Aviation Week & Space Technology International Bizav Manufacturers Growing U.S. Operations In The Southeast

Whistling ‘Dixie’ with an accent
William Garvey Aviation Week & Space Technology
Feb 18, 2015

A small Southern town 100 mi. from anywhere, Columbus, Mississippi’s matters of historical note include a graveyard full of Confederate and Union soldiers felled at the Battle of Shiloh, the boyhood home of playwright Tennessee Williams, and a company, now bankrupt, that once turned out more toilet seats than any other in the world.

So it came as a surprise to many in the aerospace community when in 2003, Eurocopter—now Airbus Helicopters—chose Columbus as a site for light final assembly work involving its AS350 AStar helicopter. But the Europeans had grander aspirations.

Three years later, the company won a U.S. Army contract to build the UH-72 Lakota, a militarized version of the twin-engine EC145; the Mississippi facility (center photo) will produce some 300. Last year, the plant began full assembly of the AStar (right photo), the first of which is to be delivered right about now. The facility could eventually produce 60 annually. To date, the Mississippi unit—which employs 230, almost half of them military veterans—has delivered more than 800 aircraft.

Airbus Helicopters

Credit: Airbus Helicopters

When it began building what has grown to a 331,000-sq.-ft. factory, the company had the Golden Triangle Regional Airport (GTR) pretty much to itself. But not anymore. Today the airport is home to both Stark Aerospace, a division of Israel Aerospace Industries, and Aurora Flight Sciences; both are unmanned air vehicle manufacturers. “When we started, no one else was here,” says Samuel Adcock, vice president and general manager of the Airbus Helicopter facility. “We blazed a trail that others have followed.”

He is referring to new industries at the airport and its environs, representing 5,000 new jobs. Similar moves are being made by other international business aviation manufacturers as well, and the Southeastern United States seems to be their favored landing place.

Honda Aircraft has built a sprawling, sparkling new campus comprising headquarters, manufacturing, research, training and service facilities at the Piedmont Triad International Airport in Greensboro, North Carolina. Meanwhile, Honda Aero, the joint venture of Honda and GE, is building engines at a brand new facility in nearby Burlington.

Some 480 nm south, at Florida’s Melbourne International Airport, Embraer has created its own campus for assembly of its Phenom jets. Last year it also opened a research center there, and currently is undergoing a $76 million expansion of its assembly and delivery facility to accommodate its Legacy executive jets as well.

Meanwhile, Dassault Falcon Jet is investing $60 million to add another 250,000 sq. ft. of space at its Little Rock, Arkansas, completions center—already the largest facility operated by the French manufacturer—to handle the new 5X and 8X models.

And not to be overlooked, Michelin is manufacturing tires for business and commercial aircraft at its facility in Greenville, South Carolina.

So does this embrace of “the South,” long home to Gulfstream, Bell Helicopters, Piper, and Continental Motors, among other original equipment manufacturers (OEM), constitute a true and growing trend among their international counterparts? “Absolutely!” says one business aviation veteran executive. “It’s noticeable.”

According to Adcock, the attractions are many. The weather is much milder and more accommodating for flying, barbequing and golf; living, land and power costs are lower, as are taxes if compared with other regions; there’s a good pool of skilled labor; and local and state governments are eager—read, generous with tax breaks—to attract high-value manufacturing jobs.

Airbus Helicopters

Airbus Helicopters

Richard Aboulafia, vice president and aviation analyst with the Teal Group, says yet another factor stimulating foreign companies to manufacture or assemble in the U.S. is concern over fluctuations in currency.

“The Southeast is especially appealing to non-U.S. companies,” says Robert Stangarone, a consultant with broad experience in business aviation manufacturing. Coming to the South, he says, allows them “to be closer to their customers in their largest market, the U.S., while having the flexibility to start with a greenfield operation and build the business from the ground up with a clean sheet, using the latest technology, manufacturing, environmental and logistics concepts.”

Another draw is the Southeast’s universal embrace of “right to work” laws, which hold that no worker can be compelled to join a union, or pay union dues. As a result, unions are not well represented in the region, obviating an often-contentious relationship—and one “that’s killing Wichita,” according to one veteran of the battles there.

So will the new Southern palate of fried chicken and foie gras, sushi and shoofly pie continue to expand?

“There are two things necessary to constitute a trend: data and a logical explanation,” Aboulafia notes. “And it seems to me we have both.”

A version of this article appears in the September 9 edition of Aviation Week & Space Technology.