Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused problems across the commercial air travel industry, but has largely been a boon for one air center in southeast New Mexico.
In the last several months, the Roswell International Air Center has emerged as a major storage facility for planes that have been grounded by airlines due to age and lack of demand.
Before March, the air center was storing about 160 aircraft, according to air center deputy director Mark Bleth. As of Friday, another 309 planes had arrived from carriers including American Airlines, United Airlines and Frontier Airlines.
“This is a surge that was unprecedented,” Bleth said.
Today, there are more grounded planes in Roswell than at any point during the modern history of the former military base, surpassing even the number of aircraft stored there in the days after 9/11.
While some of the grounded planes will likely be re-integrated into commercial fleets once demand for air travel picks back up, Bleth said older planes will either be scrapped or reconfigured and resold for other uses.
“This is where you come when you want to buy and sell airplanes,” he said.
In the meantime, all those planes require a bit of upkeep. The influx has prompted a hiring boom at the air center. Roswell Mayor Dennis Kintigh said airlines and independent maintenance and repair companies have hired or brought in around 175 employees to keep up with demand.
“This is not just a benefit to Roswell,” Kintigh said. “It’s truly an asset, a benefit to the entire state.”
The grounded planes didn’t arrive in Roswell by accident.
International travel bans and other measures designed to prevent the spread of the virus have deterred people from traveling, and airlines were looking for places to ground planes. Bleth said Roswell’s dry climate and the air center’s abundant asphalt has long made it a good fit. So back in March, the air center, in conjunction with the mayor’s office, sent out a letter encouraging the aviation industry to consider Roswell as a location to safely store planes and other assets until the crisis abated.
Bleth said the air center received as many as 20 planes per day during the busiest parts of March and April, as the industry adjusted to the new conditions.
Bleth said air center workers and other city employees had to clear weeds and other debris from two long-unused asphalt staging areas, before moving the old planes there to free up space for the new arrivals.
“We were out there on weekends before this all started,” he said.
While the arrival of new planes has slowed, Bleth said the air center still has room for as many as 300 more planes.
Bleth said AerSale, a global supplier in the aviation industry, has been responsible for the largest share of new hires. But smaller companies with operations in Roswell, including CAVU Aerospace Inc., Dean Baldwin Aircraft Painting and General Airframe Support, have also benefited. In May, General Airframe was awarded $209,000 in state funding to train 16 relocated employees through the Job Training Incentive Program.
While Kintigh said not all of the 175 new employees will stay after planes start getting brought back into service, he said he’s optimistic the economic impact for Roswell will linger. He said even the temporary employees should help a region that has been hit hard by the recent crash in oil prices.
Going forward, Kintigh said he’s hopeful that Roswell will continue to add infrastructure that can attract new aviation businesses. He said he’s been pushing for state or federal funding to help build a modern, 90,000-square-foot hangar that can accommodate larger aircraft.
“We’re vibrant here, we have all this activity here,” Kintigh said.