At Mobile Aeroplex, the home of Airbus’ U.S. passenger jet production center, the steel frame of a twin-bay aircraft paint shop is beginning to rise, a project that will add a new element to the complex’s growing aerospace cluster.

At another site being redeveloped at the Aeroplex, an intermodal company days ago announced plans to expand its operations, bolstering the logistical capabilities of the 1,700-acre complex adjacent to the Port of Mobile.

The Aeroplex’s leadership, meanwhile, is mounting an aggressive push to bring in new blood to deepen the complex’s roster of aerospace firms and to plug into Airbus’ expanding presence.

Roger Wehner, executive director of the Mobile Airport Authority. (Contributed)

It’s why Mobile Airport Authority Executive Director Roger Wehner is at the  Farnborough International Airshow this week, following a recruiting trip to Toulouse, France, which houses an industry hub that’s developed around the aircraft maker.

“We’re talking about building an aerospace cluster that is vibrant with interaction among our tenants so that with their capabilities, they become greater than the sum of their parts,” Wehner said.

The steel skeleton rising at the Aeroplex symbolizes what he means. Ireland-based MAAS Aviation is constructing the twin-bay paint facility that will service large aircraft being refurbished or modernized. The airport authority estimates the project investment at $39 million.

Wehner said the MAAS paint hangar is a perfect complement to the maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) operation of VT MAE, an Aeroplex tenant since 1991. Aligned in a partnership, the companies can perform end-to-end services for aircraft owners.

“Really, it’s MAAS and VT MAE going to the market and competing together as a team to pursue work they could never pursue before,” Wehner said. “We think it’s significant.”

Construction work on the MAAS paint shop should be complete this fall, he said.

A rendering shows the MAAS paint facility under construction at Mobile Aeroplex. (MAAS)


Improving the Aeroplex’s infrastructure and its logistical capabilities are important parts of the growth plan. Two separate projects, valued at more than $40 million, are under way to upgrade the facility’s taxiway and engine run-up.

In collaboration with five tenants, the airport authority is also redeveloping a 20-acre site at the complex. The expansion of ASF Intermodal, announced last week, sprang from this redevelopment project.

“The Mobile Airport Authority has been a great partner for our continued growth in Mobile,” said Michael Smith, president of ASF Intermodal. “We’re very excited about our new facility. MAA did a first-class job on the new building, and we couldn’t be more pleased.”

Wehner said the Aeroplex’s willingness to take a collaborative approach with tenants is an important piece of his team’s growth strategy.

“Our evolution over the last few years and the capability to collaborate, redevelop and deliver high-quality solutions is part of our formula when competing in the global aerospace market — for example, at the Farnborough Airshow.”

‘Incremental growth’

The Aeroplex attracted a series of aerospace projects in 2015, involving $56 million in new investment and more than 300 jobs, according to data in the Alabama Department of Commerce’s 2015 New & Expanding Industry Report.

An A321 aircraft takes off from the Airbus plant at Mobile Aeroplex, where it was built for American Airlines. (Airbus)

The stream of arrivals has continued into 2016. In June, Panasonic Avionics, a leading supplier of inflight entertainment and communications systems in passenger aircraft, announced plans for an Aeroplex location.

Other newcomers include Zodiac Aerospace, a French company that specializes in aircraft cabins; Recaro Aircraft Seating, a top seating manufacturer; Broetje Automation, a specialist in supplying tools and line-side equipment; and AAA Aerospace, a production engineering firm.

Most of these operations are small, but Wehner believes they will grow with Airbus’ production rate.

“As rate goes up, every one of our existing companies will grow,” he said. “Airbus is really not even at rate 2 (two aircraft produced a month). I think every single one of our suppliers has this incremental growth ahead of them.”

This story originally appeared on the Alabama Department of Commerce’s Made in Alabama website.