Getting enough work to bring the new AAR Aircraft Services maintenance base in Duluth up to full capacity isn’t the problem.
Finding the 225 to 250 skilled workers that will be needed to staff four lines and bring it to full production is the challenge.
Since Illinois-based AAR began operations at the former Northwest Airlines maintenance base in November, it has hired 120 people, said Danny Martinez, the company’s vice president of technical services.
“They’re all working,” Martinez said. “But we need more.”
Next week, the second production line doing heavy maintenance on Air Canada Airbus jets will start up, he said.
But they need 40 more aircraft mechanics to do it.
Until they make those hires, AAR will fill the gap by bringing in mechanics from some of its other maintenance, repair and overhaul bases in Oklahoma City, Indianapolis, Miami and Hot Springs, Ark.
“We’re hiring every day,” Timothy Romenesko, AAR’s president and chief operating officer, said during a visit to Duluth last week. “By the time the second line is fully ramped, we will have the work force intact.”
But hiring even more certified airplane mechanics for the scheduled third line startup this spring is another matter.
“We’re not panicking,” Romenesko said. “We think we will identify the people and bring them in. But the sooner the better. The more people we have, the more work we can produce.”
When it was hiring in October, AAR officials said jobs at the base would pay $30,000 to $80,000 a year.
Finding qualified aircraft mechanics is a problem AAR has faced elsewhere after it has tapped the local work force for skilled avionics workers. AAR is a leading provider of aircraft maintenance service to airlines.
“It’s a constant battle across all our facilities,” Romenesko said.
Of the first 100 hired at the Duluth base, 60 to 65 had worked there when it was the Northwest Airlines maintenance base, or they had some connection to it, Martinez said.
When the base closed in 2005, it put hundreds out of work. So there probably are more experienced aircraft mechanics out there.
“We heard from some who want to make sure we’re here to stay,” Romenesko said. “We are.”
To fill those openings, AAR has expanded its recruiting efforts to the Twin Cities and the rest of the state. A job fair last week in Bloomington generated some good candidates, Martinez said. AAR also is working with local workforce agencies and is partnering with and hiring from Northland Community & Technical College in Thief River Falls, which offers specialized aviation maintenance training, said Chris Mason, an AAR media liaison.
The key qualification is airframe and power-plant certification.
“If they have an A&P license, they should call us,” Romenesko said. “We have a job for them.”
In its five-year contract with Air Canada, AAR is to provide airframe maintenance services at the Duluth base to Air Canada’s fleet of 89 Airbus A320-series jets. Crews on each line perform heavy maintenance checks on one plane at a time, a job that can take 15 to 45 days. It’s enough work to bring the base to full production, as long as there is the staff to do it.
AAR wants to fill any gaps in the Air Canada service schedule with short-term servicing of other carrier planes. That happened for the first time last week with a Sun Country Airlines plane, Martinez said.
“They had a need, we had an opening,” he said.
In time, AAR could expand by using the 188,000-square-foot facility’s back shops to service more planes, Romenesko said.
“But right now, our primary focus is on our core customer, not expanding,” he said, referring to Air Canada.
Romenesko was in Duluth last week to give the keynote address at the annual meeting of Area Partnership for Economic Expansion, a business development group that helped bring AAR to Duluth.
“We’re excited about the opportunities in Duluth,” Romenesko told the 80 people gathered at the Kitchi Gammi Club on Thursday. “We’re off to a really good start.”
Citing an economic impact study AAR had done, he said AAR’s Duluth facility will generate an estimated $47 million annually in economic impact in the state. And it will pay more than $2.5 million a year in state and local taxes as well as create up to 250 good-paying jobs.