Aircraft makers flock to Mexico

The lower costs have translated into a 30% savings on parts made here, even after the added transportation costs, Gervais said.

Not everything has gone smoothly. Training Bombardier's Mexican workers took longer than expected because there were no veterans to show employees the ropes, Gervais said.

"We underestimated the tribal knowledge of the 50 or 75 years of experience that we had in our other sites," he said.

Brain work

It's not just aerospace manufacturing moving south of the border. Foreign firms are snapping up Mexican engineers and mechanics, as well. Honeywell Aerospace, a Phoenix-based electronics maker, opened a $40 million testing center in Mexicali in 2006. General Electric plans to add 600 engineers to the 1,000 employed at its Querétaro design center. The center designs jet engines and turbines for electrical generators.

Mexico also is becoming a center for airline maintenance.

At a new overhaul plant in Querétaro, huge metal struts from the landing gear of a US Airways jetliner lay on a table like dinosaur bones waiting to be cleaned, cataloged and inspected.

The SAFRAN Group of France moved the plant from a site near Dulles Airport in Virginia in October, citing a need to cut costs and trouble recruiting U.S. workers. About 160 U.S. workers lost their jobs.

"Very few of those people, maybe 15%, went back into aviation," said David Athey, a former senior engineer at the Virginia plant. "Some people are selling cars, some are plumbers."

At least one U.S. airline, Delta, sends entire planes to Mexico for maintenance.

In 2006, Delta signed a deal handing heavy maintenance of 120 planes over to Aeromexico airline.

The Mexican government hopes exports will grow even faster in the wake of a new Bilateral Aviation Safety Agreement signed with the United States in September.

The pact allows Mexican officials to certify new aircraft parts instead of shipping them to the USA for inspection.

"It's a great logistical advantage," said Roch of Mexico's aviation directorate. "It's a new frontier."

Hawley is Latin America correspondent for USA TODAY and The Arizona Republic.

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