Taking flight

James HowellStaff

December 20, 2012

A new economic impact study from the Institute of Transportation Research and Education (ITRE) reveals the aviation industry contributed nearly $26 billion to North Carolina’s economy and supported approximately 108,850 jobs in 2012.

This impact can be felt in Ashe County’s economy, which benefits from the thriving aviation industry with the operation of GE Aviation, located in West Jefferson.

“GE Aviation has become the world’s largest producer of jet engines with over 50,000 commercial and military engines in service,” said Jessica Ensani, from GE Aviation.

“The West Jefferson facility currently employs over 160 people. We have hired over 50 people in the past three years,” said Ensani.

As other manufacturing companies have slowed or lost jobs, GE has continued to expand, providing a pocket of stability for the county.

According to Ensani, the output at GE’s West Jefferson plant has grown by over 60 percent in the past five years.

“GE has invested over $25 million in the West Jefferson facility over the past five years, and we expect several more million dollars to be invested in the coming years,” said Ensani.

Along with these monetary investments, the West Jefferson plant is currently working to help GE Aviation develop two of its newest engines: the LeapX and Passport20.

According to Ensani, GE employees over 26,000 people in the United States and 4,000 people in North Carolina.

The economic impact study was commissioned by the N.C. Division of Aviation and conducted by ITRE. The study found the state’s 72 publicly owned airports contributes nearly $26 billion to the state’s economy and supports more than 108,000 jobs.

That contribution represents 6 percent of the state’s gross domestic product.

“Aviation and aerospace continue to be an integral part of North Carolina’s economic engine,” said N.C. Department of Transportation’s Division of Aviation Director Richard Walls.

“As our state continues its investment in aviation, aerospace companies continue to invest in North Carolina, with new manufacturing plants and technology,” said Walls.

Other facts about the industry are:

• North Carolina airports support more than $4 billion in personal income for aviation-related jobs.

• State and local governments received more than $770 million in sales, property, corporate and personal taxes due to airport activity.

• The local property tax related to airport activities is about $277 million.

Aviation’s impact reaches further than the jobs it creates and the taxes collected from the industry.

According to the study, the state’s 63 general aviation and nine commercial service airports “provide a vital link to regional, national and international markets.”

Aviation helps businesses by enabling companies to ship items quickly; the industry also allows first responders to transport patients to distant hospitals.

These, along with several other ventures, have been made easier because of the speed of air travel.

Ashe County Manager Dr. Pat Mitchell believes extending the county’s airport runway, which is currently in progress, will have a positive impact on the area.

“I think having a good transportation system, which the airport is a part of, is a piece of infrastructure that would benefit the county’s economic growth,” said Mitchell. “It can be a way to recruit business.”

GE Aviation has also made a positive impact on the area through several charitable contributions.

In 2009, GE became involved with the Ashe County Children’s Christmas Project by sponsoring 15 children. This year, GE sponsored 110 children and also donated an additional $1,000 to the charity, according to Ensani.

“This is truly a team effort with nearly everyone at the site leading or participating in events throughout the year to raise money for the organization. These events include activities such as silent auctions, chili cook-offs, softball tournaments, Rook tournaments etc,” said Ensani.

She also said GE is planning to help with the charity again in 2013.