Aviation firm tackles first plane; First aircraft to pull into First Coast Aerospace's hangar at JIA this morning

A new aviation maintenance/repair/overhaul company is setting up shop at Jacksonville International Airport after winning a contract to replace seats in the jets used by Frontier Airlines.

The first aircraft that First Coast Aerospace will work on was scheduled to arrive around 2 a.m. today, with the upstart company having 32 hours to tear out the 100-plus existing seats and replace them with new ones.

First Coast is working out of a 49,900-square-foot office and hangar facility leased from Signature Flight Support, one of two fixed-based operators at the airport.

The hangar had been used by Flightstar Aircraft Services - a company in a related line of work - until Flightstar outgrew the space and moved to Cecil Field.

The two men behind First Coast Aerospace both come from the aviation maintenance industry, repairing and refurbishing a range of commercial aircraft. When Merrill Woods and Gilmer "Tripp" Carter III decided to start their own business, they took aim at an under-served niche: low-cost carriers.

"The issue is capacity," said Woods, president of the company. "There's not enough maintenance and repair facilities in place for low-cost carriers."

Most larger facilities tend to focus on airlines with huge fleets, he said, making it difficult for a company with only a couple dozen planes.

Those that do serve the budget airlines tend to focus on major cities, said Matt Eaton, Flightstar's vice president of corporate development. "I think it's a wonderful niche for them over there," he said. "Smaller markets are not being addressed."

What the increase in capacity means for Frontier, which began flying between Jacksonville and its Denver hub last month, is the ability to have planes back in service after only a short break.

After dropping passengers off at the terminal, the aircraft will be brought to First Coast's facility, where the existing seats will be replaced with lighter, higher-tech ones in a day and a half.

"These are working airplanes," Woods said. "This is very quick turnaround. We can get them off to the hangar to do the checks and get them back on the line the next morning."

First Coast Aerospace's $500,000 contract with Frontier is for retrofitting 59 airplanes over 15 months. The company is starting out with 13 people on staff; by mid-2008, Woods said, he expects to have 77 people on board, with another 100 or so being hired in the year after that.

That growth will help the region in general, said John Haley, vice president of business recruitment for the Jacksonville Regional Chamber of Commerce.

"It contributes to the notion that Jacksonville has the critical mass for aviation aerospace facilities," he said. "That word gets out around the nation. People tell others and we become more well known."

Whatever growth comes, though, on Monday Woods was more focused on short-term concerns - specifically, the airplane his crew would start working on early today.

"The tension has run high on the preparation and planning," he said. "It seems like it's been years since we won the contract. But right now everyone but me and my co-owner is home sleeping. Out of all the craziness, today was a quiet day."

timothy.gibbons@jacksonville.com (904) 359-4103