FBO owner continues family aviation legacy

 - October 4, 2007, 8:38 AM

By all accounts Reed Pigman Jr., president of Texas Jet, the largest independent FBO at Fort Worth Meacham International Airport (FTW), was the luckiest teenager alive in August and September 1964. It was in these months that his father, Reed Pigman Sr., founder and president of American Flyers Airline (AFA) and flight training schools, undertook what was then the world’s most publicized responsibility. At the request of Brian Epstein, an up-and-coming manager in pop music, Pigman Sr. transported the Beatles throughout the U.S. and Canada during their first tour of North America (see box on facing page).

This “luckiest teenager,” now a central figure in Fort Worth general aviation and business jet circles, will never forget the experience. He had a front-row seat to observe his father’s unique and prosperous career, including the trust his famous customers and their managers placed in him. Pigman Jr. maintains that his experience is a key influence on his management style at Texas Jet.

A Family Aviation Legacy
Pigman Sr. began his aviation career in the late 1930s in Iowa as a successful businessman/flight instructor. After moving to Fort Worth, he established American Flyers Flight School and unknowingly set the standard for U.S. civilian pilot training programs. Said Pigman Jr., “His flight training operation was so successful that when World War II began, President Franklin Roosevelt’s Administration decided that my father’s place was on the home front rather than in the skies over the European or Pacific theaters. President Roosevelt personally urged him to expend his energies complementing the work of the mobilizing military.” As a result, Pigman provided a constant flow of trained pilots to the U.S. Navy, U.S. Army Air Corps and the airlines of the 1940s.

Like many enterprising airline executives, after the war Pigman purchased surplus DC-3s and started a charter service, calling his company American Flyers Airline, a separate corporate entity from the flight training school but also based out of Meacham Field. During its service between 1949 and 1971, AFA evolved into a respected charter airline operator.

The success and solid reputation of the company operations, which included the flight school, necessitated that a larger home base be considered. Pigman selected Ardmore, Okla., where administrative buildings, hangars and open land space were available for expansion. The company completed the move from Fort Worth to Ardmore in early 1966.

At its peak in the early 1960s, AFA boasted an inventory of nine Lockheed Constellations, six Electra L-188s and four DC-3s. In their day these now classic prop-driven airliners hosted an endless lineup of celebrity customers and provided transportation for some of Hollywood’s grandest productions. Former employees of AFA transported the casts of such major motion pictures as The Ten Commandments, The Robe and The Greatest Story Ever Told, to remote locations of the desert Southwestern U.S. for filming. Lawrence Welk and his orchestra were frequent customers. Between Hollywood jaunts there were sports team and military charters across North America.

Consolidating the Family Business
Tragedy struck the company on April 22, 1966, when one of the original Electras crashed near Ardmore, claiming the lives of 83 people, including that of Reed Pigman Sr. The strength of the employee base, in no small measure the result of Pigman’s leadership, carried the company through the tragedy and into a new phase of operations that incorporated two Boeing 727-185Cs into the fleet in 1967.

Despite the continued success of the operation, in 1969 the Pigman family decided to sell the airline portion of the company to Pittsburgh Coke and Chemical of Harrisburg, Pa. Almost immediately following the purchase and in an effort to increase the company presence in international markets, the new owner added two DC-8-63CFs. Unfortunately, transitioning to a highly competitive market dependent upon a customer base almost exclusively within the Northeast proved difficult for the company’s new leaders. Universal Airlines of Oakland, Calif., acquired the company in May 1971.

The executives at Universal were primarily interested in acquiring the aircraft fleet. But Universal spread itself too thin and was forced into bankruptcy in May 1972. Liquidation of the company’s assets followed.

While watching the demise of the original company’s airline operation, Pigman Jr. continued his father’s legacy with the American Flyers Flight School, still in Ardmore. After he graduated from the University of Oklahoma, he assumed executive management of the school. Following his mother’s death in 1975, he relocated to his hometown of Fort Worth, Texas.

Pigman Jr. Develops His Own Aviation Business
“I knew I wasn’t interested in teaching flying and running the school for the rest of my life,” Pigman Jr. said. So he began searching for an alternative aviation business opportunity and found it in Piper Southwest, a small fledgling aircraft sales company on the field. He purchased the business in 1978 and changed the name of the company to Texas Jet.

He retained the flight school for another year, then sold it in 1979 to Aviation Training Enterprises of Chicago, which continues to operate it successfully as American Flyers. It remains one of the most recognized and largest established flight schools in operation.

“Meacham was the perfect place for the operation I had in mind,” Pigman explained. “It was my hometown, and through my conversations with aircraft operators on the field, I learned there was a definite opportunity for a service-oriented delivery of pilot needs and fuel.” Piper Southwest had an option for a lease of land that enabled Pigman to construct a new executive terminal building and additional hangars.

“It took many years to become established and certainly wasn’t an overnight success,” said Pigman Jr. “The 1980s brought a terrible oil slump for Texas and I was stuck with an inventory of airplanes that were difficult to sell in that climate, especially with interest rates at more than 21 percent.”

But it wasn’t all gloomy. In 1981 Pigman bought the assets of Butler Aviation FTW and along with it acquired an option for another lease for eight acres of land near his facility. “I have since built six hangars on the property. That was our biggest expansion period.” Today the buildings Pigman constructed there are community and private hangars for corporate operators and business aviation activity. Fuel sales are 95 percent business aviation.

The risk for Pigman Jr. has paid off. Texas Jet currently operates fifteen-and-a-half hangars and has plans for two more buildings in the near future. Pigman’s operation accounts for more than two-thirds of the fuel sales on the airport, he claimed.

Pigman monitors the current environment with an optimistic eye. “Obviously fuel prices are the one thing on everyone’s mind, but I built the company to compete uniquely on service.” He remains confident and his customers continue to demonstrate their loyalty. “Nowadays chief pilots aren’t coming to me saying things like ‘We’ve got to reduce our fuel costs or the boss is going to sell the airplane!’ Sure, people still want more discounts, but everyone understands the reasons for the rising price of fuel when the price of a barrel is approaching $50.”

Running a ‘Lean’ Operation
Geographically, FTW may very well be one of today’s best transcontinental fuel stops for short- and medium-range aircraft. The field still boasts a number of flight training operations, but business aviation traffic is increasing. Pigman Jr. said, “Before 9/11 you’d have a Citation waiting in line, number 15 for takeoff, behind 14 Cessna 150s, all doing run-ups.” Today, due to the reduction in foreign student flight training, that rarely happens. Although overall traffic is down, the bizjet traffic has increased.

The result for Meacham of the increased traffic is a generous proportion of regional fuel sales. Texas Jet is able to keep fuel prices averaging lower than comparable prices at other airports. When asked for his secret, Pigman said it is nothing more than “a lean operation offering great service through a trained staff resulting in repeat customers. The bottom line is that we are a highly customer-service-focused operation and people like that.”

By lean Pigman means that he operates with a total of 26 employees. He stays away from functions that distract from the service objective. “I don’t get into charters, maintenance, flight schools or avionics. We focus on fuel and hangar space.”

In 2000, Phillips 66 awarded its “Wings of Excellence Award” to Pigman’s Texas Jet staff. It is only the third time Phillips 66 has given the award and the first time to an independent FBO. “I am very proud of that because we compete with megamillion-dollar FBOs that spend their money on their facilities. They get it for facility…we got it for service.” In AIN’s 2004 FBO Survey, pilots gave Texas Jet’s line service the highest rating, with its rating overall above average.

Looking to the future, for most FBOs across the country, the transition to fractional ownership has naturally been cause for concern. Pigman said that over the years he has seen some tenants sell and become fractional owners, but he has still been able to keep his hangars filled and retain the majority of his patrons.

Pigman has one additional enhancement in the works. He is in the planning stages of constructing an automobile parking garage for tenants. “I regularly get customers asking me if they can park their cars in the hangars.” He also regularly gets his insurance company asking him not to let customers do this. The solution is an on-property parking garage that will satisfy the demand.