BANGOR, Maine — The success of private businesses in and around Bangor International Airport is more vital than ever to the strength and stability of the city’s major travel hub, airport director Tony Caruso said Wednesday.
Owners of those businesses say their success could depend on having enough qualified workers in the area to grow and expand.
Caruso, C&L Aerospace CEO Chris Kilgour, and Maine Aero Services CEO Gene Richardson discussed the future of Bangor’s aviation industry in front of area politicians and business leaders at a breakfast Wednesday hosted by the Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce.
Richardson started Maine Aero Services, a general aviation maintenance facility focusing on small, twin- and single-engine aircraft, in 2010 after purchasing a portion of Telford Aviation’s operations. He started with a core group of Telford employees and now has a staff of 10.
He said he has noticed a drastic shortage of qualified, trained aircraft mechanics in the area. He would like to hire locally, but most applications he sees come from elsewhere in the country.
Richardson is working closely with the United Technologies Center in Bangor and the Federal Aviation Administration to establish a new aircraft maintenance training program for high school juniors and seniors interested in pursuing that career path. Students could continue their educations at Burlington Aviation Technology in Burlington, Vermont, or at a similar school elsewhere in New England.
However, with the University of Maine at Augusta’s introduction of a bachelor’s degree program in aviation, Richardson said there are early talks about whether a maintenance program might expand to the Bangor campus or at another school.
Kilgour agreed there is a need for trained mechanics in the area. He has hired 120 employees since he moved his company to Bangor in 2010 after purchasing hangar space from Telford Aviation.
C&L recently cut the ribbon on its new headquarters at the airport. Within a month, the company expects to open a painting hangar, where Kilgour expects to add 40 to 50 new jobs.
This is steady work that pays well, Kilgour and Richardson said. Apprentice painters and mechanics make around $12 per hour, but with training and experience, salaries can grow to $30 per hour, they said.
The airport has seen significant changes, both in workforce and focus, in the past year.
It is in the midst of several major renovations, including the rebuilding of Godfrey Boulevard in front of the terminal and a $10 million domestic terminal modernization project. That money largely comes from federal grants and passenger facility charges, which put a small portion of each ticket sold toward facility investments.
The terminal project should change the airport’s out-of-date appearance and improve the overall experience and service for customers by consolidating airline ticket counters into one area and improving queueing, Caruso has said.
Early this year, the airport laid off 25 employees, a mix of 10 full-timers and 15 part-timers, largely in response to a drastic decrease in the number of military flights setting down in Bangor to refuel on their way to or from combat in the Middle East. The airport had 83 full-time employees and 70 part-time, seasonal or on-call employees before the layoffs.
“It was good business for us, but it’s great to see our troops coming back,” Caruso said.
With military traffic playing less of a role in the airport’s bottom line, Caruso said it’s more important than ever that the airport focus on “anchor tenants” such as C&L, Maine Aero and the newly arrived Maine State Police barracks. He said there’s more hangar and office space available for lease at the airport, including the space occupied by C&L Aerospace until its move this year to its new hub off Godfrey Boulevard.
Under its 15-year lease, C&L rents three hangars and an office space for about $19,225 per month. Maine Aero’s lease, effective through August 2017, gives the company a smaller hangar space for $2,700 per month. Both companies are responsible for utility costs, freeing the airport from the high costs of heating large hangar spaces. Maine State Police is renting its two buildings for $111,300, which will increase in five-year increments until it reaches $129,750 in the 20th year of the lease.
The annual airport budget averages about $13 million, according to Caruso.
Meanwhile, airport officials continue to court airlines, trying to bring in direct service to new locations — one of the most popular requests being Boston, according to Caruso. Growth in the city, such as the Cross Insurance Center, has given the airport new chips to bargain with.
Bringing in a new route or airline takes time, however, he stressed.
Four or five years of discussions led to the announcement earlier this year that United Airlines would bring Chicago service to Bangor. Talks that eventually brought Allegiant to Bangor took about as long, he said.
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.