FBO Profile: Aspen Base Operation/Trajen

 - October 18, 2006, 12:49 PM

For co-owner and general manager of Aspen Base Operation Cliff Runge, it’s been quite a run. He bought into the FBO at Aspen-Pitkin County Airport (aka Sardy Field, ASE) in 1984 and last month closed on a deal to sell the facility to Trajen FBO Network, the growing FBO chain backed by private equity firm CapStreet.

The good news is that executive v-p Fred Mosher plans to stay on and told AIN he has been assured the rest of the staff will also be asked to stay. That’s good news not only for the employees, said Runge, but also for the customers– indeed all of business aviation.

He told AIN, “I am a most blessed man. Blessed to have wonderful employees and an incredible location. I had no intention of leaving, but we were in the process of negotiating a lease extension with the county and it became clear that any new lease would have severe restrictions on resalability. The offer from Trajen was unbelievable, so I’m outta here.” Runge’s immediate plans call for a possible trip to Tahiti with his family–a trip that would have been out of the question with the FBO’s busy season upcoming.

Runge continually paid homage to his employees, with his assessment of the needs of the business centered on its staff. He said, “There are political problems and space problems, but the most critical problem is people. We had to get really lucky to survive. Over 21 years, most of the resources have been devoted to retaining employees. Many of them have been here the whole 21 years; half have been here more than 10. They’re the most special employee group on the planet and my biggest hope is that Trajen realizes how special these people are.”

Runge cited two standout customer service representatives: Trish Porch, who has been with the company since Runge took over in 1984; and Tish Leslie, who, Runge said, quickly assumed the nickname “T.P.” when she joined the company 15 years ago, the better to distinguish herself from Trish.

Runge said, “Everyone in the industry knows those two. Trish has an almost savant-like ability to remember tail numbers, passengers’ names and details.” He said she knows, simply by the way a regular customer’s dog walks across the ramp after deplaning, which of the passenger’s two “significant others” is on board.

Runge said retaining employees in such a high-cost resort area was his biggest business challenge. He said FBOs in Sun Valley and Jackson Hole have the same problem, as does any operation in a high-end seasonal resort area. “How do you pay people enough to live in a region where the average house costs $3.5 million? You just have to do it,” he said.

Seasonal Traffic

Mosher outlined Aspen’s key seasons, saying that the Thanksgiving holiday kicks off the winter season–and Christmas and New Year’s can be “almost crippling.” Traffic winds down to more manageable levels after the New Year holiday, then picks up in February and March during spring break, he said, through April. “In May, this place is a ghost town,” he said.

The summer busy season starts in June, with the July 4th holiday another of the highly challenging short-term periods. “The high traffic levels challenge us, and they challenge the local tower and the entire ATC system,” Mosher said.

As for the winter special traffic management program in effect for the past few years, Mosher is polite, but it’s clear he hasn’t much respect for its effectiveness. He said, “They tweak it every year, but the program this winter is supposed to be more user-friendly. For one thing, it’s not in effect every day, which should make it easier to manage the flow. And aircraft operators seem more willing not to abuse the program.”

Aspen Base Operation does get busy. It once pumped 60,000 gallons in one day, said Mosher, and pumps more than 500,000 gallons some of its busier months. But it has its slow time. Mosher said, “In May, we might not pump 60,000 gallons the whole month.”

There’s precious little transient hangar space, with room enough for a pair of first-come, first-served Gulfstreams, or a half dozen smaller jets, said Mosher. Though the ramp can become maddeningly crowded, only once, he said, did they have to resort to a drop-and-go requirement. “The increase in fractional flying has helped, since they almost always drop and go anyway.