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Sunday, February 1, 2009

West Star Aviation

Maintaining a small shop image with big capabilities.

By Andrew D. Parker, Managing Editor


West Star Aviation is coming off an "exceptional" year in 2008 and continues to expand its network of service locations, as well as improve existing facilities by updating its lobbies and adding customer offices, despite an economic picture that is trending downward. The company broke ground on a service center in Columbia, S.C. in October 2008, and a month later took over maintenance operations in Aspen, Colo.

"All facets of our business have been extremely busy this past year," says Jim Swehla, vice president of sales and marketing for West Star.

Going into 2009, maintenance and airframe-type services will continue to provide steady business, according to Swehla. The company is projecting "a little bit of a tail off" in discretionary-type work, such as from its avionics, paint and interiors segments, with a current backlog of around one month, down from a typical backlog of around three to four months.

"It seems like, at least in 2008, corporate operators have still kept up with discretionary spending as far as paint, interiors and avionics," Swehla notes. "But it looks like in 2009, based on our backlog right now, that things may be slowing down just a little bit, at least with discretionary spending."

Demand for parts is also experiencing a minor slowdown, which Swehla attributes as running parallel to the economy. But a sluggish economy is not all bad news, especially for companies that offer multiple services. West Star will continue to lean on its more consistent business segments such as maintenance, while looking for areas to expand.

According to Swehla, the economic picture may be a "good news, bad news" situation for the MRO, which could see more business from upgrades to existing aircraft as corporations and individuals decide against transitioning to a larger aircraft.

"Even though the economy is starting to have an effect on corporate aviation, it may be a plus because operators may not upgrade to a bigger aircraft. They may keep their existing aircraft, and that kind of just falls right in our lap," he says.

Capabilities

West Star has four existing locations — East Alton Airport (ALN) in Illinois, Grand Junction Airport (GJT) in Colorado, Love Field (DAL) in Dallas, Texas and in Hiawatha, Iowa. The company employs around 700 people, including 250 in East Alton, 350 in Grand Junction and 100 in Dallas. ALN and GJT are full-service facilities providing airframe and engine work, painting, interiors and avionics. ALN specializes in Dassault Falcon and Gulfstream aircraft, while GJT focuses on Bombardier Challengers and Learjets, Cessna Conquests and Hawkers. In addition, both ALN and GJT are Cessna Citation Service Centers.

The Dallas location does not have all the capabilities of ALN and GJT, but provides airframe and avionics services, as well as minor interior capabilities for Citation, Falcon, Hawker and Learjet aircraft.

West Star has an inventory of thousands of part numbers, with an extensive number of parts at ALN at GJT that serve the maintenance activity in the hangars. There are also parts salespeople at each location, and Hiawatha is strictly dedicated to buying and selling surplus parts, mainly for avionics. When a typical operator calls to inquire about a needed part, West Star will do an immediate check and if they don’t have the part, quote how long it will take to get it. "Usually the longest it takes to get the customer a part is overnight, and in a lot of cases we can ship it counter-to-counter and maybe even get a part to a customer the same day," Swehla says. East Alton and Grand Junction are designed to be "centers of excellence" for the Midwest and western U.S., and Columbia will serve as an East Coast hub.

Columbia Site, Aspen AOG

On Oct. 17, 2008, the company broke ground on its service facility at Columbia Metropolitan Airport (CAE). "Customers have been asking West Star to open a location on the East Coast, and... this new facility fits into our strategic goal of providing convenient, state-of-the-art maintenance facilities for customers nationwide," said Mike Durst, executive vice president and general manager, during the groundbreaking ceremony.

The MRO provider chose Columbia for several reasons, with location being the first criteria, according to Swehla. CAE has supporting airline service for West Star customers to easily get in and out, and the local airport authority worked with the company to approve the complex, which will feature a 37,500-square-foot hangar and 24,500 square feet of shops and offices. Another reason the company chose CAE is "we felt we would be able to draw technicians into the Columbia area from different regions around the east and the southeast," Swehla notes.

Projected to create around 105 jobs, the Columbia center will offer airframe, engine, interior and avionics services when it opens in the second quarter of 2009. Painting will not immediately be available at CAE. "With the expense that it takes to put a paint facility in, we felt that we should hold off on that portion of the complex right now," Swehla explains.

Starting on Nov. 20, 2008, West Star took over maintenance operations at Aspen-Pitken County Airport (ASE) in Colorado. The company is offering aircraft on ground (AOG) services for corporate operators, basing two full-time maintenance technicians at the airport, some test equipment and a minimal parts inventory. Jim Benninger serves as airframe team leader at ASE.

Swehla explains that taking over at Aspen was a great opportunity for the company because of its close proximity to GJT (about an hour and a half drive). As Aspen is busiest over the major holidays and weekends during the ski season, "it’s a very difficult facility to manage because you’re busy one minute and the next you don’t have anything to do," Swehla says. This makes it hard to predict the demands and required resources, but with GJT close by, West Star is able to shuttle people and parts to Aspen in a short amount of time. "If we didn’t have the Grand Junction facility sitting so close by, this may not have been something that we would have tackled," Swehla says.

STC Approvals

West Star has nearly 100 supplemental type certificates (STCs) approved or in process. Some of the most popular upgrades involve avionics, including Rockwell Collins Pro Line 21 and Universal Avionics EFI890 installations on the Falcon 50, and the EFI890 on the Falcon 20. West Star has also seen a lot of business related to the SID inspection on the Cessna Conquest, a program that will continue to generate work through 2009/10.

With fuel prices spiking before coming back down, the company performed a lot of work under its partnership with Honeywell on a Falcon 50 re-engine program, which replaces the TFE731-3 with a more fuel-efficient TFE731-4. Now that fuel prices are low, Swehla says that could be another "good news, bad news" situation because lower fuel prices will likely lead to more flying hours. "When the fuel is down they’re going to fly more, in which case the maintenance business is going to be a real benefit for us."

Lifeblood

In addition to short-term concerns about the economy, West Star sees a shortage in A&P mechanics as a challenge over the next five to 10 years. Noting that mechanics and technicians are the "lifeblood of our organization," Swehla points to an FAA survey that found the average age of the A&P mechanic is 56 in the U.S. Whether the statistic is accurate or not, he says, "these people are going to be retiring in another five to 10 years and we don’t have younger people coming in to take their place."

"So we think it’s going to be a major problem coming up," he continues, adding that the shortage is not limited to A&P mechanics. "We’re training woodworkers and we’re training upholstery-type people, and avionics people also. It’s not just mechanics, it’s in all arenas of aircraft maintenance and upgrades."

While the projected shortage has not had a major impact on the company just yet, West Star is taking steps to lessen the damage. In addition to expanding its training programs, the company is working with various high schools and universities to provide scholarships and internships as part of an effort to generate more interest in the field.

"We are really trying to hang on to the people we’ve got and treat them right because it’s pretty difficult to find good people," Swehla adds.


Comfort Factor

"We’re trying to maintain a small-shop-type image, with big capabilities. We think that’s a real advantage for a customer," Swehla says. "The relationship the technicians provide on the hangar floor is a real key," he continues.

"We’ve always said that the sales department gets the customer in the first time, then the next time it’s the shops that actually sell the job. They develop a relationship with the technicians and a comfort factor, and then that’s how we base our future business and [determine] how our shops are performing," Swehla adds.

Customer service plays a large role in repeat business, although it’s not everything. In addition to quality service, top-notch people and the ability to deliver a project on time at the right price are fundamental to customers returning for future work, he notes. West Star also uses customer feedback forms to determine areas of improvement, and recently conducted a professional survey. "If we have a customer that really likes something they see, we’ll try and enhance on that and if there’s something he doesn’t like, we’re going to make a change and improve it," Swehla explains.

Roots and Wings

In December 2004, Premier Air Center ALN acquired West Star Aviation GJT, and the combined companies purchased Jet Aviation’s MRO operations at DAL in November 2006. In September 2007, the company shed Premier from its name and took the West Star banner.

Swehla says that the companies have proved to be an "exceptional match" because of similarities within the workforce and a common goal of focusing on the customer. Another advantage is the ability to share personnel between locations.

"If we’ve got a big interior job in Grand Junction and we’re a little bit light in East Alton, we can share people back and forth, and that’s been a real plus," he continues. Combining the HR, finance, engineering and sales departments has also led to operational efficiencies. Customers, and original equipment manufacturers, benefit from West Star having multiple locations as well. "We’re able to help out the OEMs at a higher level now because of the multiple facilities we have," Swehla says.

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