American Airlines closes the doors on KC overhaul base today
By RANDOLPH HEASTER
The Kansas City Star 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. Today 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 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 7million-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. That includes Harp, 52, who will move to Dallas to work there while his self-employed wife remains in Kansas City."It's splitting my family up, so I guess we'll see each other when we can, “he said "Maintaining two residences is a big burden, expense-wise."The remaining 200 workers are retiring, and that includes M.E. Johnson, 59.
Johnson, an aviation mechanic who was hired in 1974, said he was hoping to make it to age 62 or 65 before retiring."It's kind of a burden in that regard," he said. "But I was able to take advantage of a retraining program that was offered, and I plan to get into a business of my own."Despite American's actions that have eliminated their jobs in Kansas City, Johnson and Harp said they knew American had to endure many challenges. And they indicated that Kansas City workers understood that without American’s intervention, TWA would have been liquidated in 2001."I'm really happy American Airlines gave us nine years," Johnson said. "It was enough time to raise my kids and get them into college."
Johnson was one of thousands of American or former TWA workers at the base who could make such a claim."Over the years, the overhaul base has been a tremendous asset for the Kansas City economy," said Bob Marcuse, president and CEO of the Kansas City Area Economic Development Council. "It provided great jobs for thousands of people and created a wonderful set of work skills."Looking ahead. But Marcusse said that though much of the base was empty even before American's departure, he is optimistic about its future."What's interesting to me is that the facility is starting to reinvent itself," he said.
"The (Kansas City) Aviation Department is recognizing it has a unique asset, and they are finding ways to find new tenants."Three other companies now occupy parts of the maintenance complex: Smith Electric Vehicles, Jet Midwest and Frontier Airlines. Mark VanLoh, director of the Aviation Department, said that "the fact that American ended up staying as long as they did was in itself a success" and meant that city efforts such as a favorable lease and bonds to renovate the complex were worthwhile.VanLoh also said the city's efforts to market the base to others have paid off, though the new tenants haven't brought a lot of jobs yet.
Smith Electric Vehicles is producing commercial, battery-powered vans at the facility, even though the company says it's a temporary site. Marcusse said: "If the base can serve as a launching site for Smith Electric, it can become a unique industrial incubator for other businesses as well.
With the equipment that's available there, it could be a wonderful space for many companies, not necessarily one big employer, like with TWA or American Airlines."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 byte 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. VanLoh 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.
Frontier, now owned by Indianapolis-based Republic Airways Holdings, did not return calls about the new operations and hasn't given the city a specific employment figure. However, some city officials have indicated that Frontier might be employing more than 100 people in its maintenance operations here.VanLoh said he continues to speak with businesses about moving or starting operations at the overhaul base. However, the city still needs to spend money to upgrade the facility, including modernizing its utility and wastewater treatment plant. The city had to return millions of dollars in bonds that were issued to upgrade the overhaul base when American was the tenant. That means less money for upgrades, VanLoh said, but it remains a priority given the age of the overhaul base."That's the one thing we hear when we walk people through the base," he said.
"That's why we need to get some of these repairs done, so we can make it an even more attractive facility."VanLoh and economic development officials are looking to the maintenance base’s future. But Clark, the mechanics union leader in Kansas City who most likely will transfer to work for American in Dallas, said the end of American’s and TWA's run at the base remains surreal."You spend your whole life working in a facility like this, and you see the other casualties happening in the airline industry," said Clark, who was hired by TWA in 1986. "You just never think it's going to happen to you. I just never thought we'd be facing a time like this."
Overhaul base through the years 1956: Operations begin at the massive new Trans World Airlines overhaul basin Platte County.
1970: The base is the biggest commercial aircraft maintenance facility in the world, with nearly 6,000 workers.
1986: Corporate raider Carl Icahn becomes TWA chairman, and the carrier begins a long and eventually fatal decline.
1990: About 4,900 work at the maintenance base.
2000: Despite the fact that TWA required two bankruptcy reorganizations in the 1990s, Kansas City voters approve a bond issue to renovate and upgrade the base.
2001: American Airlines agrees to buy TWA out of bankruptcy and saves 3,500jobs in Kansas City, including the 2,600 at the base.
2003: American agrees to keep operating part of the overhaul base, which is down to about 2,000 workers.
2005: Kansas City OKs a new lease giving American incentives to upgrade the base. American has to keep at least 700 of the base's current 1,600employees to keep the incentives.
August 2008: Union officials are told that two-thirds of the base's 900 workers could be gone by early 2009 as American decides to shift more maintenance work to Tulsa.
October 2009: American announces the base will close by September 2010, eliminating the 500 jobs remaining.
January 2010: The Kansas City Council OKs Jet Midwest's use of three buildings as the city tries to get other businesses into the base.Aug. 21: Farewell ceremony for current and former TWA and American baseworkers.
Sept. 6: Union says 200 of 400 remaining union workers are expected to transfer to other bases, with most of the rest retiring.
To reach Randolph Heaster, call 816-234-4746 or send e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.