The work done by a small Everett company will have a lot to do with whether the world’s largest airline succeeds in emerging from bankruptcy.
When United Airlines’ new low-fare unit launches next month, it will do so with planes modified to designs created by the engineers at Northwest Aerospace Technologies.
The parts kits that mechanics will use when they convert the planes for the new airline — called Ted — will come from NAT’s warehouse on Hewitt Avenue.
The new Ted planes even will sport a paint scheme developed by a designer working for the Everett company.
President Paul Sobotta jokes that the work that his company does is like packing up all the pieces for a barbecue kit. "If you’re one screw short, you can’t put the barbecue together."
But in this case, the kit involves 48 different sub-kits, each containing anywhere from a couple to a couple dozen parts. Each is packed with a set of drawings and detailed instructions on how to install the parts, and they’re packed in a way so that when the United Airlines mechanics open the shipping crates, the first things they see are the first parts they’ll need to install.
The goal is to simplify things for the installers "so the actual time spent modifying the aircraft is kept to a minimum," said Sobotta, standing next to crates partly filled with air hoses, window panels, new luggage bins and stick-on "fasten seat belt" placards. "We don’t just stuff things in a box."
The airline will start the service from its hub in Denver on Feb. 12. It plans to have a fleet of 40 converted Airbus A320s to use on Ted routes in June.
United mechanics were expected to finish converting the first Ted jet last week. Northwest Aerospace Technologies today will ship the kits needed to overhaul the next three.
Ted (the logo on the side of the jet notes it’s "a part of United") is intended to make mainline United Airlines more competitive with low-cost carriers that have been gaining market share in the wake of the post-Sept. 11, 2001, downturn.
United’s not the only airline attempting to create a low-fare "airline within an airline," said Bob Toomey, an aerospace analyst with RBC Dain Rauscher in Seattle. Other airlines are launching or studying the idea, including Delta Air Lines, which launched Song in the Southeast last year.
It’s more of a long-term play than a way to short-term profits, Toomey said. The airlines are spending money to convert planes, and also slashing fares. The combination "might hurt yields over the next two or three years," he said.
But long term "what it does is create a new market opportunity, which could mean growth," Toomey said. "It creates a new way of looking at how they can run a businesses.
"It’s an experiment," he said.
United officials said Ted’s goal is to attract more leisure travelers with lower fares. Tickets on Ted from Denver to New Orleans will be about $330, according to information on the airline’s Web site. Right now, the same tickets on United cost about $410.
To compete, United has come up with a new business plan for Ted which uses "higher aircraft utilization, a simplified schedule and fare structure, and more seats per aircraft," United’s vice president overseeing the division, Sean Donohue, said when the new service was announced in November.
Part of that means ripping out the first-class sections on each plane and replacing them with more economy-class seats. That’s where Northwest Aerospace Technologies comes in.
Along with the first-class seats, the galley and closet in the front of each plane also is being removed. All that means that the air conditioning and lighting has to be reworked and extended into the areas where there weren’t any seats before. There also have to be new luggage bins and in-flight entertainment systems installed.
Northwest Aerospace engineers designed the new systems, picked out the necessary parts and wrote the installation instructions. The company’s staff then ordered those parts from suppliers around the world — and built some of them themselves — then had them shipped to their Everett warehouse where the kits were put together.
It’s been a rush job that has taken up most of the company’s time in recent weeks, Sobotta said. "When United senior management decided they wanted it, they wanted it done tomorrow," he said. "It’s a very, very tight program."
But United over the years has been the company’s biggest airline customer. This is the ninth major contract the Everett company has won from United, since Northwest Aerospace Technologies was formed in 1997.
Northwest Aerospace has continued to grow the past two years, hitting $15 million in sales despite the industrywide slump. That’s largely thanks to subcontracting work the company did for Boeing and Airbus, providing some of the electronic assemblies involved in both manufacturers’ barricaded cockpit door projects.
But orders for things such as Ted’s kits suggest that airline business is picking up, Sobotta said.
"It’s coming back," he said. "Hopefully there’s some momentum behind it."
Reporter Bryan Corliss: