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City positions Air Center for pandemic plane storage

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Juno Ogle Photo A crew moves a set of stairs to a United Airlines plane Tuesday afternoon at Roswell Air Center. The plane is among 22 that have arrived for storage since March 18 as airlines see a decrease in travel due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Among the negative economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic, the city of Roswell is finding a potential plus.

Since March 18, 22 planes — mostly passenger jets from United and American airlines — have arrived at the Roswell Air Center to be parked as air travel has slowed due to the pandemic.

Storing airplanes is nothing new for the air center, but the city increased its efforts early in March to position itself for an influx of new business that Mayor Dennis Kintigh said will flow from the airport to the community.

It started with a conversation among Kintigh, Scott Stark, air center director, and Mark Bleth, deputy air center director, about a report that German airline Lufthansa needed to park their Airbus 380 aircraft.

Two weeks ago, Stark and Bleth wrote a letter, signed by the mayor, and sent it to airline companies touting the Roswell Air Center as a location to park their planes.

“We’re in competitive mode here and part of it is to promote this area and try and get more of these airliners to be parked,” Kintigh said.

Normally, around 200 to 250 planes might be parked at the air center, Bleth said, but the city is preparing to accommodate up to 200 more by moving dirt from unused areas to reveal the concrete put down when Walker Army Air Base was first constructed in 1941.

In addition to airport crews, city street personnel have been recruited to move dirt — up to 200 yards per hour, or a half million pounds per hour, according to Bleth — and dampen the area with water trucks to help prevent blowing dust.

As the areas are cleared, older planes that have been at the air center and will not return to service will be moved so the prime locations of newer concrete near the terminal and hangars can be available, Bleth said.

“We’ve got about close to 300 acres that we’re clearing and transitioning airplanes,” he said.

The city charges $14 a day for storage. While larger numbers of planes in storage means more fees, Kintigh acknowledges that won’t be much of an economic boon to the city.

“When those planes come here, it’s not just about paying a parking fee. That’s a minimum amount of the whole investment in this community,” he said.

“We’ll have a lot of planes that come in here for active storage. They’re intended to fly back to service someday, so those will be maintained here locally,” Bleth said.

Those planes are required to be kept to daily flight standards. That requires certified mechanics.

“What happens is trained aviation mechanics touch those planes if not daily, regularly,” Kintigh said. “That’s where the real economic benefit is. You have to bring in personnel who make very good wages to take care of them.”

AerSale, a global supplier of aftermarket aircraft and parts, has a facility at the air center, and has already contracted with airlines to maintain the stored aircraft, Kintigh said, adding he believed Cavu Aerospace and General Airframe Support, or GenAir, are also working on contracts.

A call to AerSale was not returned by press time.

“We’re partners with these private entities. They are the ones who actually take care of the airplanes. What we do is provide a space for them to be safely and securely parked,” Kintigh said.

However, just how many jobs and for how long they will last is as hard to predict as how long the economic effects of the pandemic will last, Kintigh said.

“The airlines just don’t know, really, how much they’re going to be cutting back,” he said. “And we don’t know how long they’ll stay here because it’s a function of travel demand. It is literally impossible to tell how long they will stay.”

But Isaac Sheets, owner of GenAir, said this storage could lead to long-term growth for the airport and related businesses as airlines recognize what Roswell has to offer.

His business, which moved its entire operations to Roswell in 2016, is preparing for growth later this year, including expanding its hangar to accommodate the Airbus 320 and obtain certification from the Federal Aviation Administration to not only remove parts from airplanes but also to overhaul them.

He’s just purchased a 150,000 square-foot warehouse to accommodate that repair shop, he said.

“We’ll be able to actively store and regenerate aircraft. Right now would be great if I had my certificate,” he said. “As soon as this is all over, they’re going to be regenerating them pretty quick.”

As his expansion gets underway, he’ll be looking to hire locally, he said.

“We’re looking at starting an apprenticeship program for high school students, maybe through the summer,” he said. “Once we start the shop up, we’ll be training people and certifying them.”

To keep up with local coverage of the coronavirus, go to rdrnews.com/category/news/covid-19-situation/.

City/RISD reporter Juno Ogle can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 205, or reporter04@rdrnews.com.