Lufthansa Technik will accept the first customer aircraft at its new maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) facility in Puerto Rico on July 21, bringing the promise of billions of dollars in long-term economic impact to the financially troubled U.S. territory. Spirit Airlines is the launch customer of the facility, which will perform maintenance on Airbus A320-series narrowbody airliners.
U.S. and German officials, including Lufthansa Technik Puerto Rico CEO Elmar Lutter, participated in a recent briefing on workforce training organized by the congressional career and technical education caucus in Washington, D.C. The relationship Lufthansa Technik forged with the University of Puerto Rico, which has established a new Aerospace and Aviation Institute of Puerto Rico near the MRO facility to train workers, is considered emblematic of the German model of apprenticeship the U.S. government seeks to promote. In June, the U.S. departments of Commerce, Labor and Education signed a joint declaration with their German counterparts to cooperate in career and technical education and training.
While Lufthansa Technik already has a presence in the North American market for business jet overhauls and completions through its BizJet International subsidiary in Tulsa, Okla., “it was clear that as a global leader in MRO, we needed to have a bigger presence, make a stronger investment in the Americas region,” Lutter told the audience. The company started a competitive site selection process for the new facility in 2013. Tax breaks and other incentives were important to the decision, he said, as was the university’s commitment to create a new Federal Aviation Administration-approved institute. This included relocating an existing aviation training school from Ceiba to Aguadilla on the Caribbean island’s northwest coast.
“In Puerto Rico, we were pitching the site selection against Mexico and it was a very tight race until April last year,” Lutter related. “The University of Puerto Rico and their investment to create an aviation maintenance institute to certify mechanics and technical engineering has been the truest asset of this investment.”
The German company wanted a “world-class school,” Lutter later told AIN. The university “really followed our advice to link work and study, so people can start after high school in a six-month course and, after that, go to the hangar and work and continue their studies in the evening. That’s not possible in a classical Part 147 [aviation maintenance technician school] set-up.” Also instrumental in the company’s selection of Puerto Rico was the preference of its launch customers, Spirit Airlines and JetBlue, “to stay on American soil,” he added.
Lufthansa Technik broke ground on the new MRO facility at Rafael Hernández International Airport in Aguadilla, formerly Ramey Air Force Base, last November. The 215,000-sq-ft hangar will initially host two lines for A320 C- and D-checks; by 2017 the company expects to employ some 400 workers on five overhaul lines. There are currently 140, mostly Puerto Rican, employees, some of whom have trained at Lufthansa Technik facilities in Hungary and Ireland. Lutter said the facility has work lasting through next year from just its launch customers. The expectation is the facility will produce $2.2 billion in economic impact over 30 years.
That is a welcome piece of news for Puerto Rico, which has a severe debt burden of its own that has been overshadowed by the situation in Greece. “The island has been in economic crisis for some time, so everybody is really eager for a turnaround,” Lutter said. “They’ve proven that people are capable of that. There are lots of engineers. Many of them go to the mainland, go to NASA, go to Boeing or other places. For aircraft maintenance there is huge demand; we will try to develop that together.”