FBO Profile: Orion Flight Services

 - October 2, 2006, 1:48 PM

And what’s it like when close to 10,000 airplanes descend on your airport? Toby Kamark and Jeff Wanke, co-owners of Orion Flight Services (CEO and president, respectively) have a unique perspective on the world’s largest aviation event. For 51 weeks of the year, their business consists of a charter operation, flight school and modestly sized FBO and fuel service on what Kamark describes as a “medium- size general aviation airport.” But every year during the week of the Experimental Aircraft Association’s AirVenture event, it looks as if a swarm of hornets is attacking the airport.

FBO Competition on the Airport

Orion is one of two FBOs on the field. The other, Basler Flight Service, has been in place for decades. Orion is the new kid on the block, in business at OSH since 2002, and the transition from a one-FBO field to two has not been entirely good-natured, said Kamark.

Oshkosh is Orion’s second location. Kamark and Wanke started in 1997 at Sturgeon Bay Airport on Wisconsin’s scenic Door County peninsula, sometimes described as the Cape Cod of the Midwest. Kamark told AIN that in 2000, a flight school at Wittman Field wanted to sell and he and Wanke saw an opportunity–primarily for a charter provider. Kamark said, “We believed the airport was under-serviced with one FBO, and we felt there was opportunity on the charter side. The Fox Valley is a thriving business community, and we felt the airport here in Oshkosh is well placed to serve the need for charter.”

Kamark said the city was glad to have a second FBO on the field, but the reception from Basler was cool, to say the least. The controversy found its way to the courts but has stabilized, he said, and the two businesses are coexisting.

EAA’s Main Event

Kamark said overall fuel volume at the airport has increased from 525,000 gallons before Orion arrived to 798,000 gallons last year, and probably more than 1 million gallons this year. He said Orion garnered a 27.5-percent market share in fuel during the EAA event its first year, 49 percent last year and projected a 68-percent market share this year. At the midpoint in AirVenture 2005, the company had more than doubled its volume compared with the same time last year.

Kamark is extremely proud to be serving the EAA event, though with typical Midwestern understatement he admits, “It’s a lot of work.” It starts about three months before the show. Orion arranges to bring on between 55 and 60 additional staff members to handle the flow. Each one undergoes a two-day training program based on the NATA Safety First format. “They might be past employees or family members– people we know.”

Everyone at Orion can count on 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. work days starting the Friday before the show begins through the following Monday. Then it’s over for another year.

Bringing New Business to Wittman Field

Orion works from a 3,500-sq-ft terminal that was part of the original airline terminal at OSH. There is about 13,000 sq ft of hangar space available and 50,000 sq ft of ramp. Kamark and Wanke invested about $75,000 in upgrading the terminal. In all, Orion has about $1 million invested in the business, a heady figure that causes Kamark to whistle to himself and fan his brow.

The charter operation fields a Baron 58, a Navajo Chieftain and a Citation S/II. Orion is looking to add aircraft to its certificate and currently is talking with four companies about adding aircraft. Revenues break down to about 45 percent charter, 35 percent fuel and the rest from the flight school and ground support services. Orion’s revenues are split about evenly between the Oshkosh and Sturgeon Bay operations.

Part of Orion’s business plan is to help attract other aviation businesses– manufacturers, service providers and maintenance centers–to Wittman Field. Regular customers include operators of medium to large business jets, said Kamark. “The Fox Valley really is a booming business sector in the state,” he said, “and Oshkosh’s destiny should be to become a general aviation hub. For the airlines, Appleton and Green Bay are too close.”

As far as the FBO portion of the business, Kamark said his business plan is to be constantly on the look-out for how other operations do it and import their best ideas to Orion. He said, “We’re impressed with Jet Aviation at Teterboro, New Jersey, for example. They really know how to handle a crowd and do it right. That’s what we want to do: do it right. Our internal motto is to try to exceed our customers’ expectations.”