SNOHOMISH — It’s 5 a.m.
The cup of coffee you gulped down kept you going just long enough to get you through airport security and onto the plane.
You’re ready for seconds.
“Sorry folks, our coffee maker isn’t working,” the flight attendant announces.
An angry planeload of under-caffeinated passengers: It’s a scenario that Soundair Aviation Services helps airlines prevent.
The Snohomish-based aerospace company has carved a niche for itself in the industry by repairing and offering improvements on oft-used airline equipment such as coffee makers, lavatories and lighting.
“It’s a product (line) we really feel we do better than anybody else,” said Robert Klem, who founded Soundair with Bill Brown 25 years ago.
Soundair has grown and changed over time. In the early days, the company obtained replacement components for cockpit avionics and focused more on providing spare parts rather than making repairs.
But in 1993, Soundair bought out a Kent-based company that repaired aircraft windshields, launching its repair division. Gradually, Soundair began designing components for the products it repairs. After Brown’s death, Klem decided this year to sell off Soundair After Market Group, the division of the company that focused on locating spare parts for aircraft leasing companies.
“From 1993 to 2010, on the repair side, we had to unseat the incumbent (repair shop) to gain every customer we have,” Klem said.
Today, Soundair has contracts with a handful of major airlines, including United, Continental, Germany’s Lufthansa, Air China and Southwest. Klem’s ties in the industry, in which he has worked more than four decades, helped Soundair get its foot in the door. Its workmanship and enhancements are what has helped the company remain successful.
“We take the entire product apart, clean each piece and repair it — not all shops do that,” said Greg Harwood, Soundair president.
The attention to detail is evident throughout Soundair’s Snohomish facility. The shop is as clean as a hospital. Even the lavatory repair room could pass for a doctor’s office.
And, no, it doesn’t smell bad.
Harwood and Klem credit Soundair’s employees with the work ethic that has driven its success. Many of the company’s workers have been with Soundair for more than a decade, and several, like Harwood, have a military or commercial aviation background.
That’s true of Chris Dietz, senior product manager, and Travis Dykstra, senior business development manager. Both served in the military before going to work at the manufacturer of coffee makers that Soundair repairs.
“We had a lot of ideas on how to improve the product,” Dykstra said.
Over time, the company has designed and received FAA approval for coffee maker improvements. A few of those include a water tank that leaks less often and a sturdier brew cup, not so much for making coffee, but because flight attendants began using the cups to break apart ice when the FAA banned ice picks following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Soundair’s inventions and repair techniques lengthen the life of a coffee maker to as many as 4,000 hours of use, compared to 2,000, Harwood said. The company’s service costs an airline roughly 65 percent less than what it would spend to replace a coffee maker, which costs between $5,000 and $7,000 each.
Not surprisingly, manufacturers of items such as coffee makers want airlines to replace, rather than repair or improve, their products. Soundair repairs roughly 3,000 coffee makers annually.
“We’ve created repairs where there previously weren’t any available,” Dietz said.
Many of the parts that Soundair designs come as a result of a conversation with an airline customer, Harwood said. Perhaps the airline can’t find replacement parts for an oven or aircraft window. Or Soundair’s customer constantly replaces the $900 switch that lights up the sign inside an aircraft lavatory, signaling it’s time for passengers to return to their seats.
Klem and Harwood see room for Soundair to grow, possibly through acquisition of a company with machining capabilities. With 43 employees, Soundair still has the feel of a small, closely knit company — where the executives know every employee’s name and proudly display pictures from Soundair’s fishing derby on the wall.
Although Soundair moved from King County to Snohomish County to “be in Boeing’s shadow,” Klem said, the company could operate anywhere.
The town “fits our lifestyle,” Klem added. “We expect to be in Snohomish for a long time.”
This story is part of an ongoing look at Snohomish County’s aerospace companies. For more, go to heraldnet.com/boeing.