September 22, 2013 12:11:21 AM
Nathan Gregory - [email protected]
Eurocopter officials announced Friday that the partial assembly line for AS350 helicopters produced at the Columbus plant will be upgraded into a full assembly line.
The upgrade is set to be complete late next year.
The move will preserve local jobs. It is also being implemented to offset an inevitable decrease in work orders for the UH-72A Lakota helicopters, which the Columbus facility also has a full production line for. Employees have produced an average of 40 of those aircraft for the past several years but are only contracted to produce 31 next year and 10 in 2015 for the U.S. military. With sequestration cuts, those orders are not guaranteed.
While moves have been made to sustain production of the Lakota -- such as a recent agreement to manufacture six for the government of Thailand -- American Eurocopter, a subsidiary of Eurocopter, needed another plan in place to retain workers.
American Eurocopter spokesman Bob Cox said CEO Marc Paganini made a commitment in consortium with Eurocopter to ensure jobs stayed in Mississippi.
"We'll begin now to prepare so that a year from now we will have a full production line for that aircraft similar to what we do now with the Lakota," Cox said. "Eurocopter has made the choice to invest more in Mississippi in boosting that plant. Marc Paganini pushed really hard to get this done. At the end of the day, this decision should, in the long run, preserve jobs and keep jobs in Mississippi."
Paganini said in a release that the plant will have the capacity to produce 60 AS350 choppers a year by 2016.
"Our teams in Mississippi have done a superb job of producing the Lakota for the Army and we want to put their expertise to work building helicopters for the civil market in the U.S.," Paganini said.
Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.