Storms hammer FBOs as most aircraft escape

 - October 4, 2007, 6:23 AM

Apparently most business aircraft operators had the wherewithal and the good sense to clear out of the way in the face of the Southeastern hurricane hat trick in August
and September. Hurricanes Charley, Frances and, to a certain extent, Ivan (see sidebar) devastated Florida and exacted a heavy toll on airports and FBOs’ buildings and infrastructure. Some early estimates of aviation-related damages have ranged as high as $150 million, but that figure is likely to be revised downward. For one thing, almost all large turbine aircraft–and many piston airplanes–evacuated the region long before the wind began to blow and the rain began to fall.

According to United States Aviation Underwriters v-p Chris O’Gwen, the losses and damage to aircraft were limited to light pistons. “Our company certainly didn’t have any losses among turbine operators,” O’Gwen told AIN, “and I think I would have heard about any other companies’ losses in that category.”

But property damage was another story. Ranger Jet Center at Kissimmee Airport south of Orlando lost a pair of brand new hangars full of airplanes. Twenty-three aircraft were damaged or destroyed. Spokeswoman Judy Bennett pegged the company’s losses at $2.5 million–$1 million in building damage–but she was optimistic. Late last month she told AIN, “We’ve already cleared the debris and we’ll begin rebuilding in three weeks. The steel has already been ordered from New Orleans and as long as the roads are clear enough for them to get through, we’ll be ready to start.” Ranger Jet Center sister company Ranger Building Services has extended its hand to any FBO operator that needs help rebuilding.

Ed Zwirn, chief operating officer of Jet Center Group (now the SheltAir chain of FBOs), said two of his FBOs–those at Orlando Executive and Daytona Beach International Airports–had suffered a combined $6 million in damages, and heavy rain in Jacksonville had delayed construction of the new SheltAir facility there
by several weeks. As with all other FBOs contacted by AIN, SheltAir sustained little or no damage to its terminal buildings and fueling infrastructure, so it is back to business as usual as far as transient line services are concerned. It’s the hangar tenants who have been, literally, put out by the destruction.

Showalter Flying Service, also at Orlando Executive Airport, was hit hard as well, suffering damage to three of its four buildings, all storage hangars. Company president Kim Showalter told AIN late last month that they were lucky.

She said, “It may seem odd to say, but we’re very fortunate. Damage estimates have come down somewhat to about $4 million [from some early reports of $6 million], but most of all, our terminal building was unaffected and we’re now back in full operation. A transient pilot pulling up to our facility wouldn’t really be able to see any of our damage at all. But we did lose 60 T hangars and more than 40 airplanes. We’ll find out in a few days what was covered by insurance and what wasn’t, what can be repaired and what must be replaced.

“We have been told that our huge sign–which we were in the process of moving–was not covered. It will cost us $15,000 to $18,000 to replace it. Who thinks to insure a sign?”

Phil Botana, president of new FBO Tampa International Jet Center (TIJC) at Tampa International Airport (TPA), feels he dodged a bullet. His ground-up facility was under construction at the time the storms hit and the walls on the buildings were only partially finished. He told AIN, “They’re designed to withstand 200-mile- per-hour winds when they’re completed, but half finished? I really expected to find a mess out here after Frances, but we had only minimal damage.” TIJC, the second FBO on the airport, opened on schedule this month and is still planning to hold a grand opening sometime next month.

For those worried about a spike in insurance premiums related to the storms, O’Gwen pointed out that most of the heavy damage claims will fall on property insurers rather than aviation insurance companies. “There shouldn’t be a negative effect from this on our industry,” he said.

Showalter added that among the complications involved in the rebuilding effort is the question of what can be repaired and what must be replaced–and the implications
of the difference. She said, “Forty-year-old T hangars that used to rent for $250 a month would need to be brought up to current building code if they are to be replaced. That means they would now have to rent for $400 to $450 per month. Some of our customers wouldn’t be able to make that transition.”

She also said that, with the cash-strapped year facing Showalter Flying Service, they may have to make some tough decisions. “This is hard to say out loud, but we have some long-time hangar tenants who fly only every six or eight weeks–or even less. It may be that we’ll have to give preference to those customers who can generate more revenue [through fuel sales]. That’s hard, but we also have 45 employees to think about. How do you tell someone who’s been your customer for 30 years that it’s not about them?” She said, in some cases, the answer would be to offer tiedown space instead of a hangar, but there are bound to be some uncomfortable situations.
Showalter also said that of the 50 to 60 aircraft displaced by the hangar destruction, many will find shelter somewhere else until Showalter can rebuild. She said, “Some of those may get comfortable where they are. We used to have a waiting list for tenants, but we hope we can fill the new buildings when they get built.”