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Aircraft upgrades drive Elliott Aviation


Retailers aren’t the only ones working at a crazy pace during the holidays. Inside Elliott Aviation’s expansive hangar on the south end of Des Moines International Airport, technicians are busy outfitting multi-million-dollar aircraft with electronic and mechanical upgrades.

“We get insanely busy during the holidays, because it’s a logical time for a company to have its aircraft down for maintenance,” said Don “D.J.” Jay, general manager of Elliott’s Des Moines operation.

Due to upcoming deadlines for federal safety mandates and expected increases in business aircraft production, the company expects to remain exceptionally busy – and profitable – for years to come.

In 2002, “we had an excellent year financially, probably our fourth-best ever, in what many people would term a very soft economy,” Jay said.

The privately held company’s revenues have averaged about $88 million annually in recent years, he said, with much of its growth driven by demand for avionics retrofit work.

Based in Moline, Ill., Elliott Aviation employs about 400 people, including 70 technicians and service specialists at its Des Moines center. It also operates aircraft servicing operations at the Omaha and Minneapolis international airports.

Though most Greater Des Moines residents who are familiar with Elliott know the company for its charter services, that piece represents only about 10 percent of the company’s revenues. The majority of the Elliott’s business comes from sales, service and modifications to business aircraft costing $1 million and up, for companies throughout the country.

“We have uniquely positioned ourselves to be among that handful of sales and service providers to be able to provide the kind of services that we do,” Jay said. Among those services are safety upgrades that have been mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration.

In 2000, the FAA issued a directive requiring owners of all turbine-powered aircraft that can carry six or more passengers to install Terrain Awareness Warning Systems by the end of March 2005, or be grounded. In October, it mandated that aircraft must be equipped with special avionics by Jan. 20, 2005, if they’re going to fly at higher, fuel-saving altitudes.

“The throughput that needs to happen between now and the time the mandates are required is several hundred aircraft a month,” said Mike Turner, Elliott’s director of marketing. “As we go into 2004, the schedule and capacity to get that work done will get much tighter because the equipment to put into a particular airplane is very specific, and not every service provider will have a full menu of what they can put into your airplane.”

The Des Moines operation is busy now with these type of avionics retrofits, and has already booked jobs as far ahead as August 2004, Jay said.      By planning ahead, a company can schedule other needed maintenance work at the same time, he said, “because we can do all of those services; we can do all those things in one shot.”

Early in 2002, Elliott Aviation opened its new completions center in Moline in response to a shift by aircraft manufacturers to direct marketing to their customers. The company recognized a need for a facility to install after-market modifications, from enhanced avionics to leather seats, that might not be available on factory aircraft.

The shift has brought spin-off benefits to each of its centers, Jay said.

“Prior to this sort of growth, Des Moines would never see ‘green’ airplanes – an airplane coming from the manufacturer for installation of after-market equipment selected by the end user,” he said. Another type of add-on that Elliott installs is a proprietary sound-reducing system for aircraft cabins, which has been adopted by Raytheon Aircraft Co. as a standard feature for its top-of-the-line models.

It’s the avionics upgrades that have been driven the company’s growth, however.

In Des Moines, “we’re expecting to assemble two mature [installation] teams so we can do two major projects concurrently,” Jay said. “That maximizes our use of the facility.”   Currently working two shifts, the Des Moines service center will eventually operate in three shifts on a 24-hour basis, he said.

Reducing turn-around time is crucial in the industry, Jay said, because few companies can afford unnecessary down-time for their aircraft.

“The amount of time we can turn around a project is as crucial as the price,” Jay said.


The number of companies operating business aircraft in the United States has grown more than 50 percent in the past decade, according to the National Business Aviation Association. In 1991, 6,584 companies were operating 9,504 aircraft, compared with 10,191 companies operating 15,569 aircraft in 2002.

According to an annual business aviation outlook conducted by Honeywell Aerospace, demand for new business aircraft will begin to recover within the next year and remain steady for the next 10 years. The report estimates more than 7,700 business jets will be purchased through 2013, with a total value exceeding $115 billion.

“Strong new model backlogs, continuing expansion in fractional ownership in North America and Europe, coupled with an expected strong economic recovery, remain key factors supporting a longer-term outlook for growth,” Bob Johnson, president and chief executive of Honeywell Aerospace, said in an October news release.

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