Thursday, January 17, 2013

Waco's L-3 aircraft plant keeps flying high in weak economy

Waco’s L-3 Communications plant, which modifies military and commercial aircraft, has seen its employment soar by 300 in the past two years, and the company is holding a job fair this week to fill another 100 positions.

About 2,300 people work for L-3 locally, most at its sprawling complex at Texas State Technical College airport.

The plant recently added 150 parking spaces and likely will enlarge the cafeteria, spokesman Lance Martin said.

Erecting additional hangar space is not out of the question, he said.

The city’s largest industrial employer invites job seekers to visit the Waco Hilton at Franklin Avenue and University Parks Drive on Friday and Saturday.

L-3 has been bucking national trends and growing despite a sluggish economy. Talk of the “fiscal cliff” and cuts in defense spending barely made a ripple at the plant, which had 100 layoffs in 2003 and another 55 in early 2011, but now is enjoying growth that apparently will continue.

“We have steady work on both the military and commercial side,” Martin said. “Our hangars are full.”

That’s a telling statement considering hangar space at L-3 in Waco has risen from 85,000 square feet in 1985, when the plant was operated by Electrospace Systems, to 500,000 square feet today and possibly expanding.

For security reasons, L-3 remains tight-lipped about projects going on behind closed doors. But Martin confirmed the plant performs maintenance and system upgrades on Navy P-3 aircraft that fly surveillance missions and on Air Force C-130 transport planes.

Martin said L-3 also has benefited from “several international wins,” including collaboration with an Italian company to build C-27J tactical airlift planes for the Royal Australian Air Force.

The planes would be made in Italy and flown to L-3, where crews will install customized features. C-27J crafts have been used domestically to haul supplies to victims of Hurricane Sandy in the Northeast.

L-3 has built a reputation for installing luxury interiors on jets flown by dignitaries and foreign heads of state. It recently received delivery of two Boeing Business Jet 747-8 aircraft on which it will install entertainment, lighting and sound-dampening systems.

Nick Farah, president of L-3’s Platform Integration division in Waco, issued this statement: “Our growth has been driven by winning new business, enabled by additional hangar space and more efficient operations. The biggest challenge moving forward is that we’re literally bursting at the seams now, so more hangar space, parking and other infrastructure will be needed.”

Waco City Manager Larry Groth said L-3’s presence is something the city can rely upon during good times and bad.

“It’s the big one, in terms of job numbers, but it also has created spinoff companies that give us a powerful aviation sector and adds to the diversity of our local economy,” Groth said. “These companies typically create high-tech jobs that pay good wages.”

L-3’s last major expansion came in 2009, when it built an 87,000-square-foot, $10 million hangar. It received $2 million from the Waco-McLennan County Economic Development Corp. fund, the largest amount from that pool up to that time.

History in Waco

The New York-based company bought the plant in 2002 from Raytheon, a defense giant whose Waco operations reportedly lost money between 1999 and 2001. A series of layoffs created a wave of concern, with several employees sending email messages to the Tribune-Herald predicting a dire future. Some suggested the plant would close if Raytheon could not find a buyer.

L-3, a growing force in the high-tech and aerospace industries, closed a $1.13 billion package deal in late 2002 that included Raytheon’s Waco plant and other properties in Greenville, Texas; Lexington, Ky.; and Avalon, Australia.

Still, the layoffs continued, as L-3 sought to cut overhead. Employment dropped to between 1,500 and 1,600 at the Waco facility that once boasted 1,800 employees and 400 independent contractors.

City of Waco leaders grew concerned and asked the company to address community fears that L-3 was poised to close Waco operations to focus on other properties it acquired from Raytheon.

Founder and chairman Frank Lanza flew to Waco and assured employees and city leaders the company had big plans for the facility.

Since then, L-3 has experienced ups and downs as it won contracts while others expired. But the trend continues upward, officials said.

“Local organizations like the Waco chamber, Texas State Technical College, city of Waco, McLennan County and Texas Workforce Commission make this a very business-friendly environment, and we appreciate their advocacy in helping us grow,” Farah said.

Martin said L-3 began to prosper when the Air Force and Navy began to emphasize operation readiness.

“We became a one-stop shop for maintenance and upgrades involving their aircraft,” he added.

Among the biggest challenges L-3 faces is finding qualified employees, so it frequently hosts job fairs.

“National demand for these people is intense, and there is a lot of competition within the industry,” Martin said.

L-3 partners with Texas State Technical College on a program titled Aviation Career Education. The company pays tuition and other costs for students who begin working at L-3 about halfway through their coursework. It targets mechanics and electricians.

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