By DAN GUZEWICH Staff writer

Empire Aero Center is winding down its aircraft overhaul operation at Griffiss. Upwards of 100 employees were laid off Monday.

The discharges came only five days after U.S. Charles E. Schumer proclaimed that Empire Aero’s parent company had reached a tentative agreement to sell the operation, keeping it open and retaining jobs. Neither he nor others following the situation provided any details about the potential new owner or details like size of the revamped and renamed business.

There are about 75 Empire Aero employees today — a number that is below the payroll size when Empire Aero serviced its first plane at Griffiss in January 2004.

"All the mechanics rolled their tool boxes out of the facility this morning, the whole process was over before 9:30 a.m.," said an e-mail received by the Daily Sentinel Monday.

The same e-mail speculated more, if not all, employees would be done by next Monday at the latest — just as the company warned in February.

The company had nothing to say about its status. Empire Aero is owned by IAI North America, which is part of Israel Aerospace Industries.

"We kinda had a suspicion this was going to happen this morning," one of the laid-off workers said yesterday. She did not want to be identified for fear of damaging her chances of being rehired should a new owner emerge.

She said it was mostly mechanics that were let go in the morning and support personnel, like human resources and secretaries, that were sent home in the afternoon.

"They’re saying it’s in the works, but they don’t tell us who or when," the former employee said when asked what she’d heard about a possible sale. She said she worked at Empire Aero for four plus years.

She said there is one plane left being worked on and it should be finished Friday.

Empire Aero notified the state in February that in the absence of a buyer, all 203 employees would be laid off starting May 10.

"I do apologize, but I can’t comment on anything that’s going on with the company right now," said interim CEO Greg Emerson Monday afternoon in an e-mail in response to inquiries from this newspaper.

Some former Empire Aero employees could wind up working on Air Force C-5s that will be brought to Griffiss for upgrades. Defense Support Systems, a Lockheed Martin and Day & Zimmermann venture, will be using a portion of the tarmac at the airfield now controlled by Empire Aero to work on the large military transport planes.

This outside work could start later this month. However, judging by all reports, fewer than 50 people will needed to staff the operation.

In the meantime, a shuttered Empire Aero operation does not necessarily mean there will be no sale. It is not unheard of for a lag to occur between when a business closes its doors and then reopens under new ownership. Former workers could be hired by the new owner. How many might be needed for a revamped operation flying under a new name is unknown.

If there is no successor to Empire Aero, it will be a disappointing ending for many who optimistically greeted the takeoff of the aircraft rehabber at Griffiss in January 2004. With long-term projections of employment of 700, the company’s flight from Florida to Rome was viewed as a positive development for both the economy of the region and Rome.

Landing an anchor tenant like Empire Aero at the airfield was seen a key factor in the plan to attract aviation-related business and build up general aviation. Then Gov. George E. Pataki and Assembly Speaker Seldon Silver came to Griffiss in 2003 to announce that Griffiss had been selected as the new home for the business.

Some $25 million in state and federal money was then invested in infrastructure and facilities at the county airport to pave the way for Empire Aero’s arrival. The improvements remain in place because they are not owned by Empire Aero.

The company signed a lease for hangar and shop space at Griffiss that covered 49 years, including options. Now, landlord Mohawk Valley EDGE, through an affiliate company, and IAI are working out financial terms for ending the lease. Empire Aero has already vacated hangar space it leased from the county.

Planes coming to Empire Aero for repairs and maintenance began decreasing in late 2008. As a result of the ensuing severe loss of work, there were periodic layoffs. But Empire Aero’s demise wasn’t solely the result of a down airline industry and other outside factors. The company had some internal issues, including execution problems. It and a former major customer have filed legal claims against each other.

On Feb. 12, the company told the state that it would lay off all 203 employees starting May 10 unless new ownership took over. It was noted then that there might layoffs prior to May 10.

At its height, employment soared to more than 400 permanent and contract employees in 2007. Then President Brian P. Olsen said in 2008 he He hoped to have 700 or more employees working in six hangars by 2011 with sales of $100 million. Olsen left the company at the end of January. Two weeks later the company told the state it would lay off all remaining workers beginning next Monday.