Oct 06, 2015
By Mike Denham

Most Kentuckians know that the commonwealth plays a major role in the auto industry – in fact, only two states produce more cars and trucks than we do – but far fewer are likely aware that our work in aerospace and aviation has overtaken it.

Last year, that industry accounted for nearly $8 billion in exports, topping the $5.9 billion generated by our auto parts and assembly factories. Overall, about half of everything that Kentucky ships beyond our borders ultimately goes toward moving people and products over the ground and in the air.

Earlier this year, the General Assembly authorized a study to gauge just how much of a positive impact aerospace and aviation have on the commonwealth. What we do know is that its growth has happened relatively quickly. Exports in this area have doubled in value in just four years, for example, while the number of employees in aerospace/aviation manufacturing has increased by two-thirds over the past 12.

This study will be coordinated by the Cabinet for Economic Development, the Transportation Cabinet and the Commission on Military Affairs and will complement another far-reaching look released early this summer on the auto industry in Kentucky.

Last month, the legislature’s Committee on Economic Development and Tourism dedicated much of its meeting to aerospace and aviation. One presenter noted that Kentucky sells to companies in 91 countries and ranks first or second among the states in exporting these products to Brazil, France, China, and the United Kingdom.

There are several factors why our state has overtaken others much larger than ours. For one, General Electric’s GE Aviation is based just across the Ohio River in Cincinnati and has many suppliers here.

Our international air hubs in Northern Kentucky and Louisville, meanwhile, help us ship 5.5 million tons of freight a year, putting us third in the nation in this category; and our central location places us within a day’s drive of two-thirds of the country’s population.

Another benefit we offer is a relatively low cost of electricity, with no state east of the Mississippi River having better industrial rates.

Our schools also show a strong commitment when it comes to educating tomorrow’s workers. The Cabinet for Economic Development says more than a fourth of the nation’s high schools teaching aerospace and aviation in the classroom are located here in the commonwealth.

As good as the news has been about the industry, it’s poised to be get even better. GE Aviation says it has more than 15,000 jet engines on back order, and some aviation experts say that airline manufacturers could be looking at 10 to 15 years of positive growth. Locally, the Fleming-Mason Airport has long played a critical role in our economy and is an extremely important asset in helping our region add more jobs in the years ahead.

If much of the focus on aerospace is understandably on airplanes, it should be pointed out that we contribute to space exploration as well. Morehead State University has a strong presence in space science, and it has partnered with the University of Kentucky to form “Kentucky Space,” a non-profit organization that is licensed to work on satellites and to provide components for the International Space Station.

Last week, the House’s Special Committee on Advanced Communications and Information Technology traveled to Morehead State University to learn more about that school’s work and what more is on the horizon.

The study that the General Assembly commissioned this spring will give legislators and the public an even greater insight into what is taking place across the commonwealth and how we can build on these gains. It’s almost certain to conclude that for Kentucky, the sky is, quite literally, the limit.

I hope to hear from you soon.