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HAECO, FedEx, Textron and Jet It need to hire hundreds in Triad, with two of them mulling local expansions – Triad Business Journal – Triad Business Journal

Challenger 604

Although it may appear the aviation and aerospace industries are in a Covid-induced tailspin, and in many ways they are, that is not the case for several companies doing business at Piedmont Triad International Airport. Passenger count is still lagging to be certain, but business is booming around the PTI airfield.
At least three companies are approaching capacity, two of them looking to potentially expand their footprint at PTI. Both of them aircraft maintenance companies, HAECO Airframe Services and Textron Aviation, were among four represented at a private Triad Business Journal Aviation Roundtable event March 12 in the airport’s board room.
Collectively, the four companies are looking to add some 345 jobs, 70 percent of them within the next couple of months:
• FedEx grew exponentially as Covid-19 greatly accelerated the inevitable growth in e-commerce. With some 1,000 employees now working at the company’s facilities at PTI, FedEx is looking to hire 160 more workers there within 60 days. That will meet current operational capacity, but will not fill the building’s capacity. Additional shifts, for example, could be implemented to expand operational capacity.
• HAECO’s volume grew as airlines stored dozens of planes at PTI, all of them requiring storage and restart maintenance, some undergoing overhaul. The company needs to hire 80 technicians within the next two months, and suggested it may soon outgrow its five hangars at the airfield.
• Textron ran out of space and is short of personnel to hangar and service aircraft as business travelers turned to private aviation during the pandemic. With 100 employees, Textron is looking to hire 30 more, and needs more square footage, hinting at conversations with PTI regarding available adjacent tarmac to develop.
• Greensboro-based Jet it, an aircraft fractional ownership company that flies exclusively HondaJets built by Honda Aircraft Co. at PTI, expects to double its fleet this year from 10 to 20 as its Jet It, Jet It Canada and JetClub family of companies grow. Currently employing 76, the company could double by the end of 2021, translating to another 75 jobs. Though its local workforce is also growing, most of the new jobs would be spread out globally where the aircraft are based.
Dave Latimer, senior vice president of regulatory compliance with HAECO; and Jeff Dowden, general manager of Textron’s Greensboro service center were joined on the avaiation roundtable by Thomas Maxwell, managing director of FedEx operations in Greensboro; and Glenn Gonzales, co-founder and CEO of Greensboro-based HondaJet fractional ownership Jet It — representing four distinct business models supported by PTI. The discussion was moderated by PTI Executive Director Kevin Baker.
A common challenge among all of them is a constant need for personnel, particularly HAECO and Textron, which can each take on as many airframe and powerplant (A&P) technicians as Guilford and Forsyth Tech community colleges can produce.
“We’re not gaining any ground,” Latimer said. “We’ll hire five and we’ll lose five, and we’ll hire five and we’ll lose five, and the losses are not because people are leaving the industry, They’re looking for other opportunities. It’s just incredibly challenging for us right now,, and it’s very difficult to go back to a FedEx and say your airplane is going to be four days late because we can’t find the people to staff it.” 
Companies operating on the airfield employ more than 8,600 workers, Baker said, which collectively would make PTI the fifth-largest employer in the Triad. And with nearly 1,000 acres of developable airport property, there is plenty of room for more. At an average wage of nearly $65,000 per year, those jobs far outpace the Guilford County average household income of $53,000, for example.
Following are excerpts from the discussion in question-and-answer format, edited for brevity and clarity.
Question: Think about where you were and what was going through your mind when the shutdown began. Will we have to let go of our entire workforce? Is the world ending here? What’s going to happen? The silver lining we had here was that a number of you really benefited, to some extent, or at least you managed to survive, and even thrive through this time. HAECO was a classic example. All those airplanes parked out there, those were their customers. Those planes had to be parked because the airlines weren’t using them and it became a convenient time to maintain them
Jeff Dowden: One of the things that my company experienced is a fairly significant drop-off in the demand for services, specifically around the Q3 period. Our demand is driven based on utilization, so it’s how frequently our customers utilize the aircraft. Early in the year, we didn’t see much of a drop as many of our customers had flown so we had a pretty strong demand for our services. As we progressed through the summer, we saw the demand drop off and Q3, in particular, was probably the slowest time frame that we saw probably within the past decade, so it was a little scary. 
We had to manage our business a bit more aggressively through furloughs and things of that nature to weather the storm, but slowly as the year progressed into Q4 we started to see an uptick, and some of that uptick I think was attributed to the fact that people were just going stir crazy and they wanted to get out. … We now have new customers coming into our market who have historically traveled with the airlines, and whether it be for safety reasons or convenience, they elected to travel, utilizing general aviation. In Q4 we saw a pretty significant rebound. Toward the end of the year we were starting to see pre-Covid levels, which we are very excited about.”
Glenn Gonzales: “(The year) 2019 was our first full calendar year as a business, and we’d met all of our goals that year and we were just starting to hit our stride. Traditionally, the January-February time frame in private aviation is kind of slow because the end of the year is so busy and so active, then (activity starts) to pick up again in March and April. We were just starting to get into a rhythm in 2020 and the pandemic happens. It was very interesting to be a young company and to have to figure out “how are we going to respond to this.” … 
Our two biggest expenses are fuel and pilots, and as a pilot the last thing I want to do is furlough another pilot. So we made the very tough decision to keep everyone on staff, and it was the right call. We kept all of the pilots and all of our team together. We were around 23 or 25 at the time, and we’ve tripled that number now to 76. By late May we were at full capacity with every airplane flying multiple times a day, and we ended the year on average for every airplane around 100 hours a month of flight time with an increase in our ownership. We were very thankful we were able to keep everyone on staff when the rest of the industry was shuttered.”
Thomas Maxwell: For us over this last year, the 600,000-plus team members (worldwide) and customers have been our top priority, and so we’ve been able to stand up networks to serve the communities. That includes moving almost 82 kilotons of PPE, and that includes roughly 2 billion masks and we’re certainly very proud to be part of that. This is all in a time where during this pandemic we’ve had to increase our flight activity by 70% coming out of Asia and coming out of Europe into the U.S., and now FedEx is big in the shipment of Covid-19 vaccines throughout the U.S. and in Canada. It’s really our most important work we think in the history of our company. Over the last year we’ve had explosive growth in e-commerce, so growth we might have had for a three- to five-year plan we’ve seen in happen in three to five months. That certainly has been a challenge, to stand up the network to support that. We believe FedEx was built to support moments like this.
Dave Latimer: “We were actually really fortunate thanks to customers like FedEx, UPS, Alaska Airlines, American and United within Greensboro. Some of our other facilities weren’t quite so fortunate, but at Greensboro, we were able to stay active, generate a very similar number of man hours, and actually hire some people during that time frame, because we’re constantly in the search to add additional staffing to our organization. Florida (Lake City) didn’t do quite so well. However, through CARES funding and some of the opportunities that were out there, we were able to keep our workforce intact. And for us, that’s everything. Losing 30 mechanics is a line of work for us, so we have to be very, very careful to try and keep our staff healthy.
Through our customer base, and with some of the storage airplanes, we were able to take our line group that was doing line maintenance, and they became our storage crew. At one time, we had over 50 airplanes in storage. For those who haven’t seen how much work is involved in storing an airplane, it’s considerable.
We’re starting to come out of it even stronger now that a lot of our companies are starting to bring airplanes out of the desert, and there will be opportunities for us there. We’ve worked the 737 Max and we’re qualified to be able to maintain the Max, so that’s going to add some additional opportunity for us. The upcoming year looks great. We have just about sold out through that time frame, so our biggest concern is our staffing, being able to attract technicians. We think if we can get them here, they will fall in love with the community and they’ll stay. In addition, with the airplanes that are not going back to the customers, we’re working with leasing companies to transition them out to a new owner, so there is a considerable amount of work in the large RMO (retrofit modification order) business right now.”
FedEx has seen considerable growth at the airport, particularly since September when you started things back up (daytime sorting). Talk about the future of air freight in general going forward, and specifically what it means here.
Maxwell: “We had a three- to five-year plan that accelerated to three to five months, so we’ve been able to flex our network to handle that, and here in Greensboro we started the day sort operation. When you think about over the last year, that’s pretty remarkable from where we were a year ago. We’ve added roughly 350 new positions. We’ve added nine aircraft flying in and out to support that, and also a considerable expansion in trucking. We see that continuing to grow, and we will start to transition the 757 flights to the A300 and the 767, so we are still very optimistic about that. As the growth materializes, we will adjust our networks to accommodate it.”
Dave, there is a silver lining through all this in keeping all those jobs in place. For you guys to be able to keep everyone employed with so many airliners, about 30%, now on the ground and some portion of that permanent, the ones that are sitting here will get checked out and be back into service. With this kind of change in the airline industry, what does it mean to the future of HAECO’s work?
Latimer: What’s most critical is we constantly have to be working on the next airframe type. The 737 Max as a transition, much like the (Boeing) 787 or the (Airbus) A350, where you get into different technology. We’re going have less metal benders and more NDT (nondestructive testing) technicians and more composites workers, so it’s literally an evolution and we’re working ahead of time toward that … We believe that we’re really well positioned. If we could get more people, we’d be actually in much better shape. … I would not be surprised to see one day where we seek additional footprint to be able to take on more work. It could very well happen, because there is a lot of work out there and there is a lot of competition for capacity. If you’re an organization that has a solid reputation for quality product and you can deliver close to on time, you’re going to get a lot of attention from those folks out there looking for providers.
Jeff, talk about what Covid has done to corporate flight and how it’s changed that segment of the industry.
Dowden: We have a lot of new customers who like to utilize our products for travel, and whether that’s permanent remains to be seen. There are two cycles that we see every year in or buy/sell transactions where customers sell aircraft and then either buy a larger aircraft or may go to a fleet-type of offering, but one of the things that we saw last year is a lot of our clients were opting not to sell their aircraft. I think part of the reason is the unknown. As humans we like to have some level of control over our own destiny, and that’s what our products offer our clients — the ability for them to go from here to wherever they want to go at any time. 
I anticipate things will probably go in cycles. You’ll probably have some clients who will go back to commercial air travel. We are fortunate enough to be able to retain and gain new clients, and a lot of our fleet operators’ utilization numbers went through the roof. From a talent pool standpoint that increases demand for the right folks, and skilled labor is a large percentage of our workforce. Fortunately, we’ve got some great colleges in the area that we can draw from.”
Glenn, a lot of folks early in the pandemic predicted personal and corporate aviation, as well as your type of business model, would really pick up as a result of Covid. What do you think this has done to fractional ownership and where it’s headed?
Gonzales: “Covid is only an acceleration of the inevitable, that being we all want more autonomy and more efficiency. People want to go where they want to go when they want to go there. And the commercial airlines, as creative a service as it is, lose some autonomy and efficiency. We created a business model that allows you to have that primary need of autonomy and efficiency without having to buy the entire asset. By breaking that cost into pieces — that being shares of ownership — we can start to bring the cost down.
Why is the HondaJet such a perfect aircraft for your model?
Gonzales: “There are certain things that the customers want. They want comfort and reliability. They want safety and quality. They want speed and efficiency. And they want space. The HondaJet just does all of those things very well. It’s not the end-all, be-all to all airplanes. There are other airplanes that do some things better, but the HondaJet is the mean point of the best and all of those things for what people traditionally want to do in most private jet flights.”
What are you all of you seeing in terms of staffing availability?
Latimer: For us, from a management standpoint we’ve had a fairly well orchestrated succession planning. We have a large number of baby boomers — probably 25% to 30% — who we’re going to lose over the next five years as they retire. And it’s not just that you’re losing bodies, you’re losing the experience, you’re losing that knowledge base. That’s our highest concern, so we’re trying to get as many entry-level technicians as we can handle and manage so that we can build that experience level as this next group retires.
Dowden: Greensboro is one our 11 service facilities, so Textron Aviation is pretty large company. We’ve got 10,000-plus employees, and a large percentage of then are technicians. We didn’t experience what we did back in 2008 when we had a mass exodus. When you start adding that up it was hundreds, even thousands of years of experience walking out the door. Fortunately we didn’t see a lot of that last year, and I think that’s a testament to our ability to invest in a younger workforce. We’ve spent a considerable amount of time over the past eight years, hiring, whether it’s new grads out of A&P school or new grads out of college, and we’re seeing the benefit of that. We have people now with five to 10 years of experience so if somebody were to walk out the door, they already had the background to be able to hit the ground running and jump into those positions. If there’s anything I’ve learned from this, it’s very important to continue to invest in that young workforce. When these things happen, because we all know these things go in cycles, that model worked out really well for us.
Gonzales: We found a lot of talent. We’ve been able to acquire individuals and bring them on board that we probably wouldn’t have had the opportunity to get if not for the pandemic — the sort of people who were more senior-level positions at other companies who were furloughed for whatever reason. We’ve capitalized on that and brought them into our ranks.
Maxwell: We feel like we have a very strong working relationship with the airport and the business community. We want to continue to see that fostered and just continue to get the word out on what the needs are. I think everyone is looking for the same thing when we talk about recruitment and talent — the need to get the word out.
What is it that this airport, this community, this state can do to help each of your businesses grow for the next two to five years?
Latimer: We rely really heavily on the local community colleges as far as producing technicians for the workforce. That will be our limiting factor because we have such a high volume of technical workforce. We’ll peak at between 1,200 and 1,400, so that’s a lot of technicians to feed, and with normal attrition, we’re constantly trying to hire. The community colleges are our primary source of trained technicians to enter the workforce. … What’s most important to us is a constant flow of technicians, and quite honestly the community itself. If we can get them here, they have a tendency to stay in the community because it’s such a beautiful place to live.
Gonzales: I think the key is just continued smart investment. You look around this table, you’ve got aircraft services on the commercial side, aircraft services on the private aviation side. You have our company supporting private aviation customers. You’ve got FedEx. All these jobs are all feeding the industry, and it’s a tremendous investment in what’s built around this airport. Find companies that won’t compete with one another, that can all work together to feed an industry, and then let’s work with our community colleges and schools in the area to try to build a pipeline of talent to come into this industry and support it. It’s a sound investment and it’s a partnership between the airport and the companies here.
Dowden: For us, the biggest challenge we have aside from the workforce is space. Our customers have a certain level of expectation for our services. Our customers want their aircraft back immediately. One day, two days is not acceptable, so obviously having the right talented workforce for that is key. I’m optimistic that there will be some growth opportunities for us from an expansion standpoint, so being able to continue to build those relationships and draw talent from those pipelines is absolutely critical to our success. I’ve been around the country quite a bit and traveled a lot, and this is absolutely a great spot to live, to raise a family, and to run a business. So at Textron, we’re extremely excited for what the future holds for us.
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