Aviation in Central Oregon: A Comeback Story

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(Photo | Courtesy of Epic Aircraft)

The aviation industry has been a strong player over the years in Central Oregon, but its success here has been up and down. “The pace of growth has been shocking; the amount of gains we’ve seen in the last ten years has been astounding, both in terms of expansion of new businesses being formed and created within the industry, and the employment growth with both the new and existing businesses,” says Damon Runberg, an Oregon Employment Department economist serving the East Cascades region.

Unfortunately, COVID has eroded most of those gains, but Runberg believes this is a temporary situation. “It’s too early to tell the long-term impact. It’s terrible that people have lost jobs, but we think these are temporary layoffs. Obviously, aviation and aerospace have been hit hard by COVID, but there is a lot of confidence that the growth we’ve seen in last ten years is indicative of what will happen going forward.” He adds, “We believe the erosion of losses will be recovered quickly; maybe not another 40 percent expansion, but we think the growth trajectory is still in play.”

Part of the optimism surrounding the aviation industry is that most of the 2020 losses are COVID restrictions-based, according to Runberg. “For example, companies like Epic Aircraft, which manufactures personal aircraft, tend to not do well during recessions. However, this has been a recession that has not been too damaging to higher-income workers. The fear over luxury spending is not really in place like it was before. The stock market has done okay. The models that are typically vulnerable don’t seem to be vulnerable this time around.”

Roger Lee, CEO of EDCO, says that the aviation industry here represents a diverse group of companies. “There are 20-30 companies, so it’s a smaller industry sector, but there are big players in it, and bigger employers. We see some of these, like Cv International (cvintl.com) or Kawak Aviation (kawakaviation.com) growing,” he says. “Kawak has a global distribution, and Cvi is pursing some military options that are pretty exciting. These are examples of companies that will outperform the national industry in terms of jobs. 2021 looks bright for these companies.” The progression of Epic Aircraft from experimental to certified aircraft has also been a boost to the local aviation industry, he says.

“Since 2008-2009, we saw the unmanned aircraft industry as a way to diversify here, but it has been really difficult recruiting due to regulations and competition from other states offering incentives,” says Lee. “There are fits and starts and fewer companies in this sector. In general, aviation is like auto manufacturing. There are so many related pieces and parts that go into this industry that it can support a much larger job base than the actual employers themselves. The implications of having a company do well, like Epic, really has a ripple effect for the other suppliers. Aviation can be like that holy grail when it comes to the multiplier effect of jobs and activity.”

“When you go back further than 2009, historically, aviation has been a very important sector,” adds Runberg. “It was devasted during the Great Recession. We had companies like Cessna here. But it’s encouraging to see this sector resurging, and to see a lost industry come back from the grave. It’s good to see new businesses latching on. We thought we’d lost it after the Great Recession, but’s it’s re-emerging. It’s a happy story.”

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