New owner to give HPN's first FBO a facelift

 - July 25, 2007, 4:44 AM

Westchester County Airport (HPN) in White Plains, N.Y., has a unique culture. Waiting in line for takeoff, you might be sharing the crowded taxiway with a regional airliner or two, a corporate turboprop, some ultra-long-range business jets, several smaller turbofans and a Cherokee or Cessna single. There is even an ex-RAF Folland Gnat among the eclectic aircraft based at the field, which is located a reasonably short drive from Manhattan among some of the city’s wealthier northern suburbs.

Likewise, each of the airport’s five FBOs has established its own role. At HPN, Signature and Jet Systems (Avitat) vie for market share as the primary providers of business aviation support. Piston-aircraft specialists Westair and Panorama were granted permission to market jet-A three years ago, albeit with some restrictions (no aircraft more than 50,000 pounds mtow).

That leaves Skyport, established at HPN in 1950 in a former Air National Guard hangar. It was the first FBO on what has since become one of the most important business aviation bases in the world.

Skyport was owned and operated up until last month by its founder, 88-year-old Michael Oppici, whose business plan has always appeared as one of the most eccentric when viewed from the outside looking in. Skyport’s fuel customers include a mix of airlines, corporate clients with hangars on the airport and Oppici’s based hangar tenants. Servicing transients has never been a business focus for Skyport. In fact, a few years ago Oppici requested that Skyport be removed from the evaluation form of the annual AIN FBO survey–the exact opposite from the desire expressed by countless other FBOs nationwide. Reflecting its no-frills operating philosophy, Skyport’s hangar and current customer lounge are described most generously as “spartan.”

Last month, Oppici finally sold Skyport. He is said to have come close to doing so a few times in the past half-dozen years or so, but never closed. The company that emerged as the winning bidder–for what is described as a “bargain” at $4.8 million–is an interesting story in itself.

Formed just 16 months ago, aircraft-ownership club Jet Equity bought its way into aviation by acquiring a relatively small HPN-based charter firm operated by Millie Becker. A former airline flight attendant, Becker and her husband, David, formed the company in the late 1980s. David subsequently was killed in the crash of a Beech King Air. His widow continued to operate the charter/management company successfully in the intervening years, and her success has been the subject of several New York-area press write-ups, including a feature story in The New York Times.

Becker described Jet Equity as a group of “business aviation connoisseurs” who had a plan to maximize fiscal efficiency in business aviation travel. A mix of block-charter and jet-card-like business strategies, the Jet Equity plan is designed around flexibility for the customer. When the investors (who choose to remain anonymous) came to her, Becker decided in January 2003 that “it was time,” and sold her business to newly formed Jet Equity, staying on as v-p of sales and marketing. Now remarried and with a five-year-old son, Becker is enthusiastic about a new direction for the company since the acquisition of Skyport.

At a press conference at its hangar last month, she announced that Jet Equity has restructured its business model and assumed a new name. The company intends to capitalize on the name recognition of Oppici’s FBO at White Plains. Becker announced Jet Equity has officially changed its corporate brand name to Skyport, with three divisions reflecting its involvement in various areas of business aviation. The original ownership club will be called Skyport Exclusive Private Air Travel Services; the FBO will operate as Skyport Flight Services; and the charter/management arm–currently with a Gulfstream III, Hawker 800 and Beechjet 400A on its Part 135 certificate–will be called Skyport Aviation.

She told AIN, “Skyport Flight Services will be the crown jewel in what we ultimately expect to be a nationwide network of FBOs. When Mr. Oppici was looking for a buyer, it really wasn’t about the money. It was about finding someone who would be an appropriate custodian for the business he had put his life’s work into.”

And the low-frills approach will continue, though improvements and upgrades are definitely in the offing. Hired by Jet Equity six months ago, former Signature HPN general manager Brian Ciambra told AIN that he expects to focus on attracting transient business rather than discouraging visitors to his ramp. He also said that the Skyport storage hangar had become sparsely populated over the past two years. He said, “I think Mr. Oppici didn’t want to add complication to any impending deal, so he was reluctant to lease space to new tenants. It was one of the best-kept secrets that hangar space was available on the airport. We’ve since filled all but three spots.”

Acquiring the FBO required the approval of Westchester County, which owns and operates the airport, and the county wanted assurances of some facility upgrades. Ciambra said, “In the first year, we committed to adding an elevator, fixing the hangar doors, replacing windows and painting the hangar floor. We ultimately plan to invest a total of at least $4 million in facility upgrades.”

Two hangar doors down the ramp from Skyport is the former Texaco hangar, the lease for which Jet Equity acquired when Texaco and Phillips merged and the Texaco flight department disbanded. With its Fortune 500-caliber passenger waiting lounge and upstairs office complex, the former Texaco hangar will become at least the temporary focal point of the new Skyport FBO.

The sprucing up will involve more than just hammers, nails and paintbrushes, too. Said Ciambra, “There was not much of an emphasis on customer service in the past. All that was really expected was to hook up the single-point refueler, smile and say, ‘Have a nice day.’ We have retained all the Skyport employees and plan to implement some formal customer- service training.”

Walking across his crowded ramp apron, Ciambra said such transient traffic was never found on Skyport property in the past. He expects to increase his market share among transients from practically nil to 25 percent within a year. Asked what competitor Mike Dolphin at Jet Systems Avitat would say about that, Ciambra smiled and said, “I’ve talked to Mike about that. He said he welcomes the challenge.”

Never at a loss for an opinion, Dolphin told AIN, “I’m sure they’ll do well. They’re young and energetic. It’s the competitive aspect of this business that makes it so much fun. Of course, it’s easy to say that when you’re on top.”

Skyport is not shy about revealing its plans to expand nationally by acquiring more FBOs in major markets. Becker said, “Getting into the FBO business has been a goal of these investors since Jet Equity was formed. What better place to start than HPN?” Asked to be more specific as to possible locations of new facilities, she added that Skyport is “implementing a strong acquisition strategy” seeking additional major-market FBOs in Florida, Colorado, Texas, California and the Caribbean.