‘Junkyard’ label dismissed: Universal Asset Management promises to run ‘clean’ operation

By Dennis Seid/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – It’s not going to be a junkyard.
At least that’s what officials with Universal Asset Management and the Tupelo Regional Airport insist.
“They keep a clean operation,” noted TRA Executive Director Josh Abramson, who said the airport and the Tupelo Airport Authority didn’t make a rash decision to attract the aircraft recycling company.
“We wanted to be proactive, and before we did anything we talked to the city council and the Lee County Board of Supervisors to get their blessing,” he said.
Two weeks ago, the Memphis-based company announced it was moving its wide-body aircraft disassembly and warehousing operations to Tupelo.
The move came after recruiting efforts by the Community Development Foundation to get UAM to move its operations from Walnut Ridge, Ark., where the company had done business since 2003.
UAM will continue to disassemble smaller aircraft there, officials have said.
The company, which will take over the old Army Air National Guard facility in Tupelo, will be landing Boeing 747 and 767 aircraft at the adjacent airport, then move the aircraft to the AANG site to be taken apart. Those components then will be shifted to the former International Paper warehouse in the Tupelo Lee Industrial Park South in Verona.
UAM says it sells parts of the aircraft to some 1,200 customers worldwide.
But it’s that disassembling process that has some people worried about the appearance of the airport once UAM’s operations get under way.
Jimmy Thompson of Tupelo is a pilot and former owner of a general aviation service business in Greenwood, where a similar aircraft recycling operation owned by GE Capital Aviation Services takes place.
There, GECAS dismantles aircraft and sends parts to warehouses in Memphis.
What Thompson has seen there worries him, enough to send letters to Tupelo Mayor Jack Reed Jr. and to Abramson.
“It has been my personal observation that after the engines are removed they begin to take all the valuable internal parts out,” Thompson said. “These people are in business to make money. Naturally, they remove and sell the most valuable parts first. I’ve seen those hulls set for years before the scrapping process starts. The airframe parts are so long they will not fit into cribbing. The ground is puddled with hydraulic oil and scrap parts that are not of high value.”
But Universal Asset Management and Tupelo airport officials say it’s an unfair comparison.

‘Clean and green’
There’s no hiding a plane the size of a 747 from public view, but Tupelo Regional is building berms and planting trees and shrubs – at a cost of at least $50,000 – to shield some of the view.
Keri Wright, UAM’s chief operating officer, said it isn’t in her company’s best interest to have anything resembling a junkyard in Tupelo.
She said the the airline industry is highly regulated, and in order for companies to use parts from former planes, the components also must meet exact requirements.
“We’re very cautious and clean in our operations,” she said. “We take a lot of pride in our work. We want a clean and green environment. It’s our showcase for our customers and investors; it’s the place we’ll take our customers, so we wouldn’t want anything but a clean environment.”
But critics like Thompson aren’t convinced.
“Profitability slows down once the valuable parts are removed,” he said. “Naturally, to stay in business they immediately look for another airplane to start scrapping. This process goes on and on until there are numerous junk airframes, which are probably not worth what it will take to destroy them. There (in Greenwood) the junkyard grows and grows … when they finally decide to junk the airframe they simply take a track hoe with a huge metal cutting jaw and literally tear the thing apart. This process is the biggest mess you have ever seen. Insulation, paper, aluminum foil, plastic and anything non-metallic goes everywhere. I assure you it will be a mess.”
According to the lease agreement with the airport, UAM “shall keep the premises free and clear of rubbish, debris and litter at all times.” The company also pays for garbage and debris removal.
Tupelo Regional Airport officials also have the right to inspect UAM’s operations at any time with a 24-hour notice “except in the case of emergencies.”
The airport also can inspect for hazardous substance and require the company to provide an environmental audit or assessment at its expense. Should the airport not find any violation of standards, the airport would reimburse UAM for half the cost of the audit or assessment.
The lease also limits UAM from keeping aircraft on airport property to two years “without penalty,” with a financial penalty to be determined by the airport authority.
“This is not going to be a junkyard,” Abramson said.
And Wright said that satellite photos of Walnut Ridge do show an area of the airport that’s quite messy. But she said it’s not UAM’s operation.
“That was a metal storage manufacturer right next to us that we had problems with for years,” she said. “But it wasn’t us.”
She also said another reason for UAM’s selection of Tupelo was the company’s access to the 450,000-square-foot warehouse where it will store aircraft parts.
“We wanted more warehouse space in Walnut Ridge but couldn’t get it,” she said.