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Commercial Jet Restores Wiregrass Aircraft Industry

The Wiregrass reversed one of its biggest job setbacks almost overnight, with an aircraft enterprise that’s bigger and better than the one that flew away.

It took some wheeling and dealing by local officials, but luring Commercial Jet to the Wiregrass looks like an economy saver.

It took some wheeling and dealing by local officials, but luring Commercial Jet to the Wiregrass looks like an economy saver.

Photo courtesy of Dothan Area Chamber of Commerce

When Pemco World Air Services Inc. filed for bankruptcy in 2012 and announced it would close its operations in Dothan, the impact was felt all across the Wiregrass region. The closure eliminated more than 250 jobs that had been a mainstay since the company set up shop in the early 1990s.

Dothan Area Chamber of Commerce President Matt Parker says local officials chose to see it as an opportunity, and their attention focused on the half a million square feet of empty hangar space — a World War II-era hangar that needed improvement and upgrading but was still a big asset. 

After a year of shopping this asset and bolstering it with incentives and commitments to infrastructure improvements, Wiregrass officials and their state partner landed Commercial Jet, a Miami-based aircraft company that has reopened the facility with 350 workers and plans to fill more space.

“The vision is for us to grow,” says Keith Johnson, general manager of Commercial Jet. He says the Dothan facility has the same number of workers as the company’s Miami facility but with twice the hanger space. So the Dothan facility has the potential to handle twice as many planes. 

 “Dothan has the capacity to grow, but Miami is limited by the space they have.”

The work Commercial Jet does is maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO), which was also the general classification of the work done by Pemco. 

Airlines and customers bring planes in for inspection and to make modifications and repairs. Small, specific drop-in work also is done. The bulk of the work now is converting passenger planes to freighter planes. The Dothan location also has a paint facility for planes serviced both in Dothan and Miami. 

“The paint facility is not common in MRO facilities,” Johnson says.

Currently, four to five lines of maintenance operate continuously. The vision is to take on more MRO-type work. Johnson anticipates growing the facility into a line that can handle eight to 12 aircraft.

Dothan has been a great fit for Commercial Jet, offering a good cost structure and pipeline for experienced and qualified workers. Commercial Jet was attracted to Dothan because of the size and capabilities of the facility and the relationships that have developed. Veronica Crock, executive director at the Ozark-Dale County Economic Development Corp., expects that the project will ultimately result in 500 direct jobs and the creation of 1,500 local support jobs.

Citing an analysis by Troy University’s Sorrell College of Business, Crock says they estimate “that over 10 years, the Commercial Jet investment will create $470 million in wages and $22.95 million in sales and property tax.” 

The airport recently received grants from the Wiregrass Foundation and FAA totaling $5 million to make ramp improvements, and another $12 million in state funds was invested. 

A total of $26 million total has been invested in bringing Commercial Jet to Alabama. All but three of the hangars in the 400,000-square-foot facility are in use. 

Parker says he chose to target companies in the Miami area because of their good reputation. He hit the MRO market right after the Pemco closure announcement, with direct mail and cold calling, and soon got a return call from Commercial Jet. 

“They said I must have read their mind, because they were looking to expand,” Parker says. 

Parker and Commercial Jet coordinated a visit while Pemco was still working in the facility. State incentives were already in place for aircraft companies specializing in MRO, but local and state officials banded to pass a local bill making Dale County the first Alabama county to waive sales and use taxes on MROs.

This helped allow for the facilities and infrastructure to be updated before Commercial Jet could move into the space. The partners put together a 188-point agreement to ensure accountability on the work being done. 

“It was a lot of work on everyone’s part,” Parker says. 

“It was a great announcement at the Opera House,” Parker says of the 2013 event. “We had a legislative delegation, governor, speaker and AIDT.”

Worker training is a major component of the incentives that lured Commercial Jet. Prospective employees can participate in a sheet metal training program, CJET Academy. CJET Academy sends 25 to 30 people to a 320-hour training every 10 weeks and the classes stay full. CJET provides the equipment for these free classes and AIDT provides instructors and manuals. The Airport Authority owns the building and Wallace Community College built the racking. 

“The thing people need to understand is, nationwide, there is a hole out there. Workers are retiring, and there is a tremendous opportunity to grow and elevate in your field,” says Parker. “This is a great example of regional collaboration.

“It felt like we were on the one yard line with 15 seconds on the clock and we did it,” Parker says. “It’s a tribute to the many folks that helped us out.”

Laura Stakelum is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She is based in Dothan.

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