FBO Profile: Piedmont Hawthorne is a popular bizav destination

 - October 16, 2006, 12:21 PM

According to aviation professionals responding to this year’s AIN FBO survey, Piedmont Hawthorne at Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD) is the most popular gathering place for business aviation. The FBO received 420 evaluations, 81 more (about 24 percent) than its nearest competitor, Las Vegas Executive Air Terminal at McCarran International Airport.

Still, the number of respondents pales in comparison to those who used to rate Signature Flight Support at (now) Ronald Reagan Washington National (DCA). It wasn’t unusual to see twice as many evaluations for that facility before 9/11, after which the airport was closed to general aviation for security reasons.

The numbers came as no surprise to Piedmont Hawthorne Dulles general manager Jim McNeill, who cites crowded ramp space as his number-one operational concern. “Our hangars are full and our ramps are fuller,” he told AIN. With a leasehold of about 30 acres on the busy airport and five acres of ramp, it might appear on paper that there ought to be plenty of elbowroom. Not so, said McNeill. His lament? “If we could get more than 10 or 15 minutes’ lead time on arrivals, we could do a much better job accommodating incoming aircraft.”

In fact, a day’s notice from most visitors would go a long way toward easing the congestion on the ground at IAD. McNeill said, on a typical day, he may have information on 30 or 35 incoming aircraft–and as many as 90 more will show up unannounced. “It’s not that we don’t want their business,” he said. “It’s just that I can be sure to have the needed staff on board if I know ahead of time that the traffic will be there.”

In quality, Piedmont Hawthorne IAD ranked in the top half of all FBOs rated by respondents to the AIN survey, with better-than-average evaluations in all four categories: service; passenger amenities; pilot amenities; and facilities.
The FBO has the usual amenities associated with a corporate-level operation. They include 24-hour line and counter service; crew cars; rental cars; courtesy shuttle to airline terminals and hotels; catering and hotel/limo reservations; transient hangar space; flight planning area; pilots’ lounge; snooze room; AOG maintenance; aircraft detailing; passenger lobby; and executive conference rooms. There are three 18,000-sq-ft storage hangars filled with tenant aircraft and three private corporate hangars occupied by Fortune 100 companies on the leasehold.

The Dulles operation is one of the crown jewels in Piedmont Hawthorne’s growing diadem of FBOs. Backed by private equity firm Carlyle Group, the chain now numbers 35 FBOs in North America. Also, Carlyle Group’s aviation division now controls 10 aerospace companies totaling $8.6 billion in sales. Six of the companies connect directly with business aviation, including recently acquired Garrett Aviation Services (nine locations) and completions specialist Associated Air Center, Dallas. Carlyle hopes the business synergies among its holdings will yield increased customer loyalty from one segment to the next.

Piedmont Hawthorne is also in the airport management business. It holds a contract with the state of Rhode Island to operate five of the state’s airports, with the only exception being T.F. Greene International in the state capital, Providence. The managed airports are Quonset State; Newport; Westerly; North Central; and Block Island, the resort destination off the southern coast.

An Alternative to Reagan National

Located 30 minutes from downtown Washington, D.C., Dulles has clearly replaced DCA as the airport of choice for those whose business brings them to the nation’s capital. McNeill is prepared for changes should DCA reopen to general aviation, but he said several flight department heads have told him they used to fly to the closer airport, but prefer IAD. “It’s a matter of comfort versus convenience,” he told AIN. “National is a tough approach over the river, like a carrier landing.”

Assistant general manager Jamie Wilson added that business has moved westward toward the airport, making IAD more convenient for many corporate flight departments that used to fly to DCA. “Even without the effects of 9/11, we would be seeing an increase in traffic,” he said.

Though airline movements are obviously a priority at the busy hub airport, the separate Runway 12/30 (a substantial 10,501 feet long) is well known as a general aviation relief valve–especially for departures. Piedmont Hawthorne’s location off the main taxiway just east of the departure end of Runway 1 Left permits a relatively uncomplicated trip down Taxiway Yankee to the departure end of Runway 30, compared with customers from competitor Signature Flight Support, who must negotiate the convoluted cross-taxiways adjacent to the airline terminal complex. Wilson calls it the mixing bowl, and it can be congested and confusing for those who are not familiar.

Conversely, however, traffic arriving on Runway 1 Right has easy access to Signature off the taxiway at the departure end of that runway. And since southerly departures often use Runway 19 Left, Signature has the access advantage when the winds are out of the south.

McNeill and Wilson praise the airport authority for its cooperation in directing the flow of ground traffic to and from the ramp, and both say they know that Signature shares their appreciation on that score. But better heads-up notice from operators would help a lot. McNeill closed by saying, “We understand that we’re a business destination, not a vacation destination. And the needs of business often involve a change in plans. Our goal is to ensure we have the correct level of staffing to do the job.”