Aircraft makers flock to Mexico

Chances are much of your car was built in Mexico. Increasingly, the planes you fly on are, too.

Aerospace companies are streaming to Mexico, drawn by lower wages, enthusiastic government promotion, a new safety agreement with the United States and an increasingly sophisticated workforce.

In a new plant in the central Mexican city of Querétaro, workers who make $3.50 an hour build rudders and bundles of wiring for airliners. Across town, engineers at General Electric's research center design jet engines. In a nearby industrial park, workers overhaul landing gear at a gleaming new plant.

"Every day, we are seeing more and more activity of this kind in Mexico," said José Javier Roch, head of aviation for the General Directorate of Civil Aeronautics.

Mexico's aerospace-related exports have more than tripled since 2004, to $683.2 million last year, and exports are accelerating as manufacturers move into big-ticket items such as tails and fuselages. One aircraft maker, Canada's Bombardier, wants to eventually assemble complete jets in Mexico.

Despite a booming worldwide market for aircraft, American unions worry that the move to Mexico might result in major layoffs if the industry takes a downturn.

"This is a technological base, an important industrial base for our country, and we're just giving it up," said Ron Eldridge, aerospace coordinator for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

Industry officials liken the trend to the 1980s, when U.S. companies moved from making auto parts in Mexico to assembling entire vehicles. Mexico exports $42 billion in cars and parts every year.

"Mexico's vision is to do the same thing they did with the auto industry," said Real Gervais, head of Bombardier's operations in Mexico. "There's a lot of potential."

Made in Mexico

In a cavernous factory that opened in February at the Querétaro airport, tail sections for Bombardier's Global Express business jet jut up from construction platforms like the fins of giant sharks. Workers bustle around the sleek aluminum bodies, drilling holes and placing rivets.

This work used to be done in Toronto. Bombardier, which makes everything from CRJ regional jetliners to Learjets, has tried to cut costs while making room for new models in its U.S. and Canadian factories.

Since Bombardier opened its first factory in a rented building in Querétaro in 2006, workers here have taken over production of wire harnesses from plants in Wichita, rudders from Japan and fuselages from Northern Ireland.

Aircraft makers following Bombardier's lead include:

•Aernnova, a Spanish firm that makes wings, tails and other sections for Boeing, Airbus, Embraer and others, is building an $84 million plant in Querétaro.

•Cessna Aircraft and Hawker Beechcraft, both makers of business jets, have moved subassembly work from their Wichita plants to new factories in the northern Mexico city of Chihuahua since 2006.

•Goodrich is building a 350,000-square-foot factory in Mexicali to make engine cowlings for the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. The Charlotte company makes plane interiors and engine parts in Arizona.

Lower wages are a big reason behind the moves.

At Bombardier, new assembly workers earn about $560 a month, according to plant manager Michael McAdoo. Engineers can earn $925 to $1,390 a month, according to a Bombardier job ad. That's $5.80 to $8.70 an hour.

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.