Jet maker's expansion location up in the air

March 19, 2006|By ROBERT SNYDER


Sino Swearingen Aircraft continues to hire new workers at its Martinsburg facility, but the location for a future expansion of the business jet's production facilities remains up in the air, a company official said.

Chief Financial Officer Kelly Simmons said company officials continue to debate whether to locate a planned assembly plant expansion in Martinsburg, San Antonio or elsewhere.

"We're not ruling anything out. The preference would be one of those two locations," he said.

Simmons said Martinsburg workers won't be moved to another facility.

"We have to expand somewhere ... but expanding doesn't mean we're moving anyone. We're going to need another location. It doesn't mean anybody's job's in jeopardy. it doesn't mean we're asking anybody to move," Simmons said. "We intend to utilize (the Martinsburg) facility as fully as we possibily can."


Simmons said as many as 100 employees have been added at the Martinsburg plant in the last six months, with plans to increase that number to 150 by year's end. Assembly at that plant, which is in the John D. Rockefeller IV Technology Center near the Eastern West Virginia Regional Airport, includes the fuselage, wings and tail sections for the company's signature plane, the SJ30-2 corporate jet.

About 220 of Sino Swearingen's workers are employed in Martinsburg, Simmons said, adding that the company is in the process of ramping up production significantly and needs more room.

"We have to have enough space so the production line gets to a rate of 100 airplanes per year," said Simmons. He said the company expects to reach those numbers within five years.

"Clearly, we will ramp up to that number by 2010," he said, calling the facility in Martinsburg suitable for the company's current production rate.

Sino Swearingen leases about 23 acres from the Eastern West Virginia Regional Airport Authority at a cost of $10,000 annually, according to Bill Walkup, manager of the airport authority.

Another 16 acres are available for on-site expansion, with an additional 110 acres available throughout the industrial park, Walkup said.

The company employs about 500 workers at its San Antonio plant, where final assembly of the planes takes place, Simmons said.

U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., who was instrumental in bringing the aircraft manufacturer to the region, said he would work to make sure the company's investment and commitment to West Virginia continues.

"After FAA certification, there is an even greater demand for Sino Swearingen's SJ-30 jets," Rockefeller said in a written statement. "As the company grows to meet this demand, West Virginia must be a central part of their plans. Sino Swearingen has invested heavily in West Virginia, bringing skilled, high-paid jobs to the Eastern Panhandle."

Walkup credited the company, which was the first to occupy the industrial park, with enabling the airport's receipt of about $4.5 million in federal and state funding for the park's development. Funds were used to construct roads and taxiways, and to install infrastructure, Walkup said.

"They got the best deal. They were the first tenant and their presence enabled all those granting avenues," Walkup said.

Simmons said the expansion is needed to help the company achieve its goal of moving about 100 airplanes along the production line annually. About 18 planes are now in the final assembly stage, he said.

The company received final certification from the Federal Aviation Administration last year, clearing the way for commercial production of the aircraft, which sells for about $6.15 million, according to Sino Swearingen Vice President of Martinsburg Operations Michael Chan.

To date, the company has logged about 290 orders for its aircraft and hopes to have the first plane delivered to a customer by the middle of the year, Simmons said.

Possessing intercontinental capability, the jet can travel up to 2,500 miles before needing to be refueled, and can reach a speed of 560 mph.

Started in 1999, Sino Swearingen is a partnership between Swearingen Aircraft Corp. of San Antonio and Sino Investment Corp. of Taiwan.

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