It was five years of a troubled enterprise that is now coming to an end. The L3Harris Airline Academy in Ponte de Sor, a former Aérocondor, in the Portalegre district, will close its doors at the end of September. The pilot training academy had been in the hands of the American company L3 Technologies since 2017, which will withdraw from activity in Portugal, leaving 90 workers unemployed. The multinational, which has training centers in the United Kingdom and the United States, explains to Dinheiro Vivo that the decision comes after “an analysis of the group’s global portfolio”, carried out with the aim of ensuring “that the presence international training corresponds to demand.” “In order to ensure the best possible result for the operation of our schools, we are unfortunately ceasing our activity in Portugal,” confirms a source from L3Harris.
The news was greeted with surprise by the municipality, which considers this departure from the town as “brutal and unexpected”. “Unfortunately, the town hall of Ponte de Sor was not consulted in time on this unilateral decision by the company. About nine dozen workers will be temporarily unemployed and will see their rights duly safeguarded”, assures the town hall in response to Dinheiro Live. “The size of our aeronautical cluster being considerable and recognized, we believe that everyone will have opportunities with the other companies already installed at the Aerodrome, those which are in the process of being installed, and those which will soon also be part of this ecosystem” , adds the municipality.
The L3Harris Airline Academy campus, with more than 24,000 square meters, located at the municipal airfield of Ponte de Sor, will not remain empty for long. The guarantee is given by the municipality headed by Hugo Pereira Hilário, who adds that he already has the project for the new company that will operate there. “The facilities, which belong to the municipality, will soon be occupied by another operator in the same area of activity, which has acquired the assets of the L3Harris company. The company that has reached an agreement with L3, whose business plan is already known to the municipality, proposes to create the conditions to have even more students in the short term, thus fully exploiting the excellent infrastructures that will be available”, informs the Chamber, without however revealing the name of the new company which will settle there.
a failed business
The multinational aerospace defense technology specialist, based in Florida, USA, arrived in Ponte de Sor in 2017 with the aim of expanding the training business segment in Europe. The North American bought the operation of GAir, the flight school then run by businessman Carlos Saraiva, and took over the company with ambitious expansion plans. The outlook was optimistic with all the puzzle pieces aligned. Ponte de Sor Academy was already on the lips of the world, attracting around 150 students from dozens of nationalities each year. In this school located in Upper Alentejo, hundreds of pilots from companies such as TAP, Air France, British Airways, Air Arabia, easyJet or Ryanair have been trained. The quality of the infrastructure, which has already been the subject of a total investment of 40 million euros by the town hall with the support of Community funds, the favorable weather conditions for flights and the 1800 meter runway are some of the factors that have echoed the name of the commune outside.
A few months after L3 took over the company, the director of the Airline Academy in Europe, Mário Spínola, revealed in an interview with Lusa in 2018 that the company wanted to invest an additional eight million euros in the infrastructure and hoped to receive 500 students over a two-year period. But the problems started soon after. In 2020, L3 abruptly terminated the contract with 120 students, who had already paid €80,000 for the training and could not complete the course. The controversy has shifted, involving courts and compensation. L3Harris claimed hardship because of the pandemic, but the truth is the hardships started earlier. In 2018 and 2019, airlines encountered serious difficulties in recruiting pilots and the lack of manpower led to a relentless hunt for these professionals. Thus, the pilots who were trainers at the Ponte de Sor academy ended up giving up teaching, to join the various air carriers, leaving the school devoid of professionals capable of giving practical lessons to hundreds of students.
After the last two years of the pandemic, during which the school resorted to state aid such as dismissal, the start of 2022 did not bring better winds. In March, the workers of the company were called to a meeting with the administration which put on the table the possibility of selling or closing the school. Last August, the confirmation came through the dismissal letter. “One of the reasons given for this decision, according to L3 Harris vice-president David Coward, is the low demand for pilot training and the fact that there is no optimistic outlook in the near future” , specifies a source close to , who questions the veracity of the arguments: “The schools of Cascais and Porto are full”, he laments, assuring that the academy of Ponte de Sor has received several proposals from investors interested in buying the company.
Aeronautical cluster in Ponte de Sor
After the arrival of GAir in 2013 in Ponte de Sor, the municipality is no longer the same. The first Portuguese aviation school moved to the municipal aerodrome of Ponte de Sor nine years ago. The arrival of hundreds of foreign students represented a decisive step for the economic development of the department. From real estate to catering, several companies have been impacted. The interest of other international investors in the aviation, aeronautics and aerospace sectors has increased and, currently, 14 companies already reside in the so-called aeronautical cluster of Ponte de Sor , responsible for 300 jobs. Soon, 800 additional jobs will be created.
Recently, three mobilizing agendas of the Recovery and Resilience Plan were approved, representing an investment of 200 million euros. “These projects range from the construction of the first Portuguese aircraft, to the monitoring of space debris, to the production of satellites. They will represent a new stage in the development of the whole region. It is estimated that more than 600 direct jobs will be The future of the aeronautical cluster of Ponte de Sor, in the short and medium term, will certainly be even more positive”, reveals the municipality. There are still four other companies that will join this cluster in the next two years, creating 200 additional jobs.
After the L3Harris group, what was the first Portuguese aviation school will once again change hands. Founded by Colonel Victor Brito in 1980, first as Escola de Aviação Aeroavia (EAA) and later Escola de Aviação Aerocondor (EAA), the training academy has already had several owners. In 2001, it was sold to the Spanish group Gestair, taking the name of Gestair Flying Academy. In 2013 it was sold to businessman Carlos Saraiva, who took the company to Ponte de Sor and opened the GAir training center. The sale to L3Harris was finalized in 2017 and, five years later, it was completed. A new cadet training school will take place in Ponte de Sor.