Airlines’ best friend: Aviation Technical Services at Paine Field

EVERETT — The airplanes were packed inside a nondescript hangar at Paine Field like jigsaw puzzle pieces.

They were being taken apart, inspected, repaired if necessary, refitted and reassembled.

Inside a Boeing 737, everything — seats, siding, insulation, lavatories and galleys — had been removed. In the back, two mechanics installed new floor beams. In the cockpit, all the flight displays, gauges and dials had been removed, leaving wire bundles hanging out. A mechanic, sitting on a wooden box where a pilot’s seat had been, inspected the bundles.

Outside, a mechanic straddled one of the single-aisle jetliner’s engines, which had been uncovered for examination.

It was just another day at Aviation Technical Services at Paine Field. The company provides maintenance, repair and overhaul services, known in the aviation world as MRO, for commercial airliners.

It is the state’s second-largest aerospace employer, and one of the biggest MRO companies on the West Coast.

Passenger airplanes must be regularly inspected and repaired. When an airline buys or leases a previously used airplane, the interior is overhauled and replaced with its own interior and seating layout. Airlines carefully choose an airplane’s layout to fit their business model.

Aviation Technical Services (ATS) has expanded in recent years. In 2013, it opened a facility in Moses Lake in Central Washington. Last year, it opened a Midwest facility in Kansas City, Missouri, and it bought Texas Air Composites, a Fort Worth-based MRO firm that specializes in composite materials.

“We need to spend a little time digesting,” said Gabe Doleac, senior vice president for strategy and commercial programs at ATS.

But “certainly in the next five years or so, we plan to grow here and elsewhere,” he said.

Across the world, the MRO market for commercial air travel was worth $57.7 billion in 2014, and it will grow to $86.8 billion in 10 years, according to the Aeronautical Repair Station Association.

Last year, the MRO industry in Washington was worth an estimated $848 million, according to the association.

Much of that growth is expected to come from Asia, where air travel has been rapidly expanding.

ATS, which turns 45 this year, began as Tramco in Renton in 1970. It moved to Paine Field later that decade. The company was sold to Goodrich in 1988 and became Goodrich Aviation Technical Services. In 2007, Sydney, Australia-based Macquarie Group bought the company for $58.4 million.

Then in 2013, a group of investors led by ATS President and CEO Matt Yerbic bought ATS for an undisclosed amount. The investors included Wells Fargo, NewSpring Capital of Radnor, Pennsylvania, and Greenpoint Technologies of Kirkland, which designs and makes interiors for Boeing Business Jets.

ATS last year added more than 400 workers in Washington and employs well more than 1,000. That makes it the second-largest aerospace employer in the state, according to a 2013 study commissioned by the Washington Aerospace Partnership.

ATS works mostly on Boeing airplanes, but with the expansions and acquisitions, it will be able to work on almost any large passenger airplane, Doleac said.

Commercial air travel is booming and expected to grow. The airline industry is flush with cash, and airlines are investing in their fleets.

“That’s not always with new deliveries,” Doleac said.

Airlines are spending to reconfigure interiors, add seats, install new features or refurbish used jetliners that are profitable to fly thanks to low oil prices, he said.

“The more you’re flying airplanes, the more you need to check and repair them,” he said.

Inside one 737, a couple of mechanics were inspecting cracking in a bulkhead around the right-rear wheel hub. Replacing it is a common repair, said Darek Schiesser, the ATS director of operations.

“They fly these airplanes hard,” he said.

A typical check takes two to three weeks, and extensive overhauls can last months, he said.

Taking out interiors, “we’ve found rings, cellphones, drugs — more back in the day,” he said.

Every step of each task is clearly documented and inspected. A single task, such as replacing a corroded stringer — a metal beam that is part of an airplane’s skeleton — can be 15 pages long, Schiesser said.

Any material used has to likewise be documented, said David Winnie, a quality inspector who’s been with ATS for 28 years.

The average ATS employee has been there 15 years, Doleac said.

A cotter pin, which looks like a hairpin, “does not go on a plane unless somewhere we have the paperwork saying it’s certified” to federal standards, he said. “There are no ‘gimmies’ out here.”

Winnie understands he has passengers’ lives in his hands.

“I’ve worked on planes that people have died on,” he said.

None of the accidents were caused by any work done by ATS, but nonetheless, “you stay up thinking about it,” he said.

The work demands intense focus and attention.

“It’s hard, no doubt, it’s hard” some days, he said. “Sometimes, you check your work, close a panel, take three steps, turn around and check it again.”

Dan Catchpole: 425-339-3454; dcatchpole@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @dcatchpole.

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