The massive steel skeleton rising at the Mobile Aeroplex just outside downtown Mobile, Ala. isn’t just another new project. It’s a symbol of growth for the Port City and undeniable proof that the Gulf Coast is a new hub for the global aerospace industry.
The steel beams are forming a $39 million hangar that will modernize large passenger jet aircraft. The project is just one among many making its home at the Aeroplex where aircraft-giant Airbus has made its U.S. home.
At another site being redeveloped at the Aeroplex, an intermodal company announced this week its plans to expand its operations there, bolstering the logistical capabilities of the 1,700-acre complex adjacent to the Port of Mobile.
The Aeroplex’s leadership, meanwhile, is mounting an aggressive push to bring in new blood to deepen the complex’s roster of aerospace firms and to plug into Airbus’ expanding presence.
It’s why Mobile Airport Authority Executive Director Roger Wehner is at the Farnborough International Airshow this week, following a recruiting trip to Toulouse, France, which houses an industry hub that’s developed around the aircraft maker.
“We’re talking about building an aerospace cluster that is vibrant with interaction among our tenants so that with their capabilities, they become greater than the sum of their parts,” Wehner said.
Ireland-based MAAS Aviation is constructing the twin-bay paint facility that will service large aircraft being refurbished or modernized. The airport authority estimates the project investment at $39 million.
Wehner said the MAAS paint hangar is a perfect complement to the maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) operation of VT MAE, an Aeroplex tenant since 1991. Aligned in a partnership, the companies can perform end-to-end services for aircraft owners.
“Really, it’s MAAS and VT MAE going to the market and competing together as a team to pursue work they could never pursue before,” Wehner said. “We think it’s significant.”
Construction work on the MAAS paint shop should be complete this fall, he added.
Improving the Aeroplex’s infrastructure and its logistical capabilities are important parts of the growth plan. Two separate projects, valued at more than $40 million, are under way to upgrade the facility’s taxiway and engine run-up.
In collaboration with five tenants, the airport authority is also redeveloping a 20-acre site at the complex. The expansion of ASF Intermodal, announced last week, sprang from this redevelopment project.
“The Mobile Airport Authority has been a great partner for our continued growth in Mobile,” said Michael Smith, president of ASF Intermodal. “We’re very excited about our new facility. MAA did a first class job on the new building and we couldn’t be more pleased.”
Wehner said the Aeroplex’s willing to take a collaborative approach with tenants is an important piece of his team’s growth strategy.
“Our evolution over the last few years and the capability to collaborate, redevelop and deliver high-quality solutions is part of our formula when competing in the global aerospace market — for example, at the Farnborough Airshow.”
The Aeroplex attracted a series of aerospace projects in 2015, involving a total of $56 million in new investment and more than 300 jobs, according to data in Alabama Department of Commerce’s 2015 New & Expanding Industry Report.
The stream of arrivals has continued into 2016. In June, Panasonic Avionics, a leading supplier of inflight entertainment and communications systems in passenger aircraft, announced plans for an Aeroplex location.
Other newcomers include Zodiac Aerospace, a French company that specializes in aircraft cabins; Recaro Aircraft Seating, a top seating manufacturer; Broetje Automation, a specialist in supplying tools and line-side equipment; and AAA Aerospace, a production engineering firm.
Most of these operations are small, but Wehner believes they will grow with Airbus’ production rate.
“As rate goes up, every one of our existing companies will grow,” he said. “Airbus is really not even at rate 2 (two aircraft produced a month). I think every single one of our suppliers has this incremental growth ahead of them.”