Husband and wife, Mark and Lisa Krzywinski, are both aircraft mechanics. Unfortunately, the spouses lost their aviation roles because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But during the lockdown, the Canadian couple began to make aviation-themed clothing, eventually launching their own brand, Phelic and Co., which soon developed into a successful business.
From flight attendant to female aviation mechanic
In aviation, female mechanics are rare. But there are some people who are actively trying to change the industry.
Lisa’s technical career began eight years ago, when she was working as an experienced flight attendant. During a repatriation flight from Canada to the Bahamas, which was travelling to collect passengers after an aircraft broke down, Lisa’s interest in the technical aspects of aviation was piqued. She spent time chatting with the rescue crew, in particular the airline mechanics who attended the scene.
Lisa was immediately fascinated and began her journey to become an aircraft mechanic. She says: “I wanted to know more about [the profession] and because I worked for the same company, on my days off I went into the hangar and followed mechanics around to see what the day of the life of an aircraft mechanic was.” Lisa smiles. “That‘s how I met my husband.
“I started taking online courses and then I realized that, at the same time, I could be a flight attendant and attend an aircraft mechanics school [considering the fact that] I was able to move my schedule. So, I ended up going to school to become a mechanic while I still was a flight attendant.”
After two years of study, Lisa graduated to become an aircraft mechanic, which is an uncommon choice of profession for women in Canada where only 4% of technicians are female. But as Lisa worked in the hangar, she was exposed to the lack of gender equality in the plane maintenance industry. For Lisa, the stereotype that women do not make good mechanics is still prevalent in the industry, despite female mechanics holding the same qualifications as their male counterparts.
She says: “It goes one of two ways. Most people are fascinated, but there’s definitely still some work to be done.
“Some people see a difference in genders. There were definitely some [people] that would be part of the ‘boys club’ and didn’t want to include me, or wouldn’t ask for my help. But overall, most of my experience was not too bad because, first of all, I love airplanes.”
Lisa is certified to repair Airbus A319, A320, and A321 jets. For many years now, she has enjoyed the experience of a broken plane coming into the hangar, making repairs and then watching the aircraft take off again. Almost a decade spent mending engines and jet parts has done nothing to quell Lisa’s passion for the job.
She says: “Everybody has days [at] work where it’s not their favorite day. But 95% of the time, it’s exciting to be an aircraft mechanic. You never know what’s going to be wrong with the airplane and what kind of task you might be doing. It varies from day to day. And there are so many new things to learn.”
Both Mark and Lisa are qualified to fix the same type of aircraft. Shortly before the global pandemic, the couple worked for the same major Canadian airline.
Living in Southern Ontario, Mark and Lisa were employed on a seasonal contract. This gave the couple greater flexibility, which meant that they could focus on aircraft maintenance during the busy winter season and benefit from not working during the summer.
Lisa says: “We would make enough money in that timeframe to have the summer off. We used to work all winter and enjoyed the summer. But when COVID-19 hit, everything shut down and it was kind of a shock to everybody.
“We were in Saskatchewan when the shutdown happened, which is two provinces away from our home. When the government started closing the borders in all provinces, we had three days to pack all of our belongings and return home before everything was completely locked down.”
She continues: “I don’t think there was ever a part of me that thought it would be as bad as it was. It happened so fast that it was just unbelievable. Every day, I was watching the news and observed how the infection was slowly coming into the United States.”
Soon, the couple received a letter from their employer stating that the winter season might take longer than usual. Lisa reveals that, typically, the winter would last until the end of March. However, the airline informed the couple that it was supposed to continue until the end of April.
Lisa says: “On April 10, 2020, the company told us that the flights were done. The only operations now were repatriation flights and we all were stopped indefinitely.”
“I was scared and doubted what we were going to do. But since we were working seasonally, it was normal for us to take the summer off. So, initially, we thought that the situation wouldn‘t be so bad and we would be back next year when everything calms down. But no, it did not happen. And the next year it got worse and worse and worse. Everybody was shut down, everybody was laid off.”
The Canadian government made provisions for those who had lost their jobs during the pandemic and so, Mark and Lisa were supported by $2,000 a month per person for an entire year. The money was enough to pay bills, but not to keep the couple living in the standard that they were accustomed to pre-pandemic. So, the couple sought another source of income.
Aircraft mechanics meet aviation fashion
By Christmas 2020, Mark and Lisa realized that it would be a while before they could return to their seasonal roles. At that time, Mark and Lisa began to design a few T-shirts printed with the Ontario International Airport code. While these were initially for personal use, the couple saw an opportunity for a new business venture. Their initial attempts went well and attracted the attention of buyers, so the couple decided to print more.
Lisa says: “We have Christmas markets in the town where we live. So, we invested around $3,000 into necessary equipment to produce T-shirts with the airport code and brought some to the market to see what [would happen]. Surprisingly, we were sold out in a day because people liked it. But actually, we weren’t expecting the demand as such.”
She adds: “I used to write the orders down on a piece of paper and cross them off for each client, but then it got to the point that this was no longer working. We needed to sort the address and how much people paid for shipping, so I made a website, which I’d never done before. I taught myself, it’s not rocket science, but it’s still something that I never really did.
“We made our very first website with pictures taken by me. As we slowly got going, we learned how to use Photoshop, so that we can take good-quality pictures.”
The aviation community in Canada, while quite small, is highly supportive. Lisa says that this close-knit group helped business growth.
Initially, all the T-shirts were black, but now Phelix and Co. feature a variety of colorful apparel for aviation enthusiasts, including up-cycled aircraft leather wallets, children’s clothing, hoodies, crewnecks, sweatpants, and even aviation-themed socks.
Lisa adds: “Now, we do baby onesies that are designed by my husband. He comes up with sweet ideas for babies. Meanwhile, two months ago, we started a new project where we make all the wallets, bags, and passport holders from old airplane seats.
“So, instead of them going into the garbage, we turn these materials into products, which is cool, because now we are working on creating a part of the solution for such an industry that pollutes a lot. At least we can kind of contribute a little bit and attempt to neutralize the impact to the environment.”
Lisa admits that while she is focused on the managerial, accounting and advertising side of the business, Mark is more creative and is responsible for product development and design.
She says: “When Mark started drawing and creating new designs, he loved it. He just wakes up and he comes up with a bunch of new ideas on his own. He’s got a lot of creativity, for sure.”
The couple is now attempting to branch out and attract new customers while continuing to introduce the upcycled leather products to further awareness of environmental concerns. Phelix and Co. have already seen a 75% return on its initial investment, which Mark and Lisa have already reinvested into their growing business. There’s also talk of creating a physical store at Toronto Pearson Airport once airlines resume air travel operations.
Lisa says: “It’s definitely a goal of mine to open a physical facility for our product. But until people start traveling again, there’s no purpose in having it. We will wait and see when things get back to normal at the airports.”
Despite the success of Mark and Lisa’s new business, the husband and wife team have not lost their passion for aircraft maintenance. Post-pandemic, the shortage of aircraft maintenance professionals is set to be larger than before. So, both mechanics are keeping their fingers crossed for recovery.
Lisa says: “If I was a betting person, and I had to put money on it, I would say if things stay the way they are now, where people are getting vaccinated and the numbers of vaccinated people are going down, I would bet [that by] the spring of next year, [the industry is] recovered. That would be my best guess.
“But you’ll see. There have been a lot of surprises [during] the pandemic, so it’s really hard to say because you think it’s getting better and everything goes sideways again.”