Being both an airline and an MRO can bring advantages. Empire Airlines operates 38 Cessna 208s and 22 ATR 42s and 72s from its base in Coeur d’Alene Airport located in Hayden, Idaho, where Empire also has maintenance facilities. It now has begun an aircraft modification operation, as well. CEO Tim Komberec says the mostly cargo airline also does its own line maintenance at outstations spread across the western U.S., Alaska and Hawaii.
Having its own MRO enables Empire to bring aircraft in for heavy checks and, if some complicated electrical or other work needs to be done at a line station, Komberec can send a specialist mechanic out to do it.
“We also rely on our MRO for structural and composite repairs,” Komberec says. “If an aircraft is damaged, we send a crew out there or ferry it in to Coeur d’Alene.”
Empire’s engine and component maintenance is entirely outsourced.
At present, Empire’s MRO does about half its work for Empire and half for other airlines. “Third-party work will grow,” Komberec predicts. “In the future, the majority of work we do will be for outside customers.”
Empire now has about 80 people at its central MRO facility and 65 at its line stations. The CEO says he definitely plans to expand that headcount in the future and is thinking of adding more facilities. In addition, Empire’s MRO may expand the types of aircraft on which it works. It currently supports mostly large turboprops, ATRs, Bombardier DHCs and Saabs, as well as Embraer ERJ 145s.
Komberec says employee retention has been good but he faces the same general challenges other MROs do in recruiting mechanics. “Fortunately, we have good A&P schools in the area and we work with them. Empire also has a program to bring people in as mechanic helpers.” Moreover, “Coeur d’Alene is a good place to live.”
Average annual mechanic wages in surrounding Northwest Idaho non-metropolitan areas were about $52,000 in 2018, according to the U.S. Labor Department. Just to the west of Coeur d’Alene in Spokane and the Spokane Valley, wages were nearly $58,000. Both rates were below the national average of more than $65,000, but Idaho has the sixth lowest cost of living of all states, at less than 90% of the national average, according to private estimates. Idaho housing costs less than 78% of the U.S. average.
Empire uses contract as well as permanent staff and has had the most difficulty finding really good structural mechanics, either contract or permanent. Komberec says Empire is now “training up structural people in the way we want them to work.”
One reason for more recruitment is that Empire’s MRO recently became an installer of the large cargo-door version of the ATR freighter developed by IPR Conversions. The MRO is running these conversions nose-to-tail and just completed the first one at the beginning of August. Komberec notes this conversion line provides some stability to what are more variable heavy check duties.
IPR obtains and schedules the feedstock of conversion. “The sweet spot now is 72-500s, lots of good ones out there,” Komberec says. “They have run through the 72-200s.” It takes Empire about five months now to do a conversion, but the CEO hopes that will be down to four months by the middle of 2020.