One Delaware industry that has literally flown “under the radar” is aviation.
“All the news is good,” says R. Robert Ruggio. Ruggio, a real estate consultant who has worked on projects in Delaware and adjacent areas, would like to see aviation share more headlines with higher-profile employers.
Scott Green, executive director of the Delaware River and Bay Authority, is also bullish on the industry. The authority operates airports in New Jersey and Delaware, including New Castle Airport.
“A lot goes on behind the fences,” Green says.
Despite the low profile—perhaps a reflection of the lack of commercial airline service in the state—aviation remains an economic bright spot.
As many skilled blue collar jobs disappear, mid-sized aviation companies are on the lookout for skilled workers. Green says some employers “can’t hire fast enough” to keep up with the volume of business.
The Delaware Economic Development Office, under director Alan Levin, is now working with Delaware Technical Community College to meet the demand. One key step is the proposed expansion of the aviation program at the Delaware Tech Owens Campus in Georgetown to include aircraft engine work.
Beefing up the Delaware Tech program would require start-up funding from the state and the college. While finding the funding could prove difficult in a period of shrinking resources, failing to meet the demand for high-paying blue collar jobs could be more costly.
A graduate could earn $75,000 to $85,000 a year and “have a job for life,” Levin says.
The importance of a skilled workforce is apparent in a 2006 report commissioned by the state of Delaware. The report estimated economic activity from aviation supported 15,000 jobs and accounted for $1 billion in yearly economic activity.
Much of the employment total is tied to Dover Air Force Base, a key cargo hub.
To the south, the Sussex County Airport is seen as a way to diversify an economy dependent on seasonal employment.
The number of jobs tied to the county-owned airport stands at about 1,000, according to Todd Lawson, Sussex County administrator.
“The Sussex County Airport is a critical component to Sussex County’s economic development engine and the transportation system,” Lawson says.
The importance of the industry is reflected by continued county, state and federal investments in and around the Sussex airport. “We estimate that between 2003 and 2017, more than $72 million will have been invested,” Lawson says. Projects range from land purchases to highway projects in the area around the airport.
A major player in Delaware’s other two counties is the River and Bay Authority. In addition to the New Castle Airport, the authority operates the Civil Air Terminal at Dover Air Force Base, and Delaware Airpark in Cheswold. The airpark is the home of the pilot training program of Delaware State University.
The bulk of employment at airports operated by the River and Bay Authority comes from New Castle, which accounts for about 1,000 jobs, according to James Salmon, information officer. The head count includes more than 200 Air Guard jobs and mid-sized companies employing between 200 and 400 workers.
Green says little vacant hangar space remains at New Castle, putting the airport “at a tipping point” that could lead to another wave of development.
The industry did feel the effects of the last downturn, which came before the recession of 2008 and 2009. In the past few years, the industry has seen a steady recovery, according to Ruggio.
Top private employers include Dassault, a French aerospace giant with operations at New Castle Airport; Summit Aviation, operator of Summit Airport near Middletown; and PATS Aircraft Systems at Sussex County Airport near Georgetown. FlightSafety, a company controlled by legendary investor Warren Buffett, provides flight simulator training at its site in New Castle.
Both Levin and Green confirm discussions have taken place about possible expansion with Dassault and employment needs.
Recently, Hawker Beechcraft added a couple of dozen jobs at a service center in the long-vacant former MBNA hangar at the New Castle Airport.
The aviation industry has a rich history in the state, with the du Pont family playing a prominent role. Another pioneer was plane-builder Bellanca, which operated out of an airfield near the New Castle Airport. An effort is now under way to operate an aviation museum at the Bellanca hangar and airfield site, built with the help of the du Pont family.
It took the German invasion in Europe to jump start construction of airports in all three counties in the late 1930s and early ’40s. The three airports survived the post-war period and became Dover Air Force Base, Sussex County Airport and New Castle Airport.
Summit Aviation, a privately owned airport and aviation services company, remained a holding of a du Pont family member and later his widow until a few years ago. The airport has grown to nearly 200 employees under new owner Greenwich AeroGroup, a Kansas company. Summit does a thriving business by refitting Boeing helicopters.
The specialized operations have allowed Delaware aviation companies to tap into rapidly growing Asian markets. Last year, Dassault got the OK for its New Castle site to provide airframe and other types of maintenance for a growing fleet of Falcon jets based in China.
At the Sussex airport, PATS does work on larger Boeing 737s that are often owned by governments and wealthy families. PATS specializes in installing large fuel tanks that allow 737s to cross oceans.
A key project for the future of PATS and the Sussex County Airport is now under way in the form of an expanded runway. The project will add another 500 feet of runway, with the second 500 feet coming later in the decade. Construction on the first phase began in the fall and will resume in the spring.
The final 500-foot extension is essential in plans by PATS to convert the larger Boeing 757 aircraft that are moving out of airline fleets and into the hands of private owners, says Sussex County administrator Lawson. The longer runway has the potential to attract other companies.
Chances are you will not know whether a company, family or foreign government is using PATS or other suppliers. Customers often insist on secrecy to the point that tail sections of planes are covered when visitors tour the facilities or aircraft spend time outdoors.
One thing that may not remain a secret much longer is the prospect of jobs with annual wages well into the five figures and the impact of those paychecks on the economy.
The big question is whether the state, its workforce and education system can move quickly enough to take advantage of the opportunity.
When fast-growing Allegiant Air was scouting the region, Dover was one of the pins on the map of possible destinations. But the airline that typically flies from smaller airports to popular tourist spots, like Orlando and Las Vegas, bypassed the capital city, according to Alan Levin, director of the Delaware Economic Development Office.
The decision came as no surprise. Operating flights from the Civil Air Terminal at Dover Air Force Base would have been a challenge. The base remains on a war footing and can be shut down to non-military traffic at any time. Moreover, the big civilian jets dropping off passengers and freight must quickly fly out of Dover, a base that has no “tie down” parking area.
Earlier this year, Allegiant halted service from Salisbury, Md., the Delmarva destination the carrier eventually selected. Even with the setback in Maryland, Delaware officials do not rule out Allegiant or other carriers taking a second look at Dover, New Castle Airport or the Sussex County Airport.
Not in the cards is an aggressive marketing effort.
“We’re not chasing airlines,” says Scott Green, executive director of the Delaware River and Bay Authority, operator of the New Castle Airport and the civil aviation terminal at Dover. New Castle has a history of attracting airlines that exit after a short period.
Sussex County is a less likely destination for airline service. The Delaware Department of Transportation conducted an airline service feasibility study in 2009 and concluded service in Sussex was unlikely, says county administrator Todd Lawson. “Demand is very low, the airport lacks airline service infrastructure, and service would require a major subsidy by the county.”
While not pushing for airline service, the DRBA will work to ensure that New Castle remains ready if another carrier comes calling. Long-term plans have called for a new terminal as part of a further expansion of the airport that now has little available hangar space.
Green says marketing efforts could be of little value because airlines already use sophisticated technology to keep tabs on travel trends and costs. For instance, a carrier would take a closer look at New Castle if operating costs and fares become too high at Philadelphia, or if more local passengers catch flights at Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.
Levin says resolving the plane parking issue increases the chances of attracting an airline to a Dover airport that might be able to attract that critical mass of airline passengers. Levin has appointed a committee that will study the feasibility of the project.
Green says the state has to take the lead, given the number of issues that arise in attempting to develop facilities at government installations. Levin says it is too early to speculate what the state could do financially to move the project forward.
Real estate consultant Robert Ruggio says one hurdle is the limitation on the length of leases on government property. The restrictions make it tough to find private financing for hangars and buildings.