WMU’s aviation capital outlay receives endorsement


WMU’s College of Aviation can currently handle about 125 maintenance students and 430 flight students, but that may not be enough to meet industry demand. Courtesy WMU

A university nationally recognized for its aeronautics program is pursuing state funding for a $19 million expansion and renovation project for its aviation facility to accommodate projected industry growth for maintenance technicians.

Western Michigan University’s College of Aviation, located at the W.K. Kellogg airport in Battle Creek, is pursuing a $19 million state of Michigan capital outlay to renovate and expand the Aviation Education Center, which was endorsed Oct. 8 by the South Central Michigan AFL-CIO Labor Council during a council meeting.

The $19 million proposed renovation and construction plan would accommodate the College of Aviation’s enrollment growth and focus on addressing the need for additional facility space for its aviation maintenance technology program, which is limited by the existing building.

Expansion of the Aviation Education Center, located along the flight line at the airport, would incorporate additional classrooms, a composite lab, paint barn lab, simulation and research laboratories, student briefing rooms and office space.

Dave Powell, dean of the WMU College of Aviation, said due to the composite material of the airplanes used at WMU, the environment in which aviation students learn to develop, operate and maintain an aircraft needs to be sterile and temperature controlled.

“We have open space beside (the education center), and what we are going to do is encompass that open space with this new facility. Our airplanes that we fly, the primary kind that we have is called a Cirrus aircraft, and it is all composite — that really is the future of aviation,” said Powell. “I need a composite lab, basically, and a paint barn lab to teach, and this will be part of that growth along with the research facilities.”

Currently, the College of Aviation has roughly 125 maintenance students and 430 flight students due to regulations on space and equipment by the Federal Aviation Administration and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, according to Powell. Due to the limited space, Powell said the current facility used to train future aviation mechanics does not accommodate the forecasted global need over the next 20 years.

“If you look at the FAA, Boeing and Airbus project for pilots and mechanics, for every four pilots you produce, you need to produce five mechanics. The problem with that is the infrastructure — truly in Michigan, and we are no different than the rest of the United States — is just not there to produce these mechanics,” said Powell.

“The AMT program, even though it is good and healthy, is small mainly because when we built the program we actually moved from Kalamazoo’s airport to the Battle Creek airport in 1997 and didn’t envision the growth potential of it.”

Boeing, a leading manufacturer of aircrafts, published a market outlook in 2014 forecasting current and future growth for the global industry. With a projected global market value of $5.2 trillion by 2033 for the airline industry, Boeing forecast a long-term demand for more than 36,700 new airplanes with a projected need of 584,000 new maintenance technicians to maintain a global fleet over the next 20 years.

In North America alone, Boeing anticipates 109,000 maintenance technicians will be required to meet the demand for 7,550 new airplanes with a market value of $870 billion, based on the expected record net income for U.S. airlines for 2013 at $5.5 billion.

“This has been the number one bill request for Western Michigan for the second year in the row. It is not like we are new to the program, new to thinking about this. We have planned it for a couple of years,” said Powell. “For us to grow on the maintenance side of it is really a big deal. Nobody really considers the significant aviation presence inside of Michigan. It is a pretty good-sized, booming business, and it is growing.”

Richard Frantz, president of the South Central Michigan AFL-CIO Labor Council, said the council decision to endorse the project was based on several reasons, including academic opportunities, regional economic stability and growth, and initial trade employment.

“We have a really good relationship with Western Michigan University. I think a lot of our work with Western probably goes unnoticed, but since this was a capital appropriation that needs the support, it was very easy to transition to say this is a project that we want and fully endorse,” said Frantz. “The council met and there was a full and open dialogue about the school of aviation and about the capital appropriation. The building trades were incredibly interested in it because it will initially provide construction jobs.”

Noting the educational and regional opportunities associated with the project, Frantz said he is surprised there has not been broader support from the Kalamazoo and Battle Creek communities for the expansion of the College of Aviation.

“Western Michigan is in the top three … for the College of Aviation, and I think a lot of people look at that and think it is basically a school for pilots specifically, but it isn’t,” said Frantz. “It is aviation mechanics. … The jobs that we are talking about, again — whether you are looking at becoming a pilot or aviation mechanic — these are great-paying jobs. They are good as an education for the young person.”

In response to the endorsement by the South Central Michigan Labor Council, Powell said having the council’s understanding and support for the project, which will ultimately increase jobs in Battle Creek and produce work-ready graduates, is incredible.

“Truly what this will do is increase jobs in Battle Creek: We will hire more faculty to teach; for the short-term you will have builders on site; and we will be producing graduates that can let Michigan grow in its aviation significance,” said Powell. “Rarely do you see AFL-CIO endorse something like this, especially educational, but for them to do that for us is very significant and shows a vision, the forward-looking attitudes they have.”

Although the labor council, representing more than 20,000 working men and women, voted to unanimously endorse the project, Powell said the funds have not been allocated by the state to a college or university at this point due to deliberation about whether there will be a capital outlay this year.

The planning and design work is anticipated to begin in summer 2015, with a completion date for summer 2018, if funds are allocated.

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