Piedmont Triad International Airport (PTIA) has seen a tremendous amount of activity lately – new construction, terminal upgrades, increasing freight and passenger traffic, preparations for a new weather and plane tracking tower, major runway renovations and new restaurants in the terminals.
And now the airport is about to experience a major milestone: HAECO Americas’ fifth hangar – a $70 million project that will be the aircraft maintenance company’s largest PTIA hangar – is just weeks from completion, and soon it will bring even more action to the airport.
When that 176,000-square-foot hangar, which is nearly twice the size of HAECO’s other hangars at PTIA, is at full capacity, the hangar and operations related to it are expected to add about 500 jobs. The new hangar is capable of holding eight 737’s simultaneously, or a smaller number of even larger aircraft.
HAECO’s fifth hangar is creating a lot of new jobs, but the hope among airport and economic development officials is that a new taxiway bridge across I-73 will be an even bigger job creator at the airport. That bridge and the taxiway on top of it connect the airport and its runway to roughly 800 acres of land available for aviation industry site development.
While the bridge is complete, there’s still work to do before that taxiway is ready for planes to cross. Currently, crews are lowering and leveling off the shoulders on the sides of the taxiway and using that dirt to fill in holes and low spots nearby. But airport officials and others have high hopes that the bridge will bring a lot of new aviation companies – suppliers, manufacturers, maintenance companies like HAECO, and others in the industry – to the airport.
All this investment in PTIA – from private companies, the North Carolina Department of Transportation, the Federal Aviation Administration and others – is largely tied to the fact that the aviation and aerospace industry is a major point of economic development emphasis for Guilford County. Area leaders want to continue the growth brought to the area by HondaJet, the Cessna Aircraft Company, HAECO and others now based at PTIA.
Another large development site, the Greensboro-Randolph Megasite south of Guilford County, is now a finalist for a Toyota-Mazda manufacturing plant, and airport officials hope the new aviation megasite across I-73 can likewise pique the interest of major aviation players.
PTIA Executive Director Kevin Baker said that, under the current schedule, the taxiway work won’t be done until 2019, but he added that it could be finished much earlier if the need arises.
The project’s pace is being dictated in part by the schedule on which the money is being allocated by state government; however, with a commitment from a major player, the work could be speeded up and PTIA could make other financial arrangements.
“If a company said, ‘We have to have that taxiway in six months,’ we could move up that timeline,” Baker said.
The airport also has sites – ready for business right now – on the airport side of I-73.
“We have all sorts of sites on this side, if it’s from one acre to 80 or 90 acres,” Baker said.
He said he’s very excited about HAECO’s fifth hangar and the jobs it’s creating, and he said one nice thing about that project is that it is almost all private sector money. He said there was about $4 million in grant money for the project, but the vast majority of $70 million is from private sources.
The huge size of the structure means HAECO can bring in giant Boeing 777’s, or other very large planes, and still have room for additional planes.
“It gives them a great deal of flexibility,” he said of the new hangar’s size.
Regional airlines from other parts of the country, such as Alaska Airlines and Southwest Airlines, fly 737’s and bring those to the HAECO hangars at PTIA for maintenance.
The airline industry has a term, “MRO,” that stands for “maintenance, repair and overhaul” – and that’s exactly what HAECO does in its hangars and what it will be doing in the new one.
Every time an aircraft takes off and lands, it’s known in the industry as a “cycle,” and safety and maintenance checks and some parts replacements are required after a certain number of cycles.
Baker said the checks are referred to as “A,” “B,” “C” and “D” checks, with the A checks being things like “kicking the tires” and the C and D checks being much more extensive examinations that sometimes require taking the plane apart. Those C and D checks are what HAECO does, he said.
“It’s very involved and can take weeks and months,” Baker said of those comprehensive maintenance projects.
Even though the new hangar about to open is the fifth hangar HAECO has built at PTIA, Baker said that, due to its location near hangars 1, 2 and 3, HAECO is renaming the new facility “Hangar #4.”
HAECO Americas has other facilities in Florida, Michigan and elsewhere, but the company has continued to grow its business at PTIA since opening shop there. About a quarter century ago, TIMCO opened up at PTIA. In 2013, HAECO announced it was buying TIMCO and that sale was completed in 2014.
When the company announced the giant new hangar last year, HAECO Americas CEO Richard Kendall pointed to PTIA’s central location on the East Coast as one factor that makes it an ideal location for servicing aircraft that fly routes between key connection hubs. He also said at that time that those routes were “rapidly-expanding,” which, he added, should mean more business for the company at PTIA in future years.
HAECO Americas has design, engineering and manufacturing space in High Point where the company also assembles aircraft seats and other parts for plane cabin interiors.
The company’s name comes from “Hong Kong Aircraft Engineering Company Limited.” It’s a worldwide business with a customer base that includes commercial airlines, aircraft leasing companies, private charter planes and aircraft flown by government agencies.
As for passenger traffic at PTIA, for years passenger travel was falling, so airport officials are happy to now see those numbers climbing. While it’s not registering giant increases in passengers, just seeing an upward trend is a very welcome development for an airport that in recent decades has seen falling passenger numbers due in part to increasing competition from Raleigh-Durham International Airport and Charlotte Douglas International Airport.
Baker said that year-to-date passenger traffic at PTIA is up about 3 percent and that freight traffic is up 16 percent.
“I think the industry is doing very well worldwide,” Baker said of airlines and aviation companies.
He also said he believes the air carrier freight numbers can reveal a lot.
“Freight sort of reflects the blood, or the bloodstream, of the economy,” he said.
Baker said packages and payloads reflect growth in the economy overall and that more people and freight flying the airways means more cycles per plane and more maintenance for HAECO and others in the industry.
One key improvement coming to PTIA is a new airport surveillance radar (ASR) tower at PTIA. That’s the spinning radar at airports that, among other things, tracks planes and monitors weather conditions.
Just as there’s a lot of activity on the land around the airport, there’s also a lot going on in the terminals. PTIA got a new concessions contractor, which led to all new restaurant offerings, including a Starbucks in each concourse.
And more changes are on the way.
“We are right now working with architects to complete a holistic study of the entire facility and make recommendations for improvements,” Baker said. “The next areas that need updating are the concourses and the baggage claim areas – and certainly those areas will be part of the scope for these architects.”
According to Baker, PTIA is also considering modifications to the outside canopy and a possible connection of concourses along with other renovations.
Greensboro Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Brent Christensen said that having PTIA and a giant aviation-specific megasite opening up across I-73 is a major attraction for prospective companies.
“I think we have a unique asset,” Christensen said. “Very few places have pieces of property that large with access to a runway. Its importance shouldn’t be underestimated.”
Christensen said that, in addition to having the appropriate land available, it’s also necessary to have a solid aviation workforce in the community.
He speaks frequently about the importance of a community’s workforce in attracting new business and he said the aviation programs at Guilford Technical Community College (GTCC) are a real selling point.
“I think the momentum from GTCC is critical,” Christensen said.
Earlier this year, a collective of area economic development groups hired former Mississippi Development Authority Deputy Director Jim McArthur to fill a newly formed position: senior director for Triad aerospace development. McArthur, who began the new job in March, is now the point man when it comes to trying to fill the aviation megasite.
“I’m knocking on a lot of doors,” McArthur said, adding that he believes there’s a great deal of potential for PTIA’s megasite.
“Just having property is a big deal,” he said. “There’s a ton of space,”
He said it’s not likely to be Boeing or Airbus, but other aviation companies should find the new sites very appealing.
McArthur said there are already about 5,000 airport-related workers making an average salary of about $65,000 a year.
He said PTIA has something else working for it.
“We have an airport authority focused on economic development,” he said.
Like Christensen, McArthur said GTCC is a vital player in luring aviation companies to PTIA. Two years ago, the community college hired 25-year aviation industry veteran Nick Yale to be the director of aviation programs for the school. Before taking the job at GTCC, Yale worked for Boeing Defense, Space & Security in Seattle, where he was a senior manager.
McArthur said Yale really knows his stuff and knows how to train a workforce.
“He is fantastic,” McArthur said. “He understands – not just training – but aircraft and airlines.”
Many are banking that the combination of available space at the airport and a trained workforce will add up to a very enticing product to market to aviation prospects.
The big picture looks promising too with an improving economy and increasing airline passenger traffic. According to statistics from Airlines for America (A4A), an airline trade organization, US passenger trips have grown steadily since 2009, when there was a drop in air travel due to the economic collapse. The number of passengers boarding planes in the US has gone from 704 million in 2009 to 823 million in 2016.
The numbers for 2017 aren’t in yet, but Thanksgiving travel is up over last year.
A4A recently projected that 28.5 million passengers will travel on US airlines during the 12-day “Thanksgiving air-travel period,” which means that number is up 3 percent from 2016 – in line with the passenger traffic increases PTIA has seen for the year to date.
The Thanksgiving travel period runs from Friday, Nov. 17 through Tuesday, Nov. 28. Across the country, that’s an increase of about 69,000 passengers from the same Thanksgiving travel period last year. Airlines have added 86,000 more seats to handle that demand.
A4A Vice President and Chief Economist John Heimlich stated earlier this month that passengers are benefiting from “a highly competitive air-service landscape” this holiday season,” which help create low fares and increased seat availability.
The 2017 Thanksgiving air-travel period’s busiest day is projected to be Sunday, Nov. 26, with an estimated 2.88 million passengers. Some of those will be departing from and arriving at PTIA, but still on the airport’s wish list are a new carrier and added routes. Airport officials say that industry mergers and industry cost cutting make that wish a difficult one to fulfill.