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'Sad day' as workers leave Kansas City aircraft overhaul base

Friday, September 24, 2010 | 2:11 p.m. CDT

KANSAS CITY — Soaring in the early 1970s, the aircraft overhaul base at Kansas City International Airport employed nearly 6,000 people.

But like a plane losing altitude, that job figure fell through the decades: 4,900 ... 3,500 ... 2,600 ... 1,000 ... 450.

On Friday that number hits zero for American Airlines, ending five decades of commercial aviation maintenance that provided good-paying jobs for generations of workers.

There will be no ceremonial goodbyes, just cleaning up and removing belongings for the 50 salaried employees and 400 union workers left.

Many workers remain bitter about the circumstances that led to the shutdown and the transfer of work to other bases.

"If there's one word to describe the feeling, 'indignation' sums it up," said Ron Harp, an American Airlines maintenance facilities mechanic who was hired in 1977.

Harp and others are grateful that the massive base got a few extra years of life when American bought TWA out of bankruptcy in 2001. But they still weren't in a mood this week to wax nostalgic about the base's history.

"This facility had the best resources and assets at its peak," Harp said. "But a lot of its capabilities and work processes have been stripped away through the years to what we're down to now.

"My thoughts run the gamut, but it's basically a sad day."

Like the workers, Kansas City, which owns the base, is left to pick up the pieces. City aviation and economic development officials say they are confident that the base will continue to draw tenants and create jobs. Three companies currently occupy parts of the complex.

But the presence of American — and the days of an airline filling the 7 million-square-foot base — will be over.

Previously, American said it regretted the cutbacks of the maintenance operations — the Kansas City base and five smaller operations at other airports.

Gordon Clark, president of Transport Workers Union Local 530, said workers had already marked the closing.

At one recent event, about 3,000 former TWA employees and current American workers gathered at Wheeler Downtown Airport's TWA Museum. They noted the end of an era that began in 1956 when TWA began leasing the base and moved its maintenance work there.

In its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, TWA was Kansas City's biggest private employer, with the overhaul base regarded as the crown jewel of the airline's local operations. TWA's mechanics developed a reputation as being among the best in the airline industry, a legacy that continued under American's ownership.

"If you told someone you worked at TWA, they knew you had a good job," said Gerald Randall, a retired TWA mechanic who was with the airline when it opened the Kansas City maintenance base.

"It was good wages and good benefits. I was able to send my daughter to K-State, and she didn't have any debt when she graduated."

Series of setbacks

But deregulation, hijackings, fuel-cost spikes and other ups and downs took their toll on TWA and other airlines in the 1980s and 1990s.

Amid all of TWA's turmoil, the Kansas City overhaul base endured, still employing about 2,600 people at the time of American's takeover in 2001.

But the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks dealt another blow to the airline industry, and the hopes and plans of the city and American weren't enough to save the base.

Two years ago, American said it was moving a big portion of maintenance work from Kansas City to its main facility in Tulsa, Okla., cutting Kansas City's work force of about 1,000 in half. And last October, American announced that it would shut down the Kansas City base.

About half of American's 400 mechanics and related union workers in Kansas City will transfer to other American maintenance facilities in St. Louis, Tulsa and Dallas. The remaining 200 workers are retiring.

Three other companies now occupy parts of the maintenance complex: Smith Electric Vehicles, Jet Midwest and Frontier Airlines.

Smith Electric Vehicles produces commercial, battery-powered vans at the facility, even though the company says it's a temporary site.

The base also will house some aircraft maintenance business even with American's pullout.

Jet Midwest, a little-known locally based company, took some space at the base this year. A buyer and seller of aircraft parts and entire planes, Jet Midwest hopes to expand its maintenance capabilities in the coming months.

Jet Midwest CEO Patrick Kraus said his aircraft repair station, Jet Midwest Technik, is ahead of schedule, obtaining a federal operating certificate this month. The company as a whole expects to have nearly 60 employees by the end of October and remains on track to have 100 workers or more by year's end.

Over the next several years, Jet Midwest hopes to grow enough to occupy more than 1 million square feet of the maintenance complex and employ several hundred people.

Last month, Frontier Airlines also moved some of its maintenance work out of Denver to the Kansas City overhaul base. Mark VanLoh, director of the Kansas City Aviation Department, said the airline was leasing two narrow-body hangars from the city.

"I recently saw four Frontier planes parked in the hangars, and I thought that was awesome," he said.


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