Pentastar Aviation looking to expand beyond Detroit

 - October 8, 2007, 11:18 AM

“There’s a Ford in your future,” proclaimed a 1944 Ford Motor Company advertisement. Fifty-seven years later, DaimlerChrysler found a Ford in its future, and an Edsel as well, when the great-grandson of Henry Ford bought DaimlerChrysler Aviation in 2001. Today, Edsel B. Ford II, 47, still chuckles from time to time at the irony of a Ford owning the company that began in 1964 as Chrysler Air Transportation.

Chrysler Air Transportation began as Chrysler’s corporate flight department 60 years ago. When the company expanded the role of the flight department in 1980 to include business jet charter and FBO services, it renamed the division Pentastar Aviation. Then German automaker Daimler-Benz acquired Chrysler the motor company in 1998, and Pentastar Aviation became DaimlerChrysler Aviation. When Edsel Ford bought the company he promptly restored the Pentastar Aviation name.

Ford focuses primarily on Pentastar’s core business of aircraft management. At its Oakland County Airport headquarters near Pontiac, Mich., the company manages 19 airplanes for corporate and private customers. But it is only one of seven Pentastar profit centers.

Pentastar Aviation Charter Services is a joint venture with General Motors Air Transport Service that offers 23 aircraft for charter, from a Global Express and several Gulfstream Vs at the upper end to a Learjet 31A at the smaller end. The charter fleet includes 15 of the aircraft from Pentastar’s managed fleet.
The company also offers a three-level, pre-purchase, block charter program called Charter Elite Air Pass, which is designed to offer an alternative to the typical on-demand charter service. Regional Air Pass, Continental Air Pass and Global Air Pass allow customers a choice of entry-level and small jets, midsize and super-midsize aircraft and large jets, respectively.

More than a Charter Operation
Pentastar is also an FBO operation (an Exxon Avitat fuel provider) at an airport that boasts no fewer than six FBOs. In an effort to maintain an edge, Pentastar recently completed a major FBO renovation that includes a covered street-side entrance, circular drive, a remodeled passenger lounge and a relocated line service and customer assistance desk.

In all, Pentastar has invested more than $4 million in facility improvements since 2001.

Pentastar is one of only a few FBOs in the country that maintain a full-service catering service–FiveStar Gourmet–with its own on-site kitchen and executive chef. Services also include galley restocking, dishwashing and linen cleaning.

Among the more unusual aspects of the Pentastar facility is an 11,000-sq-ft passenger terminal with an attached commercial jetway to serve business aircraft the size of the Airbus ACJ and larger. The terminal accommodates a daily corporate shuttle operated by Lufthansa for DaimlerChrysler. Pentastar also provides ground handling, catering and refueling for the 44-passenger airplane and arranges for customs and immigration services.

Pentastar has some 70 certified maintenance technicians on staff and the hangar includes 10 recently renovated customer offices, each with Internet access and cable television. A total of 150,000 sq ft of hangar space includes two 7.5-ton overhead cranes. In addition to engine and airframe maintenance, Pentastar also provides avionics installation and modification.

Ford said that while Pentastar does not focus on aircraft sales and acquisitions, it does have a working agreement with Avpro of Annapolis, Md., to provide assistance in:
development and execution of sales contracts.
buyer representation for pre-purchase inspections.
guidance and expertise on aircraft taxation issues.
guidance about IRS Code 1031 “like-kind” exchange.
upgrades into more suitable aircraft.
cash-flow analysis of aircraft purchase.

As part of the brokerage service, Pentastar will place an owner’s airplane on its
Part 135 certificate so that it generates income pending sale.

A West Coast Pentastar?
At this point, Ford said, the facilities available at Pentastar are sufficient. They include 212,000 sq ft of hangars, shops and administrative space, 11 acres of reinforced concrete ramp and a hangar large enough to accommodate a Boeing 747.

But Ford makes it clear there will be carefully considered growth.

There are no plans, he said, to go into the interior refurbishment and completion business, which would put Pentastar into competition with Aerodynamics, Inc. (ADI), also an Oakland International resident. At this point, Pentastar has a gentleman’s agreement with ADI that works to the benefit of both companies, despite the fact that ADI is a competitor in the aircraft management and charter business.

Ford and Thomas Seeber, president and COO of Pentastar, are “very interested” in creating an exterior paint shop. There is no paint shop at Oakland International and Ford said the idea is one of his priorities.

Enthusiastic about the prospects of expansion beyond the confines of Oakland International, the duo is considering possible locations in Southern California, Texas or Florida. Ford said he regards most of the Northeast as being already saturated with FBOs, aircraft management operations and charter operators.

Ford and Seeber expressed no interest in going into the fractional ownership market, at least not with fixed-wing business aircraft. On the other hand, said Ford with a smile, NetJets is one of Pentastar’s biggest customers. So in that sense, said Ford, “We are in the business.”

“But we have considered whether there is an opportunity here to create a helicopter fractional ownership program,” said Ford. Pentastar developed such a program on paper about two years ago, and went so far as to bring in a Sikorsky S-76 and a Bell 430 to prove the concept to a number of regional executives. “The response was good, but the problem was getting someone to commit to it.”

Seeber said the concept was structured in typical fractional fashion with regard to allocated hours, but that shareowners would be responsible for deadhead movements. “Our business model would treat each shareholder as an aircraft owner whose airplane Pentastar was managing.”

Ford said he remains convinced there is a big market in the Detroit area, where there are many large corporations with multiple holdings and multiple facilities. “But it’s an automotive town, and everybody seems to think travel by means other than an automobile is somehow disloyal.”

Intrigued by Very Light Jets
Looking further ahead, Ford said he is intrigued by the coming crop of very light jets such as the Adam A700, Eclipse 500, Citation Mustang, Safire Jet and SJ30-2.

“I’ve talked with Vern Raburn [president and CEO of Eclipse Aviation] and I’ve told him that I think with the Eclipse 500 he’s on the verge of becoming the Henry Ford of his era,” said Ford. “He’s going to introduce a jet airplane to a large segment of the population that doesn’t own one. I think that’s exciting, and based on asset cost, cost-per-mile and maintenance requirements, I think this very light jet market is going to explode.”

As for Pentastar’s role in the explosion, “We could be a service center for the Eclipse, or maybe we could manage a fleet of Eclipses,” said Ford.

Meanwhile, Ford said, Pentastar continues to make the customer its primary point of focus. “We have customers for whom we manage an airplane, we have transient and maintenance customers and we have aircrew customers,” he said. “We want to know who our customers are, we need to define their needs, and then we need to meet those needs.”

Ford’s acquisition of Pentastar was not merely a business decision. Ford is an unabashed believer in business aviation, a point he made clear at the NBAA Schedulers & Dispatchers Conference this past winter, where he was a keynote speaker.

He described his trip to the “first flight” ceremonies at Kitty Hawk, N.C., in December last year, noting that most of those attending the event had flown into Raleigh-Durham International Airport and then driven about four-and-a-half hours to view the re-enactment of the Wright Brothers’ flight.

Coming from Detroit, as he was, Ford said travel by airline would have required an overnight stay in the area, and the entire trip would have consumed about 24 hours.

“On one of our Pentastar jets,” said Ford, “I flew directly into Dare County Regional Airport, six miles from Kitty Hawk. I could have breakfast with my family, then catch a comfortable flight [to Kitty Hawk]. [I] was home in Detroit in time for supper.”

“I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing if I didn’t believe in corporate aviation,” he said in an interview with AIN last month. “Clearly, corporate aviation can take business executives to and from their destinations more efficiently than the airlines.”