Commercial Aviation

Fasten Your Seatbelts, This Industry Sector is Taking Off

By Dave Perry

Tucson has all the parts needed for its commercial aviation sector to climb in altitude.

Among the assets – storied military and industrial history, thriving aviation companies, a commitment to advancing a skilled workforce, educational institutions, land, and collaboration. The weather’s just right, too. A current emphasis for growth is Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul, or MRO, companies.

“Think of them as garages for airplanes,” said Allen Kinnison, VP of Southern Arizona Leadership Council. “Everything from simple oil and tire changes…to inspections…to major overhauls, repairs and modifications.”

Chief among MRO companies at Tucson International Airport (TUS) are SkyWest Airlines, MHIRJ Aviation Group, Bombardier Tucson Service Centre, and Ascent Aviation Services. They employ a large number of skilled workers–many of whom trained at Pima Community College’s adjacent Aviation Technology Center, which just completed a $21 million upgrade.

Matthew Nichols, a spokesman for Bombardier, shared why his company is here. “The Southern Arizona labor market and important aerospace presence offers a large talent pool to support the service center’s continuing growth,” he said.

In the last year, the PCC Aviation Technology Center doubled its capacity from 125 to 250 students who are training as airframe and power plant mechanics. Many of those students start their study in the Pima Joint Technical Education District. With a fast track it calls Part 65, PCC can accelerate military veterans, and others with relevant experience, through an eight-week refresher course ahead of licensing exams.

More than 150 graduate each year. Right away, nine in 10 find work with MROs and other aviation-focused businesses in Tucson and Arizona. “We sometimes have students with three different job offers,” said Greg Wilson, PCC dean of applied technology.

“Most of the people who want to go through our program want to stay local,” PCC Chancellor Lee Lambert said. “That’s a selling point as we’re trying to court these other employers.”

PCC’s program “makes our market one of the most competitive for MRO training in the country,” said Susan Dumon, senior VP of economic competitiveness at Sun Corridor, Inc.

 “Our program is known across the country,” Wilson added. “The program is definitely a success, and is meeting the needs of industry. We need to generate more of them.”

Beyond workers, MROs need access to runways, and space for facilities to work on aircraft. At 8,282 acres, TUS is one of the 10 largest commercial airports by landmass in America. Of that land, up to 5,160 acres is targeted for development, with runway access nearby to accommodate business needs.

“The Tucson Airport Authority is fortunate to have a sizeable amount of land surrounding its airports,” said TAA President and CEO Danette Bewley. “For the last 75 years, those who have managed the airport have been strategic in accumulating land for both aeronautical and non-aeronautical uses. We continue to work with our federal and regional partners to assess, develop and market the land, which we’ve coined as the Sonoran Commerce Center at TUS, to benefit the airport system and our entire region.”

MROs “don’t want to look at raw land with no infrastructure available,” Dumon said. So, to pursue the opportunity, TAA has created several shovel-ready properties now on the market. Each site has “all the things you need for a client to consider it.”

The region has been “really close on several MRO projects,” she continued. “We would not be able to compete had the airport not made that investment into those pad-ready sites.”

Dumon added that weather is also a reality in growing the commercial aviation sector. “It’s exactly what these types of companies want. It’s why MROs want to be here.”

“It’s dry, and it’s warm, which is good,” said SALC’s Kinnison. “You can run an indoor / outdoor business in and out of a hangar, and leave the doors open.” Likewise, aircraft can sit in warm, dry conditions without falling apart.

“That’s why, during the pandemic, there were aircraft parked everywhere they could possibly fit them,” Dumon said. 

Airplanes have been parked, and flown, and fixed, in and around Tucson for decades. The presence of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, as well as Hughes Aircraft and its successor Raytheon Missiles & Defense, the region’s top private employer, provides the “foundation for so many of these companies to either start here and grow, or to make a decision to locate here,” Dumon said.

Add in the region’s thriving avionics industry, producing electronic systems used in aircraft, and Tucson has the fifth-highest concentration of aerospace and defense employees in America. It helps, too, that between them, the University of Arizona and Arizona State University granted more than 6,000 engineering degrees in 2019 and 2020.

The region has the “knowledge workforce” desired by industry. Dumon said. It’s also a city of 1 million people with an international airport, one that “punches above their weight.”

Local collaboration is also essential and regional leaders are committed to growing the aviation sector and to attract new business.

“I’ve heard this time and again from site selectors, and companies directly, that very candidly said ‘you can’t fake that. You can try all you want, but if you all aren’t working together it’s obvious to us,’” Dumon said. Those site selectors continue: “It’s apparent to us that you are collaborating, and that weighs heavily in your favor.”

“That’s what a potential business wants to see,” PCC’s Wilson said. “We don’t do our work in isolation.”

“To have a community where you have that level of alignment with key partners to support an industry sector, I think that’s huge, and to do it in a community of a million-plus people is even more important,” PCC’s Lambert said. “That’s a special thing. It depends on leadership. Right now, we have leadership aligned.

“I see so many good pieces here, and, as long as we don’t get in the way of ourselves, we all rise together,” Lambert said. “Pima County is in this great place, and I hope we can sustain and maintain that momentum, and not just in the aerospace sector.”

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