400 jobs could land at Tampa International Airport

Jul. 10--TAMPA -- The cavernous US Airways hangar has been empty and ignored for four years as Tampa International Airport searched for a new tenant to replace hundreds of lost jobs.

Now, two companies -- neither of them passenger airlines -- have competing proposals to fill the hangar again with mechanics and big planes.

Pemco World Air Services, which maintains jets for carriers such as Southwest Airlines and Northwest Airlines in Dothan, Ala., wants to expand into Tampa this year and bring up to 400 new jobs by 2009.

Also in the hunt is Astar Air Cargo Holdings, a Miami aircraft leasing company that flies jets for cargo giant DHL. Astar wants to move its overnight maintenance from Orlando by year's end and build a heavy maintenance operation that would employ 400 workers in 2010.

Airport officials favor Pemco, among the largest U.S. companies in the fast-growing business of maintaining and repairing planes for airlines.

"Pemco has a demonstrated track record of success," said Louis Miller, executive director of Tampa International. He will ask the airport's board Thursday to give him two months to negotiate a lease with Pemco.

The trend for major airlines to outsource aircraft maintenance accelerated as the industry went into a prolonged slump after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Four of the Big Six carriers -- United, Delta, Northwest and US Airways -- went into bankruptcy, victims of high costs and competition from growing discount airlines.

Just before Thanksgiving 2002, US Airways abruptly closed its Tampa hangar and eliminated 300 jobs of well-paid mechanics and other workers.

In March 2005, Delta announced plans to shut down its maintenance operation at Tampa International and cut 300 jobs.

The move was part of a larger effort to save $240-million over four years by hiring contractors to do heavy maintenance mostly performed by Delta workers in Atlanta. Delta's Tampa hangar also remains empty.

Two-thirds of commercial airline maintenance was performed by airline employees 15 years ago, according to Pemco's 2006 annual report. Now, about 65 percent of the work is contracted to companies like Pemco.

Pemco's commercial aviation business has outgrown facilities in Dothan. The company likes Tampa for a variety of reasons, said chief executive Ronald Aramini.

The hangar, big enough to fit a wide-body Boeing 767 and two narrow-body 727s at the same time, is just 15 years old and well-equipped.

Two major customers, Southwest and Northwest, fly into the airport. And with the US Airways and Delta layoffs, there are lots of mechanics to recruit locally.

"It's a great facility on a major airport -- and there are enough qualified people who might like to go to work," Aramini said.

Pemco plans to perform heavy maintenance, required inspections and replacement of the parts of the air frame.

Ownership of the public company will likely change soon. Pemco intends to spin off the commercial jet business from its military jet maintenance done in Birmingham, Ala., its headquarters.

Astar, however, isn't going away quietly. A lawyer for the company wrote airport board members Monday asking to hold off approving exclusive negotiations with Pemco.

Airport rules to protest Miller's recommendation are "so mired in internal contradictions and confusion" that Astar can't win, wrote attorney Elliott Seiden.

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