MRO Profile: West Star Aviation East Alton
West Star Aviation’s East Alton location was founded in 1947 and was originally named Walston Aviation. It changed ownership in 1986 and was renamed Premier Air Center. In 2004, the principals of Premier Air Center acquired West Star Aviation in Grand Junction, Colo., and operated under the dual name Premier Air Center/West Star Aviation until September 2007, when the company was rebranded West Star Aviation.
When Premier Air Center hired Eric Kujawa in 2002 to start a Falcon program, the MRO was specializing in Citation work and employed approximately 20 technicians. Twelve years later Kujawa is the general manager of the East Alton facility, there are about 180 maintenance technicians, the MRO specializes in several major aircraft lines and it has physically expanded significantly.
Growing up on his family’s farm in Southern Illinois, Kujawa honed his mechanical skills early in life by working on farm equipment. He became interested in aviation in high school when his brother-in-law enrolled in the aviation program at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. “SIU was close to home, so I did some research about it and the aviation program. I discovered it had a good national reputation and decided that was what I wanted to do,” he said.
Kujawa graduated from high school and enrolled in the two-year airframe & powerplant mechanic program. In 1993 he received his A&P certificate with an associate’s degree in aviation maintenance and decided to enter SIU’s aviation management program. Two years later he graduated with a B.S. in aviation management and quickly found an A&P spot working on Citations for an MRO in Mount Vernon, Ill.
“It was a good job and I learned a lot, but at minimum wage it was difficult to pay back all the debt incurred from going to college. I knew I couldn’t make a career out of a minimum-wage job. In 1997 I went to work for Boeing in St. Louis on the F-15 final assembly line, which gave me a lot of experience in systems and exposure to the business end of the operation,” Kujawa said. “About a year later an opportunity opened up with Garrett in Springfield to work on Falcons. I had a lot of experience working with systems and was fairly quickly promoted to second-shift crew chief, which worked out so well I was moved to the day-shift crew chief spot.”
In March 2002, with a substantial background in Falcons and systems, Kujawa joined Premier Air Center to start a Falcon program. Premier, which had a Citation program and about 20 technicians, was looking to broaden its scope.
“My first week with the company I ordered the necessary tooling, parts and materials to begin developing a Falcon program. What I didn’t anticipate was that the program was about to start itself. In my second week with the company a Falcon 2000 that required a 1C inspection taxied up, and just like that we were in the Falcon maintenance business. One of our mechanics and I worked day and night, seven days a week, for five weeks. It was long, tough hours but it was what I’d signed up for and it was a great experience,” he said.
“The Falcon’s chief pilot told me to bring some nice clothes for the test flight; we flew to Traverse City, where he took me to dinner, then back without a single squawk. The next day we began a carefully thought-out hiring program looking for individuals to join our team who had the right skills and a strong interest in making a career out of working on Falcons. Building a business is tricky; it’s a balancing act. Hiring trained people who fit the [West Star Aviation] culture is not easy, but we have had great success in hiring youth straight out of A&P schools because it gives us the opportunity to mold that technician to our culture.”
In 2005 the MRO started a Gulfstream program and in 2009 asked Kujawa to take it over in addition to the Falcon program, which by then had 35 technicians. That year was also a watershed when, for the first time, the Falcon program billed 100,000 labor hours; it has exceeded that figure every year since. The newer Gulfstream program currently has about 20 dedicated technicians and has been billing 50,000 labor hours annually.
In 2009 the company added a paint facility large enough to accommodate the Global 6000, and business took off. “This year we will do 35 full paint jobs, and that doesn’t count all the small projects like stripe and N-number changes. In any given year we will do paint work on more than a hundred aircraft,” he said. In 2010 Kujawa was promoted to director of Falcon and Gulfstream programs and paint, and last year to general manager.
One of the benefactors of the growth in business was the MRO’s interior shop. “There had been an interior shop for a long time but it was fairly small,” he noted. Today it bills more than 75,000 labor hours annually. It does full-blown interiors, seats, carpets, headlines, veneer projects, entertainment cabinets and floor-plan structural changes, among other things. The avionics department followed suit, starting as a small support operation and growing into about 25,000 billable labor hours per year. It is an authorized service center for Honeywell, Rockwell Collins, Universal, Aircell, and Satcom Direct.
This past May, West Star added a 47,000-sq-ft maintenance facility to accommodate demand. In addition to the new maintenance facility, the multimillion-dollar expansion includes a 14,000-sq-ft wood shop and 6,000-sq-ft accessory repair shop, bringing the FAA- and EASA-approved facility from 250,000 to 317,300 sq ft and some 300 employees.
Premier Air Center, an FAA Class IV repair station, is an authorized service center for Citations, the Avanti and the Phenom 100 and 300. It is also FAA certified to perform all levels of maintenance on Falcons (it holds the supplemental type certificate for the Falcon 50-4 Performance Upgrade) and Bombardier and Gulfstream aircraft.
“What sets us apart is our culture, work ethic and management style,” Kujawa said. “We listen to our customers and our employees so we can fix problems as they arise, which allows us to exceed our customers’ expectations. We can do that because our corporate culture doesn’t view our employees as expendable. It is hard to find good, skilled technicians, and when we do, we want to keep them happy. It’s our employees who make West Star Aviation what it is today.”