Originally created 09/08/02

Business flies high



During a year marked by cutbacks and financial troubles in the aviation industry, the opposite was happening at Garrett Aviation Service's Augusta facility.

The aircraft-maintenance business has weathered the storm, mostly because of the increased use of corporate jets after Sept. 11 from airplane owners wanting to avoid security delays associated with using commercial airlines.

The more flight hours private jet owners log, the more often their engines require federally mandated inspections and routine maintenance.

"With Sept. 11, as the airline industry's gotten more difficult to deal with, we're really seeing a peaking in our industry," said Don VonGruenigen, the vice president and general manager of Garrett in Augusta. "Corporations are flying executive aircraft.

"As long as they're flying, we have business on the engine side."

In August, the facility posted a record month for deliveries on jet-engine overhauls, or routine inspections.

After nearly three decades in Augusta, the aircraft-maintenance center has established one of the top reputations for service in its industry.

The facility opened in 1974 at Augusta Regional Airport as an offshoot of Capital Aviation of Springfield, Ill. It had two hangars, fewer than 20 employees and specialized in repairing the engines of turboprop planes that were highly popular at the time.

"We grew from that level to 10 times that," Mr. VonGruenigen said. "The market itself has grown a lot more."

Garrett now has 200 workers and four hangars totaling 100,000 square feet of space, occupying about 11 acres at the airport.

As the second-largest facility of Garrett's six major maintenance locations nationwide, the Augusta operation pulls in about $100 million in annual sales.

After switching corporate ownership several times, Garrett became a wholly owned subsidiary of General Electric Co. in 1997.

While Garrett's mainstay has been repairing and overhauling jet engines - the Augusta facility holds 85 percent of the market in the Southeast - its work encompasses the entire aircraft industry.

Most of the facility's employees work on the airframe repairs and services. Airframe is an aviation term that encompasses a plane's fuselage, cowlings, airfoil and landing gear - nearly every part except the engine.

"Airframe's something we've been growing for a number of years," Mr. VonGruenigen said. "That's what brings the airplanes in here."

Testing and installing new avionic displays is becoming the facility's quickest growing service.

LIKE A MASSIVE AUTO SHOP, mechanical parts and tools are stacked everywhere. But at the end of the company's four adjoining hangars is the operation's newest expansion - a nearly $3 million turbofan test cell.

The facility, which was completed in April, allows the company to inspect and examine engines on site instead of shipping them to other locations. The test cell allows workers to run an engine before it is re-installed on the plane.

"It's not like a car. To test the engine, you can't pull off the side of the road," said Don Fletcher, Garrett's propulsion engineer.

The test cell is double the size and handles five times the thrust level as Garrett's old cell, which was capable of testing only less-powerful engines.

Engines are hooked to a chain and suspended above the floor. The massive amount of air sucked into the engines is blown out through a 10-foot exhaust hole in the wall.

With the help of a remote throttle arm and five flat-screen computers, workers can check 96 different measurements of the engine's performance.

The company expects to build a smaller test cell to monitor turboprop engines by the end of the year. Workers currently have to test engines outside, where inclement weather can sometimes cause problems.

Most of the turboprop engine work Garrett does is for regional carriers such as Atlantic Coast Airlines of Dulles, Va., which operates as United Express.

As the carriers begin phasing out turboprop planes for newer, regional jets, the facility might one day expand into that commercial market, Mr. VonGruenigen said.

But airlines in the midst of financial uncertainty have pulled back on new-aircraft orders, and leading manufacturers of regional jets, like Bombardier, have had a downturn in earnings.

"That would be a good thing for us to get into in the future," Mr. VonGruenigen said. "It's just a question of when the market will justify the investment."

FOR NOW, 95 PERCENT of Garrett's business is generated by repeat customers who fly in from as far away as Europe and South America.

A customer-satisfaction survey in Professional Pilot magazine ranked Garrett's Augusta facility higher than any other turboprop and jet-engine overhaul facility in the country during the past two years.

Last month, corporate pilots with The Home Depot noticed a problem with one of their plane's engines shortly after taking off from Seattle.

The pilots could have taken the plane to 20 other repair facilities across the country, but they brought the plane to Augusta, where mechanics worked overtime to fix the problem in less than 24 hours.

"It's an interesting story," Mr. VonGruenigen said. "It the kind of stuff that happens here routinely."

Augusta Regional officials working on ways to increase the airport's auxiliary businesses say they recognize the benefit of having Garrett on the property.

"They're a primary tenant of the airport," Augusta Regional spokeswoman Kathryn Solee said. "They're the No. 1 issue as related to the air service development zone."

The development zone is a designation the U.S. Department of Transportation bestowed on the airport earlier this year. Although it is a loosely defined new program, it does mean that the airport will share its economic-development plans with the agency and ideally receive some type of federal support to help implement those plans.

As the airport's largest tenant, Garrett's future expansion could play an important role in that development, Ms. Solee said.

Plans to open an aircraft and powerplant mechanics school at the airport in conjunction with Augusta Technical College is still under consideration, which could provide Garrett with more workers.

"That would be a big help for us," Mr. VonGruenigen said. "Ideally, we would grow our own work force locally."

With the hangars humming and Lear jets and Cessna Citations flying in regularly, Mr. VonGruenigen said he projects stable growth for Garrett.

The biggest challenge might be just making people aware about what the facility has accomplished over the years.

"A lot of times they're surprised," he said. "From the outside you really don't notice it."

Reach Vicky Eckenrode at (706) 823-3227 or vicky.eckenrode@augustachronicle.com.