At most FBOs, as the snow falls, so does traffic. But not at Vail Valley Jet Center in the heart of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains: the falling powder is the siren’s song for legions of skiers and snowboarders.
“We’re at our best when the weather is at its absolute worst, and our business is just gangbusters,” said company president and CEO Paul Gordon. While Vail has developed a year-round clientele with warm-weather attractions such as golf, winter is when the FBO shifts into high gear. “Most people come here to ski, and we do about 80 percent of our business in four or five months of the year,” Gordon told AIN. “It’s really a crazy business model, but it’s the one we’ve got; we love skiing and we love the ski season.”
Understanding that, it’s easy to predict the FBO’s busiest time. “The holidays are like our Super Bowl. For the two weeks around Christmas and New Year’s it seems everybody has to be in Vail,” said Gordon, who recalled a peak of 174 business jets on the ramp during one such period. To handle that much traffic, the staff at the FBO, the lone provider on the field, doubles seasonally to about 70 employees.
The facility occupies 24 acres and offers 158,000 sq ft of heated hangars that can accommodate 767-size aircraft and is home to approximately 30 business aircraft, from a G550 to several PC-12s.
The 10,000-sq-ft terminal is open from 6 a.m. until 9 p.m., with call-out service available, and features a passenger lounge with espresso bar, on-site car rental, business center, a pair of a/v-equipped conference rooms (one seats 20 and the other seats six) and concierge service. During holidays and weekends, a local concert musician entertains guests on the grand piano in the lobby. The facility has indoor valet parking for 60 vehicles and outdoor spaces for another 200, and the FBO staff tends to customer cars in the off season with oil changes, an on-site carwash and even trips to the local dealers for maintenance.
Crews are well provided for as well, with a lounge, a pair of theater rooms, a snooze room, exercise room, full kitchen, an Audi and Cadillac Escalade crew vehicles. The FBO also provides them discount lift tickets for the Vail resort in the winter and golf passes in the summer.
Private aviation catering at the airport is served by Jetstream Seasonings, a locally owned business that has an on-site kitchen in the FBO and operates a café in its terminal.
In addition to all the general aviation traffic at the airport, the Avfuel-branded dealer handles fueling for the airlines and military there, and saw 37,811 aircraft operations last year. The FBO’s tank farm has capacity for 200,000 gallons of jet fuel and 10,000 gallons of avgas–enough to sustain operations when the occasional blizzard chokes off the mountain passes. The FBO has ten 5,000-gallon jet refuelers, half of which sit idle for half the year, according to Gordon. Commercial traffic at the airport–which has a 9,000-foot runway–ranges from a handful of flights a day to more than 24 airline arrivals on weekend days during the high season.
The FBO also has a maintenance department, which supports the based aircraft and provides AOG service for transient aircraft and the airlines.
With all the winter activity, de-icing is a necessary service, and Vail Valley Jet Center offers both type I and type IV at a dedicated collection area built into the ramp, allowing fluids to be either recycled or disposed of properly.
The facility has been operating at Eagle County Airport in its current form since 1988. It was formerly owned by the proprietor of the Vail Resort, which also ran one of the few privately operated commercial terminals in the country at Eagle County. The terminal was purchased and renamed in 1998 by its current ownership, who sold the commercial handling business to the county in 2001.
The FBO offers in-house U.S. Customs and Immigration service and has handled international business jet arrivals since 2003. Last year alone it saw 439 foreign arrivals, and the company, along with the county and Vail Resorts, is pushing for the establishment of a commercial Customs and Border Protection international arrivals facility at the airport as well. Next February, Vail Beaver Creek Resort will host the World Alpine Ski Championships, and Gordon expects the amount of international traffic there to rise significantly.
Despite operating at a high capacity in often harsh conditions, the company still puts customer service as one of its major priorities, with a greeter meeting every arrival. “It’s challenging for us. We get most of our business in really short windows of time so we’ve got to be on our A-game then,” Gordon said, citing a long list of sports, entertainment and political celebrities who have passed through his FBO’s doors. “We have high-end clientele who have high needs, and we just go above and beyond to meet them however, wherever and whenever we can.”