December 24, 2013 in Opinion

Editorial: Local effort to expand aerospace important

 

The scale may be smaller than the West Side watch for the Boeing Co. 777X, but Spokane awaits a decision by another aerospace company that could be almost as important to the industry’s future here.

Spokane County and Spokane International Airport officials have been working with Aviation Technical Services, which is considering a new facility to accommodate its growing book of airline maintenance work. ATS employs about 1,000 people in Moses Lake and Everett, its headquarters, and announced just last week it would open a facility in a former American Airlines maintenance complex in Kansas City, Mo., where it may eventually hire another 1,000.

Kansas City is a good fit because the workers are already there, and Southwest Airlines, a major client, is that city’s biggest provider of airline service. Airlines prefer locations that minimize the time needed to rotate planes in and out of service.

They also want service at the lowest possible cost. To help make Spokane International Airport more competitive, the county commissioners are prepared to sell $19 million in bonds at the advantageous rates available to municipalities, as opposed to private borrowers. The difference will allow the airport to lower lease rates on a new hangar capable of housing two Boeing 787 airplanes or a greater number of smaller planes.

The city of Spokane would provide water and sewer hookups.

So far, the only state contribution is $250,000 from a special fund Gov. Jay Inslee has to foster economic development. Other recent additions to airport aerospace facilities have been financed in part by the Washington Community Economic Revitalization Board, but in the chicken-and-egg world of public-private partnerships, CERB needs to see a “bird in hand” before it can respond to requests for help.

So, whatever help CERB might offer cannot be built into the initial terms of the lease offered to ATS.

Meanwhile, ATS officials are shopping the potential new facility and associated jobs in much the same way Boeing has put the 777X plant out for bid, with the significant difference that Washington’s incentives for aerospace manufacture do not necessarily trickle down to businesses that maintain, but do not make, airplanes. Yet maintenance, done on a 15- to 18-month cycle, may sustain jobs longer than one-time manufacturing, and maintenance helps sustain the same supply chain feeding a Boeing or Airbus.

The aerospace industry in the Spokane area has grown tremendously in recent years. Associated Painters, now building a second hangar at the airport, would be a significant asset to ATS, which would not have to build its own paint shop. So would Spokane Community College’s aircraft mechanic certification program and former Fairchild Air Force Base airmen with repair skills.

Spokane is putting together a pretty good package for ATS, but the 777X may have pushed the local effort off the radar. Local officials should make sure that does not happen.

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