I have had the pleasure of checking out Lufthansa Technik (aka MRO – maintenance services) in both Frankfurt and more recently in Hamburg. I was curious about why they were starting operations in at Rafael Hernández Airport (BQN) in Puerto Rico, which is about two hours west of San Juan.
The schedule for celebration included a concert on the evening of Halloween and a less formal event the next day, with a visit from Puerto Rico’s Governor Alejandro García Padilla. The Lufthansa Orchestra was part of both days and they don’t just play for any ol’ event. In fact, this was the first time they have played outside of Europe.
Why was this so important? I wasn’t exactly sure before my trip, but after talking to quite a few people and seeing the facility myself, I was impressed with the positive impact the new operation would have on aviation in the region and even more so, the people of Puerto Rico.
THE EVENTS + ORCHESTRA
How cool is it that an airline has its own orchestra? The group was created in 2011 and Lufthansa employees with musical talent were invited to apply (i.e. I would not have been invited). Today, there are about 70 volunteer members of the ensemble and they play pieces from Baroque to classical and contemporary music.
I arrived a bit before things got started and, although most people probably first noticed the large, empty stage for the orchestra, I noticed the Spirit Airlines Airbus A319 to the left and a JetBlue A320 to the right. This makes sense, since those two airlines were the launch customers for the facility.
The event starting late didn’t really matter — it ended up being worth the wait. I can’t say that I know too much about how orchestras operate, but I can say that they sounded amazing. I was afraid that the hangar might not provide the best acoustics, but it didn’t seem to be an issue. Even with thunder and lightning in the background, it was hard to notice.
With guests being able to enjoy the sounds of music and taste some Puerto Rican rum, the evening went quite well and soon enough it was over.
The next morning, I was returned to Lufthansa Technik for more of the official debut of the facility. The orchestra was back (and played a few more songs), but there were also VIPs from Lufthansa, the Puerto Rican government, both customer airlines, and more. They each had their chance to talk about how important this facility is to Puerto Rico.
IMPACT TO PUERTO RICO
If you have been reading the headlines about Puerto Rico recently, economically, things haven’t been all that great. Although recent news is of concern, they are working to make their economy stronger, building on what has already worked for them.
Already, the U.S. territory has a strong pharmaceutical industry and they are using their STEM-based (science, technology, engineering, and math) infrastructure to grow into other areas — one of which is aerospace. Puerto Rico is looking to create a “strong business ecosystem” and Lufthansa Technik Puerto Rico has become the newest “crown jewel.”
When one asks about aerospace in the U.S., many think of Seattle, Charleston, Wichita, Palmdale, St. Louis, and others. Often, Puerto Rico is not on the list, but they are trying to change that.
Thanks to the island’s business advantages, Puerto Rico has become attractive location for the aerospace industry. They are able to offer a more cost-effective option for companies, but also all the protections that comes to being a part of the United States.
Ten years ago, there were only a few aerospace companies in the territory, but today, there are about 20. Just down the street from Lufthansa Technik, Honeywell is also opening up a new facility, investing about $20 million for their building and equipment.
The expected impact of the new Lufthansa Technik facility, to the region, is expected to be around $166 million over the next two years, and up to $2.2 billion over 30 years. Not chump change. As of now, there are about 200 skilled workers employed, but by 2016, they hope to double it to 400.
After the main event concluded on the second day, there was a more intimate press conference. It was all done in Spanish, which was a bit of a challenge, as I don’t know the language. I was offered someone to translate, but I opted out. With most press events like that, people are saying pretty scripted messages. I was more interested in watching their body language.
Even without words, I could tell that they were genuinely excited about this new opportunity — I thought only I got that animated talking about aviation. This is something new, something big, and something that will have a positive impact on the economy.
Currently, the facility is set to handle the Airbus A320 family — yes, even the longest A321. They would also be able to handle the 737, if a future customer comes online. The nice part about having a new facility is they already planned for the extra width required for the new MAX winglet. They are able to handle things from small maintenance, to the very labor-intensive D-check.
Lufthansa Technik only broke ground on the hangar about a year ago and they are already operational. The first service bay went online in July of this year and the second started on November 2nd. They hope to have five bays running by sometime in 2017.
The airport still has land for the MRO to expand, if additional customers are brought on. Lufthansa Technik is working with other airlines in North and South America to add new business, but they are not at a point to announce anything yet. Even though they are not currently setup to handle larger aircraft (think twin-aisle), it is not out the realm of possibilities.
Technik chose the location due to it being strategic for both the 737 and the A320 families flying in the Americas. “It enhances our access to the world’s largest aviation market and brings us closer to both existing and potential customers,” Pia Lüdtke, of Lufthansa Technik AG corporate communications, explained to AirlineReporter.
JetBlue’s decision backs up Technik’s reasons for the location in Puerto Rico. “With nearly one third of our network now located in Latin America and the Caribbean, it makes good business sense for us to work with a heavy maintenance business partner in the region,” Jeffrey Martin, executive vice president of operations for JetBlue stated. They also realize how their airline can have a positive impact on the region.
”By supporting Lufthansa Technik’s expansion in Aguadilla, we are not only making an investment in our heavy maintenance plans, we’re helping to ensure jobs which will lead to economic growth in the area,” Martin said.
Spirit Airlines already had a relationship with Technik and they are excited to be one of the first to use the new facility. “We are pleased to be Lufthansa Technik’s first customer in Puerto Rico,” said Spirit CEO Ben Baldanza. “We’ve had a long history with them as they have provided excellent support on our Airbus fleet through inventory, parts repairs, reliability engineering support and now, heavy maintenance support. We’re excited about this new chapter expanding in Puerto Rico.”
It will be interesting to see not only how the new Technik facility improves airline operations in the region, but how it might help the aerospace industry to prosper in Puerto Rico.
Note: The Puerto Rican government covered most of my travel costs to attend this event. Opinions are my own.