Idaho’s Aerospace Industry Taking off

This story first appeared in the Idaho Business Review.
Photo Courtesy of the Department of Commerce

AeroLEDs, a Boise company, will be taking its low-power, high-intensity light aircraft to the AVALON aerospace show in Australia. 

When you think of states with a burgeoning aerospace industry, Idaho might not be the first one that springs to mind. But the state is working to change that.

Admittedly, Idaho only ranks 38th in the PwC 2018 Aerospace Manufacturing Attractiveness Rankings. While the state does well in cost, ranking third, it ranks 42nd in labor, 39th in infrastructure and industry, 33rd in economy and 30th in tax policy.

That said, there’s plenty of room in Idaho for small suppliers to the aerospace industry, according to Sarah Massie, senior international trade specialist, who also serves as secretary for the board of the Idaho Aerospace Alliance.

While many companies used to be located along the Interstate-90 “aerospace and aeronautical” corridor — due to its proximity to Seattle and Boeing, which has 37 Idaho business partners — there are now more than 160 aerospace companies all over the state.

This week, the Department of Commerce is taking eight Idaho aerospace companies, as well as the Idaho Aerospace Alliance, to AVALON, the Australian International Aerospace and Defense Exposition. The show attracts more than 650 companies and 200,000 visitors, according to the department. Two of the companies produce unmanned aerial systems, while the other six are in materials and equipment.

In addition, Idaho aerospace vendors participate with the Inland Northwest Aerospace Consortium, a regional alliance of aerospace manufacturers located along the I-90 corridor from central Washington to central Montana. That organization holds an annual conference at the end of May that typically alternates between Spokane and Coeur d’Alene.

“We really collaborate pretty well with Washington,” said Massie.

Washington scored first in the PwC study. Idaho has different tax and unemployment rates, plus there are quality of life benefits to living in Idaho, she said. “People are happy being located here,” she said. “They don’t feel the need to be closer.”

In addition, Idaho has a lot of easily accessible open airspace, a lack of rules and regulations and a testbed at Idaho National Laboratory for unmanned aerial vehicles, she said.

Other international air shows where Commerce has taken Idaho companies have been held in Taipei, Singapore, Paris and Farnborough, outside London. The eight companies that attended Farnborough one year reported more than $8 million in sales from the show, Massie said. Attendance at the international shows is partially funded by a State Trade Expansion Program grant from the U.S. Small Business Administration.

“International expansion is not a cheap process,” she said.

Over the next decade, the aerospace industry is projected to grow 41 percent, according to the Department of Commerce. Since 2001, employment in the field has grown by 45 percent, and the aircraft and parts manufacturing industry has grown by 300 percent.

When you consider supporting industries that sell into the sector, such as services and freight, aerospace has considerably more impact, Massie said. While Massie said there are roughly 2,500 aerospace jobs in the state, when you add in supporting industries, the total adds up to 50,000 jobs.

Aerospace jobs also pay well, with an average wage of $66,200.

Companies in the Idaho Aerospace Alliance range from Titan Spring, a Hayden company that makes springs and other component parts, to Quest Aircraft, a Sandpoint company that makes an airplane, the Kodiak.

PKG Inc., which designs and manufactures a pilot keyboard for the French-built Airbus 380, is taking in well over $1 million in business, according to Jon Frank, director of sales for the Meridian company.

The PKG keyboard pulls out on rails, upward, and is adjustable like a standing desk and coupled with a writing surface.

PKG was approached by Rockwell Collins, now Collins Aerospace, a Cedar Rapids, Iowa, company that was producing much of the cockpit avionics.

“They didn’t have the bandwidth or partners that would tackle the problem in the timeframe they needed it,” Frank said.