Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Airliner-repair firm plans 130 new Tucson workers

An aircraft maintenance company at Tucson International Airport plans to add about 130 jobs in an expansion that includes a new hangar.

The Tucson Airport Authority last month tentatively approved a lease extension for Ascent Aviation Services Corp. that would allow the company to expand with a new hangar at the airport.

However, final approval is awaiting a review of a proposed change to the Airport Authority’s hangar construction standards to allow the company to build a fabric-topped hangar.

The TAA board approved a resolution Tuesday to change the standards, pending a final review by the airport executives by Oct. 3.

TAA board Treasurer Steve Fell, who chaired Tuesday’s meeting for absent chair Lisa Israel, said it’s clear the board supports Ascent’s plans.

“I think it’s fair to say we want to get this done. We think this is a great opportunity,” Fell said.

Michael Melvin, Ascent’s president and chief financial officer, said the company will be looking to hire more than 100 aircraft mechanics and 20 to 30 support staff as a result of the expansion. The company now employs about 150 workers.

“We’re very encouraged by the board members’ unanimous vote and their stated support to get this hangar built,” Melvin said.

The hangar, which could be erected in as little as six months, is key to the company’s expansion plans, Melvin said. Its partly translucent roof will save on lighting costs and provide workers with abundant, natural light, he said.

The company has a strong relationship with Pima Community College’s highly rated aviation-technology program, Melvin noted.

“Certainly it’s a competitive industry, but we’ve had very good success in retaining highly skilled and motivated employees,” he said.

Melvin said the wages Ascent pays mechanics are in line with industry standards. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, certified aircraft mechanics made a median hourly wage of $26.55 and an average wage of $26.78 in 2012.

The planned hangar will be about 45,000 square feet — larger than Ascent’s two existing hangars — and will fit two jetliners at once. The hangar is expected to cost about $3 million, according to the company.

At Tuesday’s board meeting Jim Sakrison, an attorney representing Ascent, pressed the board for its final approval, pending the construction-standards review.

Sakrison — a former TAA board member — told the board there may have been some miscommunication that the fabric-roofed hangar would be some sort of temporary structure, though the 25-foot-tall walls and much of the rest of the hybrid structure is steel.

TAA CEO and President Bonnie Allin, who had been out of town until recently, said she and other airport officials need more time to review the proposed construction standards change and financial data submitted by Ascent.

In August, the authority board approved the framework of a 12-year lease extension with three, five-year options subject to final negotiations.

The expansion will give the company more room to work on an expanding range of planes it is certified to repair and maintain, Melvin said.

The Federal Aviation Administration-approved repair station specializes in maintenance of narrow-body jetliners, such as the Boeing 737 and 717, the McDonnell Douglas MD-80/90 and Bombardier CRJ-100/200 series aircraft.

Ascent is awaiting final FAA approval to perform maintenance on Airbus A320 jetliners, which is expected sometime this fall.

“The size of this hangar will give us a whole new entry into a stable business, a business that definitely matches the Tucson environment very well,” Melvin said.

The new certification is seen as a key to growth in business from Latin America, where A320s are prevalent, the company says.

Ascent’s local architect, Michael Franks of Seaver Franks Architects, said the hybrid fabric-and-metal structure will meet all standards for strength and wind and fire resistance.

The hangar would be built by Maine-based Rubb Inc., which has installed similar part-fabric structures at a number of airports, including Boston’s Logan International Airport, New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport and airports in Newark, N.J., Orlando, Fla., and Honolulu.

The architectural membrane, made of polyester fabric clad in PVC plastic, is sunlight-stable, fire-retardant and expected to last 25 years, Rubb CEO David Nickerson said.

Did you know?

The operation now known as Ascent Aviation Services traces its roots to Hamilton Aviation, an aircraft-maintenance firm founded in Tucson in 1947 by aviation pioneer Gordon B. Hamilton.

The company emerged from a 2002 bankruptcy reorganization with a new parent company, Global Aircraft Solutions.

But in 2009, Global Aircraft filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization, citing the recession and mounting debt.

Chicago-based Victory Park Capital, Global Aircraft's biggest creditor, bought the company's assets for about $5.5 million in a bankruptcy auction in October 2009 and began operations as Ascent Aviation.

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