Taking flight

Challenge: Ensure that a region has the infrastructure and resources to accommodate the growth of a burgeoning aerospace industry.

Solution: Local officials partner with the state transportation department to build a highway and taxiway, opening up 1,000 acres for new development, and team with educational institutions to provide customized training programs.

By Spencer Campbell

As the executive director of Piedmont Triad International Airport in Greensboro, Kevin Baker gives a lot of presentations around the region and state. During each engagement, Baker reminisces back to about five years ago, when he had just taken over as the top exec at PTI. “What used to keep me awake,” Baker tells his audience, “was the fear that some company would come [to the Triad] and say, ‘We want to employ 1,000 people in your community, and we want to build airplanes. But in order to do so, we need to have 200 acres, and we need it next week.’ We would have had to say no.” The situation was reminiscent of the famous line from the movie Field of Dreams — “If you build it, he will come” — only the exact opposite: “They want to come, but you can’t build it,” Baker says. “I used to call that the field of nightmares.”

Baker sleeps much better these days. In 2017, the N.C. Department of Transportation will complete a $176 million, 9.4-mile highway project to connect U.S. 220 and N.C. 68. The project includes a new taxiway over the adjacent Interstate 73. The taxiway — paid for by the N.C. Mobility Fund, which finances transportation projects deemed necessary for the growth of the state or region — opens up access to nearly 1,000 acres of PTI property on the opposite side of I-73. “Our main function is to make sure that there’s a product for the economic developers to be able to sell,” Baker says. “The products in this case are sites — 100 acres, 200 acres right next to a runway and next to an interstate. They don’t have any environmental problems and can be graded quickly — all the things a company is looking for when it’s looking to locate a new facility. We’ve been making sure over the last five to six years that we are ready.”

PTI needed the extra room, because over the last several decades, the airport has become a popular place. In the early 1990s, PTI owned about 2,500 acres, offered two runways and housed an airplane maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) provider named TIMCO Aviation Services Inc. Since then, the state has completed part of a 44-mile Greensboro Urban Loop on the eastern side of PTI, making it much simpler for suppliers and travelers to access the airport. Cessna opened an MRO facility for its Citation line of planes during the mid-1990s. FedEx invested $500 million in the construction of its mid-Atlantic hub at PTI, which necessitated the building of a third runway that permits simultaneous landings and takeoffs, multiplying the airport’s traffic capacity. PTI, now up to 4,000 acres, employs 2,200 people, pays direct wages of $116 million annually, and generates $55 million in state and local taxes, according to a 2016 report from the NCDOT. Its total economic impact is just shy of $2 billion a year. The airport has become a valuable economic-development tool, according to Stan Kelly, president and CEO of the Piedmont Triad Partnership. “And it is becoming an even more important asset,” he says.

Backing up Kelly’s words are two recent developments. First, Honda Aircraft Co., which came to PTI in 2009, recently received Federal Aviation Administration certification for its HondaJet light twinjet plane, meaning production is projected to ramp up at its 680,000-square-foot research, design and manufacturing center at PTI. The company has invested more than $160 million in its Greensboro world headquarters, where it employs more than 1,700 people. Second, HAECO Americas, the MRO formerly called TIMCO that debuted at PTI back in 1990, broke ground on its fifth PTI hangar in August 2016. The new maintenance facility will stand 250,000 square feet and allow HAECO to work on the largest aircraft in the skies — as well as ones that haven’t even taken off yet.

In 2014, Hong Kong-based HAECO Group acquired TIMCO, turning the newly christened HAECO Americas into a global operation just as likely to repair an airliner registered in Qatar as one domiciled in the United States. Established in 1950, the parent company employs 17,000 people around the world through its 17 subsidiaries and affiliates. “We’re one of the only companies in the world who can do everything from the design, the engineering, the manufacturing of the product, the installation, and the maintenance of the aircraft,” says David Kelly, vice president of marketing and strategy for HAECO Americas. “We’re able to do that by growing our footprint in North America, specifically here in the Triad.”

• • •

From the top-floor boardroom of Guilford Technical Community College’s Aviation Center III building — a 42,000-square-foot training facility that sits on a 20-acre site next to PTI — Nicolas Yale has an easy view of the Cessna Citation Service Center. To the right stands Honda’s production facility. On the left, HAECO’s four (soon to be five) hangars loom. One street separates GTCC from the airport’s largest employers. “It’s kind of interesting that they’re that close,” says Yale, the school’s director of aviation programs. But it’s also intentional.

GTCC launched its first aviation program in 1969, when the former Piedmont Airlines was still flying out of PTI. The school now offers four different courses of study: aviation electronics, career pilot, aviation management and aviation-systems technology. During the 2014-15 school year, GTCC’s aviation programs boasted 655 enrollees, up 32% from the previous year. “Not only do you have the property [at PTI],” says Brent Christensen, president and CEO of the Greensboro Partnership, the city’s chief economic-development organization, “but you have the workforce and a community college in GTCC that’s committed to continuing to provide the workforce for this industry.”

GTCC is able to do that by tailoring its lesson plans to what local aviation and aerospace companies need to grow their businesses. For instance, a few years ago, Landmark Aviation, which has a maintenance-support operation at PTI, began receiving contracts for avionics installations that differed from the kind GTCC performed in its classrooms. “So we went out and acquired the equipment, tooling and the requirements to incorporate that into our training,” Yale says. “Now, our students can walk out of our program and not only say, ‘I have an associate degree in avionics technology,’ but they have also done three or four installs that the industry is doing. That makes a major difference for employers: Someone who’s actually done it.” GTCC also has established internships and part-time positions for its students with HAECO and Cessna.

Although perhaps the most prominent, GTCC isn’t the only school in the Triad catering to the aviation and aerospace businesses clustered in and around PTI. Greensboro is also home to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (housed inside the GTCC Aviation Center). Forsyth Technical Community College has proposed opening a $16 million aviation campus at nearby Smith Reynolds Airport in Winston-Salem to train technicians and mechanics. Even T. Wingate Andrews High School, about 13 miles south of PTI in High Point, offers an aviation academy that, in partnership with GTCC, sets students on one of six different career paths, from pilot to airframe and power-plant mechanic.

Then again, some might say the Triad region has been training for aviation and aerospace jobs for decades. In nearby Wallburg, HAECO operates a facility that manufactures airplane seats. In High Point, the company will soon open an $11 million factory to make kitchens and bathrooms for planes. “If you consider the furniture industry, which has had its troubles in the region along with tobacco, and you look at the seats we make in Wallburg and the lavatories and galleys that are going to be made in the new High Point facility — I mean, this is furniture that we’re building,” HAECO’s Kelly says. “That’s the great thing about the Triad area — it’s a great pool of employees from which we can select.”

• • •

You might think attending a convention in Farnborough, England — less than an hour by train from London — would be more vacation than business. But Christensen, of the Greensboro Partnership, might argue that point. In July 2016, he was one of 1,500 exhibitors from 52 countries who traveled to the ancient town for the Farnborough International Airshow, the industry’s most prominent get-together. Christensen spent nine hours on his feet inside the convention hall, then entertained prospects at dinner before finally climbing into his hotel bed late at night. “It’s a great location, but typically the only time you see any of the sights are on the cab ride to and from the airport,” he says.

However, the inconvenience is worth the effort because of the story Christensen can tell prospective PTI tenants — and the main character in that tale is HAECO. Since deregulation of the airline industry in 1978, global air traffic has continued to double every 15 years. The only other industry with that type of growth is technology, but unlike Apple with its iPhones, airlines can’t replace their planes every two years. Planes often are in service longer than three decades. At the same time, aerospace and aviation manufacturers are building bigger and wider aircraft. Boeing’s 777X, for instance, boasts a wingspan of 235 feet, three-quarters the length of a football field. In short, HAECO needed a larger hangar, and there was no better place to build it than at PTI. “There’s good logistics infrastructure here,” says Richard Kendall, CEO of HAECO Americas. “We work closely with local educational institutions, and the scale of aviation in the area provides a better opportunity to have people trained.”

It helps that state and local governments are willing to invest in the Triad’s future by providing economic support to HAECO and other companies expanding in the region. The state committed to funding $4 million of the $9 million needed for the grading of the 24-acre site, while the city of Greensboro and Guilford County approved $400,000 in incentives, each tied to the 500 jobs HAECO will add between 2018 and 2023. The Golden LEAF Foundation, established to provide grants to rural areas and regions once dependent on tobacco production, also kicked in $1 million for infrastructure improvements. This kind of support isn’t rare in the Triad: The High Point City Council and the Guilford County Board of Commissioners have each pledged $147,000 in performance-based economic incentives for HAECO’s new 250,000-square-foot aircraft-interiors facility. The money will match a One North Carolina Fund contribution of $294,000 tied to the company moving 252 jobs from California to North Carolina and creating 147 full-time jobs with an average annual wage of $60,000.

“When we’re pursuing these things, we’ve made the case very loudly to the state of North Carolina that it’s the largest beneficiary,” PTI’s Baker says, adding that the state has “risen to the occasion every time.” Baker also points outs that the state paid for the $15 million grading of the HondaJet site, where the company’s workers earn an average of $70,000 to $75,000 a year. “The state’s $15 million has already been recouped through payroll taxes.”

With HAECO’s fifth hangar well on its way — the company expects to complete the facility during the fourth quarter of 2017 and begin handling aircraft in 2018 — PTI, the Triad and North Carolina are turning their attention to luring a Boeing, Airbus or other large manufacturer to the newly opened 1,000 acres on the other side of I-73. That’s why the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina sent Christensen to England. “We got a good deal of looks just by being able to say, ‘We’re not standing pat,’” Christensen says. “We’re adding to the properties that would be available for companies like yours in the future.” Christensen admits that such mega-manufacturers are rare. “But when they do come around, we’re really well-positioned to compete for them, that’s for sure.”

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