When airlines deal with a faulty onboard coffee maker, they don't run to Wal-Mart. Coffee makers on commercial jets run $5,000 to $9,000 apiece. Each plane carries up to eight of those coffee makers, depending on the size and type of aircraft.
Instead of buying a new one, more airlines are turning to companies like Spokane-based Absolute Aviation Services, Inc. for a cheaper option.
The 15-person firm, based at the Spokane Airport, repairs expensive airline coffee machines for between $500 and $2,500 each, depending on the complexity of the problem. As a certified aviation repair station, Absolute looks for a range of aircraft parts to fix, from large airlines and small.
"The companies making the coffee makers would rather the airlines bought them new. But we save the airlines a lot of money by fixing them," said Randy Julin, general manager and co-owner of Absolute Aviation.
Airlines worldwide have started turning to certified repair stations like Absolute, in order to hold down costs in the post-9/11 world of tight budgets and slim operating margins.
Aviation repair is a thriving industry as a result. "Absolute is operating in a very nice niche," said Virginia-based aviation industry consultant Jonathan Burnett. "They repair the unrepairable, things that are designed to be replaced more than repaired," said Burnett.
Julin and his partner, Al Garr, started Absolute three years ago. They met while both worked for another aviation maintenance firm based in New York.
Absolute's staff occupies about half the space inside a brand new building at the airport, constructed in part with state money. In the other half is another Absolute customer, Empire Airlines, the Coeur d'Alene-based cargo carrier. Empire uses the building to modify and repair its Fedex "feeder" cargo airplanes. It also sends all its electronic and flight-instrument repairs on ATR aircraft to Absolute.
Large and small companies are competing for work within the repair-station industry. Some of the giants include global firms like Triumph, Goodrich and GE, said Garr, the firm's vice president of sales.
Smaller firms like Absolute focus on their own areas of specialization. For Absolute those include electronic components, lighting systems, electro-mechanical flight instruments and power supply units.
It expects to gross between $1.3 million and $1.5 million in sales this year; that's up from just under $1 million in 2006, said Julin.
Airline electronic units like coffee makers are expensive because of strict Federal Aviation Administration codes covering their engineering and the materials used to make them.
"The coffee makers are very complex systems," said Jeff Powell, vice president of B/E Aerospace, a major U.S. producer of aircraft components including seats and coffee makers. Coffee makers use hydraulics systems, sophisticated electric circuits and high-quality metal components.
Said Powell, "They're not like the Mr. Coffee machine."
A similarly strict set of rules face any company that wants to work as an FAA-certified repair station, said Garr and Julin. It takes months before Absolute can gain the FAA's approval to add a new airline component for repair.
"Every piece that we use in work or have in inventory, we have to track back to the source and show exactly where it came from," Julin said.
Garr and Julin spend much of their working day hatching new deals with small or large airlines. Both Delta and American Airlines use Absolute Aviation for some electronic repair, Julin said.
It's a competitive industry, with an airline frequently changing from one repair station to another simply by finding a slightly better price.
"You hope that for every one you might lose you add two more contracts," said Julin.
Fedex two years ago chose Absolute to be the main repair station for its feeder system's electrical parts. Absolute is using its reputation for quick turnaround and reliable work to add major airlines to the customer list.
"We'll save Delta and American airlines about $1.5 million this year by repairing things they would have otherwise had to replace," said Julin.
A major share of Absolute's workload involves repairing high-voltage power supplies used on commercial aircraft. They run in price from $8,000 to $15,000 to replace. Absolute repairs them at for 20 percent to 60 percent or so of those costs, said Garr.
Absolute also repairs strobe lights on aircraft wings or on the top or bottom of the body.
Garr and Julin estimate they'll be able to expand to about 21 fulltime workers in 2008. The one concern, said Garr, is the tight labor market. The firm needs about two more skilled electronics technicians who know how to troubleshoot circuit board problems and fix them at the component level.
"It's becoming more difficult to find that level of skill," said Garr.