Empty NWA base attracts jet makers

Jun. 22--News of some intriguing potential business partners emerged Thursday as the parent company of Sun Country Airlines received an initial go-ahead in its efforts to return Duluth's now-empty Northwest Airlines maintenance base to productive use.

Minnetonka-based Petters Aviation has the ear of two companies that operate large corporate jet completion centers, such as the one it hopes to establish for Airbus in Duluth. Representatives of the German aviation giant Lufthansa Technik and Jet Aviation, a Swiss company which employs more than 4,500 worldwide, plan to visit Duluth to tour the facility that Northwest abandoned in 2005.

"They are interested in coming here and sizing up this facility," said Tom Hay, executive vice president of Petters Group Worldwide, speaking Thursday night before the Duluth Economic Development Authority.

A unanimous DEDA needed little coaxing to endorse a letter of intent, providing Petters with 180 days to put together an offer to lease the former Northwest building. During that time, DEDA will negotiate exclusively with Petters, and the company will make a $15,000 monthly payment to cover the cost of maintaining the 189,000-square-foot facility.

As the result of a settlement that stemmed from Northwest's recent bankruptcy reorganization, DEDA will assume sole ownership of the Duluth maintenance base by July. Petters hopes to lease the building and use it to customize large corporate jets, such as the six A318s it recently ordered from Airbus.

The A318 is large enough to accommodate more than 100 passengers, but corporate owners typically configure the passenger cabin to provide less seating and lavish leg room. Hay said Airbus sells the corporate jets unfinished -- or "green" -- so that their customers can tailor them to their tastes. Hay estimated that an A318 lists for about $45 million, and buyers typically invest about $10 million to $12 million more in the interior.

Hay said there's a worldwide shortage of large

corporate-jet completion centers, resulting in a backlog of work. Consequently, he said Airbus appears to be interested in helping Petters make good use of the Duluth facility.

Petters and its partners aim to employ 100 to 150 people at the Duluth base initially and up to 250 at full capacity.

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