09/12/2013 06:24 EDT | Updated 11/12/2013 05:12 EST

Lockheed subsidiary Kelly Aviation opens Montreal maintenance plant

MONTREAL - Hundreds of former Aveos employees have been given hope of recovering high-paying jobs as the engine overhaul subsidiary of Lockheed Martin officially opened its operations in Montreal on Thursday with plans for aggressive growth.

The initial workforce of 90 is expected to expand to about 100 by year-end and more than double by the end of 2014.

As Kelly Aviation wins new contracts, adds new engine types and diversifies with defence work, those numbers could eventually reach 400 to 500 employees.

"Everybody is very happy and lucky to have a job right now," shop steward Stephan Turcsik said in an interview ahead of official opening.

Since acquiring the operations in January, the company has signed the first six contracts to overhaul two engine types for airlines.

Kelly's Montreal facility near Trudeau International Airport will repair CFM34 and CFM56 engines that are used to power the regional Embraer, Canadian regional jets and Airbus 320 family of aircraft. Among its first clients was Jazz, the regional airline for Air Canada (TSX:AC.B).

Turcsik said the recovery of some of the 1,800 jobs lost with Aveos sudden closure 18 months ago won't happen quickly.

"We are taking this one step at a time. We have opened this facility and that's how we are starting (to recover lost jobs)," he added.

Machinists union district chairman Fred Hospes said he expects about one-third of the former Aveos employees could eventually find jobs at Kelly and AJW Technique, which purchased Aveos' components business. But he said the reopening of these operations isn't just important for former employees.

"This is important for the province of Quebec (and) for the aviation industry in Canada," he said, adding that former Aveos workers in other provinces have fewer opportunities to find employment in the industry.

Lockheed Martin vice-president Orlando Carvalho said the Montreal facility allows the defence giant to diversify into commercial engine overhaul. The Montreal facility could eventually add military work while the original plant in San Antonio, Texas, does some commercial work.

"The acquisition of this facility is a tremendous example of Lockheed Martin's commitment to delivering high quality industrial benefits to Canada and creating high-value jobs for Canadians," Carvalho said during the official opening.

Kelly Aviation vice-president Amy Gowder said the company spent several millions of dollars over five months to prepare the facility for operation by painting the 136,000-square-foot plant, recalibrating 1,250 tools and creating some 46 work areas.

It will now seek to add U.S. government work, new engine lines and more airline customers to reach full capacity of 500 jobs.

Gowder said among its targets is Air Canada, once its engine overhaul contracts expire in six years and as it seeks to refleet its Embraer narrow-body aircraft.

"So, hopefully, our growth strategy will align with theirs," she said.