remind you of the "why" once you eventually move up in your career.
You will likely see benefits to your personal life, as well. When I first started, personality-wise, I was timid. There was little more behind it; interacting with people was not my thing. Even if you are the biggest hermit, spending time on the ramp will drive you out of your shell. I had so many things I wanted to learn that I could not contain myself. Being shy can also make it harder to bond with coworkers, but when you love your job, the positivity becomes infectious, and you will find that others will naturally gravitate toward you.
You Never Know
Line service can furnish some pretty attractive networking opportunities depending on where you work. I was fortunate enough to work for the primary FBO at one of the busiest general aviation airports in the country, but this surely won't always be the case.
By interacting with pilots or clientele, you would be surprised what doors will open with a positive experience. I know of several former line techs that now work as dispatchers for flight departments of previous clients or have moved up the ladder into a corporate position.
For myself, networking became about getting to know the lovely people I was surrounded by. I did my best never to look at a rude client or tenant negatively - they are just individuals with needs and communicate in their own [unique] way. It is our responsibility to gather how to deal with others who see things differently, which is okay.
Become a People Person
In my opinion, learning exceptional customer service first-hand is the most critical aspect of the job. Anyone can know how to fuel or dump the potty lavs on a Beechjet (make sure you wash your hands), but not everyone comprehends how to deal with the clientele you are exposed to. Once people reach a certain level of wealth, they live in a different world than everyone else. They have expectations for how you treat their personal belongings and interact in the brief moments of your encounter.
I like to tell the story of a client who chose our FBO representing a large coffeehouse distributor just days after I was promoted to line service lead. It was just one of those days where I could not do anything right. I had realized none of their dishes or catering were ready, and their plane was positioned, so they knew we were unprepared. To make matters worse, after we towed their plane to their departure spot, I removed the aircraft’s down lock pins (required to tow specific aircraft) as a courtesy. However, the pilot politely told me he preferred to handle that as part of his preflight checklist. Ugh.
Often, the level of service they received would be more than enough to drive a client to a competitor. However, the pilot forgave enough to give us another chance - but not without first making us aware of his previous experience. This was the first time I could say a switch inside me flipped. An earlier me would have thought, “Can this guy take a chill pill? Everyone makes mistakes.”
Instead, I understood wholeheartedly and double-checked that everything was ready before the plane touched down. After the client left the airport, I caught a moment with the pilot and apologized for the previous experience, eventually thanking him for the lesson in leadership. While I cannot say enough good things about their organization, I am sure they would like to remain anonymous.
No matter where aviation takes you, rest assured that customer service will be part of your job. Think about it like this; you might as well get the learning lessons out of the way first rather than learn the hard way in a position with a thinner error margin. In my five years in airport operations, we have seen many people come and go. But, I can say far and away, the ones who perform the best and have little problem sticking around are the ones who spent time in an entry-level position, such as line tech, involving a strong emphasis on building customer relations.
This last part is for the plane nerds in particular. If you feel this job is for you, spend some time researching where you could see yourself working, as there may be more than one option near you. I had started at Worcester Regional Airport for some time. However, I felt like I wanted more of a challenge. It was nothing against Worcester; there was enough to keep busy and learn. I had just found out Jet Aviation in Bedford was the primary FBO on the field and held specific charter contracts I was highly interested in that would put me next to aircraft I had to that point, only dreamed of working on. I applied shortly after (actually taking a pay cut at first) and never regretted it for a second.
So, that's about it. I could shed some light on the benefits of becoming a line technician. Stay tuned for more exciting Career Insights!
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