WESTFIELD – Gulfstream Aerospace Corp. hosted a ceremonial grand opening for its new 125,000-square-foot , $23-million maintenance hangar Tuesday, the same day state lawmakers debated ditching the sales tax exemption on aircraft parts that helped make Gulfstream’s expansion feasible.
“That bill will make it out of committee over my dead body,” said state Sen. Michael R. Knapik, R-Westfield, who sits on the Joint Committee on Revenue. “That law was proposed by people in the Legislature who don’t know how the aircraft industry works.”
The sales tax exemption, which was put in place in 2003, represents just $7 million in lost revenue for the state, Knapik said prior to Tuesday’s ceremony at Westfield Barnes Regional Airport. Lawmakers, he said, need to contrast that $7 million with the business activity generated by a Gulfstream.
“Our planes, obviously, are very mobile,” said Fran Ahern, general manger of Gulfstream’s Westfield operation. “And they will go where they can get the best deal.”
Gulfstream, a unit of aerospace and manufacturing conglomerate General Dynamics, has hired 60 new technicians for the Westfield location and has plans to hire another 40 in the next year, Ahern said. That’s on top of the 130 people who worked at Gulfstream in Westfield when the expansion was announced in October 2011.
To make Gulfstream happen, the state funded the ongoing $2 million reconstruction of Airport Industrial Road and $3 million for a new concrete apron on which to park jets at Gulfstream.
Westfield Mayor Daniel M. Knapik said the city has already heard from more companies inquiring about property at the airport that is now accessible because of the Airport Industrial Road project.
Ahern said Gulfstream is also working with the state to get runways repaired at the airport and the company has lobbied hard to save air traffic controller staff at Barnes from federal sequestration cuts this spring. The controllers were never cut, but the issue could resurface as discussions about federal budget cuts continue.
“For insurance reasons, a lot of the aircraft we service will not fly into an uncontrolled airfield,” Ahern said. “We need to have that tower staffed.”
Gulfstream built the larger hangar at Westfield to service its new generation of larger G650 corporate jets which went on the market only at the end of 2012 and are marketed to people who take business trips to Asia and the Middle East. The aircraft, which sell for $65 million each, wouldn’t have fit in the old 85,000-square-foot hangar.
The new hangar can fit six G650s or eight of the slightly smaller G550. The old hangar could only fit one G550 at a time, Ahern said.
Gulfstream benefits from having a maintenance facility close to its corporate travel customers in New York City, New Jersey and Connecticut, said Larry Flynn, president of Gulfstream Aerospace and vice president of General Dynamics.
“Service sells airplanes,” Flynn said. “The advantage we have from having this maintenance facility in the Northeast is tremendous.”
He also praised Gulfstream’s employees, saying their dedication and expertise made it easy for the company to invest $23 million in Westfield.
Gulfstream technicians also repair and maintain other types of aircraft at the Westfield hangar, including the Hawker, Dassault Falcon and Bombardier Challenger corporate jets.
There are 500 of these aircraft, including more than 200 Gulfstream jets, based within 150 miles of Westfield. In 2012, Gulfstream technicians serviced 811 aircraft, including road trips to service aircraft as far away as Newfoundland, Canada.
The majority of aircraft come to Westfield for service, Ahern said. That means that aircrew charged with bringing those planes here need to eat and stay overnight, adding to Gulfstream’s economic impact.
U.S. Rep. Richard E. Neal, D-Springfield, spoke of how important transportation is to the local economy. Neal’s district now includes Westfield.
“The ease at which we get from one place to another creates greater efficiencies and greater opportunity,” Neal said.
Besides Gulfstream, General Dynamics also has 500 workers in Pittsfield working on projects for the Navy.
Gulfstream has had a maintenance facility in Westfield for 13 years having bought K-C Aviation from Kimberly-Clark Inc. in 1998.