Aviation industry flying high in Oklahoma

A new report about the aviation and aerospace industries in Oklahoma can be summed up this way: business is soaring. And bad pun or not, that’s great news for the state.

The Oklahoma Aeronautics Commission released a study last week estimating that these industries now comprise the second-largest sector of the state’s economy, with an annual economic impact of roughly $43.8 billion.

This is the first time since 1994 that the commission has conducted a study to evaluate the impact of the aviation and aerospace industries. Commission Director Vic Bird called this study the most comprehensive ever done for Oklahoma.

For the past two decades, Bird said, analysts have speculated about whether the aerospace and aviation industries have continued to grow following state incentives, economic development efforts and education programs, and particularly following the Great Recession. The answer, he said, “is a resounding yes.”

The industry is made up of military aviation, off-airport aviation and aerospace employers, and 109 general and commercial aviation airports. These combine to employ more than 200,000 and create an annual payroll of about $12 billion, according to the study.

The military aviation segment provides the biggest punch, accounting for $19.3 billion in economic impact. The total for off-airport aviation and aerospace employees is $13.9 billion, and for the airports (home to 74,000 employees) it’s $10.6 billion.

Gov. Mary Fallin noted that Oklahoma is home to the world’s largest military aircraft repair facility (Tinker Air Force Base) and the largest commercial aircraft repair site (American Airlines in Tulsa). She also touted the Legislature’s creation of economic incentives for the industry, and their success.

These include a bill approved in 2008 that provides new engineers with state income tax credits for up to five years for working for an Oklahoma aerospace company, and limited income tax credits to their employers. It has helped attract companies such as Boeing, which has expanded its Oklahoma City footprint considerably in recent years.

Bird has noted that the tax credits have worked exactly as designed. For example, in the first year they were in effect, 2009, the state paid out $3.5 million but new engineering jobs generated $270 million in economic impact.

Tax policy provided Oklahoma its best spot, No. 7 nationally, in PricewaterhouseCoopers’ 2017 Aerospace Manufacturing Attractiveness Rankings. Oklahoma also did OK in the firm’s look at industry (13) and cost (17), but the state fell to No. 33 in infrastructure, No. 38 in economy and No. 46 in labor — the latter underscoring the need to continue pushing STEM courses in high school and college.

In reporting on the release of the commission’s report, The Oklahoman‘s Jack Money quoted Charlie H. Dry, a graduate of the University of Oklahoma who has spent most of his life in this aerospace field including a stint as a test astronaut for NASA.

“We’ve been after this for a long, long time,” Dry said. “I think there is a great future here for our state.”

Here’s hoping his prediction meets nothing but clear skies in the years ahead.

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