FBO Profile: Martha's Vineyard FBO Welcome Business Jets

 - November 2, 2006, 5:51 AM

Unless you enjoy a long, hot wait to ride the ferry, an airplane is the best way to get to Martha’s Vineyard in the summer. The resort island 22 miles off the coast of Cape Cod, Mass., has long been known as a summertime haven for the rich, famous and powerful, with more than its share of visitors arriving in business jets. Not many VIPs make the trip during the frigid winter months, but Martha’s Vineyard’s main airport is a textbook example of an operation that can become almost unmanageably busy during its high season.

Officially known as Vineyard Haven Airport (MVY), the facility is managed by Bill Weibrecht. He told AIN that the Boston, New York and Washington, D.C. metro areas are still the prime tourist market for the island known locally as “the Vinyehd.” But he said when former President Clinton vacationed there consistently during his administration, a new influx of celebrities from the entertainment industry began to pass through the gray-shingle terminal regularly.

Cessna 402s operated by Cape Air shuttle into and out of the island’s main airport like taxicabs at Grand Central Terminal, but the airline represents only about a third of the airport’s traffic. The rest is general aviation–ranging from piston singles out for a $100 hamburger to an increasing number of intercontinental jets.

The FBO at MVY is operated by the county–represented by a seven-member airport authority commission. Weibrecht is sensitive to the fact that the FBO is municipally owned and operated. He is no stranger to the controversial nature of that arrangement within the FBO industry. But in this case, Weibrecht said, a private business could not be expected to make the operation profitable due to its highly seasonal nature. He added, “We see as much as 80 percent of our annual traffic in a 75-day window every year. But we still have to continue to operate the airport year round.”

A conventional FBO wouldn’t be able to sustain that business model as a going concern, he said. Assistant airport manager Sean Flynn added, “We have a $118,000 de-icing rig that would never pay for itself, but we consider it a vital service to offer for the few times it’s needed during the winter.”

The airport currently pumps just less than one million gallons of fuel per year, of which about 75 percent is jet-A–all of that to general aviation aircraft. Three quarters of the roughly 250,000 gallons of 100LL go into the wings of Cape Air’s Cessna twins. Weibrecht said the ratio of turbine traffic is increasing year by year.

Though trucking fuel to the island adds some extra overhead compared with mainland FBOs, the airport has nevertheless decided to market fuel aggressively, and many operators are finding they do pretty well by topping the tanks offshore. At the general aviation counter, there are regularly updated placards comparing MVY’s prices with the posted retail fuel prices at several mainland airports.

Traffic Management

Since the island airport is only 60 nm from Boston Logan, 160 from Teterboro, and 350 from Washington Dulles, it seems natural that most of MVY’s traffic is of the in-and-out, drop-and-go variety. True enough, Weibrecht said, but that’s far from the whole story. In fact, the most critical aspect of operating the general aviation terminal involves controlling the flow and placement of aircraft on the ground. With the two large general aviation parking ramps separated by the airline terminal, one misplaced Gulfstream on the taxiway can flummox the whole matrix. Part of the strategy is close cooperation with the tower.

Because of the nature of its market, Martha’s Vineyard may see a Global Express sit on the ramp for three weeks, but the next time the airplane arrives, it will need a quick turn for a trip to Europe. The tower controllers can help. “When you taxied in,” Weibrecht asked, “did the controller ask how long you were staying?” She did, and it’s a synergy that helps make the system work.

Most pilots are accustomed to FBO personnel on the Unicom frequency asking their parking status but are not used to the tower asking. The sooner the airport staff members know what type of aircraft is inbound and how long it’ll be there, the quicker they can begin to arrange the pieces on the chessboard. The overall object is to minimize aircraft towing, and having the controllers involved in the process makes everyone’s day easier. “We have a contract tower here, and they do a terrific job when it gets busy,” said Weibrecht.

Another key to the puzzle of keeping the airport efficient is cross-training and qualifying airport personnel. Since MVY is a Part 139 airport, many of the FBO line personnel also shoulder the responsibility for fire, crash and rescue duties. The MVY airport authority employs 18 airport workers year round, expanding to about 30 during the summer months.

The airport’s revenue pie is divided into three pieces. One-third comes from the airline portion, including concessions from rental car companies and other vendors. Another third comes from the airport business park on the grounds, which consists of some 70 non-aviation businesses that do not require airside access.

The remaining third of all airport revenue comes from the FBO side of the business, mostly through fuel sales. MVY has a 60,000-gallon fuel farm–40,000 gallons of jet-A and 20,000 gallons of 100LL. All in all, the airport is self-sustaining, said Weibrecht, though it can be complicated to balance revenue and expenses when most of the former arrives in bundles over a very short time.

While it’s probably unrealistic to consider lengthening the airport’s main Runway 06-24 (5,500 feet by 100 feet), the airport has no shortage of long-range jets that visit. For example, Weibrecht said international arrivals and departures are increasing annually (he hopes to add customs service by next summer) and there has been an influx of traffic flying direct from the West Coast, thanks to the island’s increased popularity among the entertainment community. Because of the airport’s sea-level altitude and clear approaches, runway length has not been an issue and hasn’t slowed traffic growth. But the parking ramps and terminal facilities are another story, and both are about to undergo a major upgrade.

On the site of the current fire station, the airport authority has plans to build a new 25,000-sq-ft combination general-aviation terminal and fire, crash and rescue facility. Keeping them back-to-back is a nod toward the cross-training issue. The new complex, divided equally in floor space between its two functions, will include a pilot lounge, weather facility and conference rooms in addition to a new passenger lobby to replace the current pass-through aisle that doesn’t really work. On the other side of the wall, the fire trucks would face the runway in the new building, contrasting with the current configuration in which they must depart the building to the south and make an immediate right turn.

A longer-range, seven-year plan would triple the parking area for general aviation, while upgrading the airport’s ramp and taxiway geometry. “The last time the airport updated its configuration was in the 1970s,” said Weibrecht. “The calculations were drawn up based on [the dimensions of] a Fokker F27. We plan to redo the airport geometry based on the footprint of a Gulfstream V.” Flynn said that, although weight is not an issue, Boeing Business Jets are not well suited to use MVY, primarily due to their oversized footprint. One BBJ in the mix would disrupt the complex choreography on the parking ramp, he said.

More immediate plans call for refurbishing the runway and taxiway lights and reassessing the runway/taxiway clearance. More fuel capacity for the fuel farm is also in the works.

Weibrecht said Martha’s Vineyard is a popular destination for fractional providers and that dovetails nicely with his requirements. Fractionals tend to drop and go quickly and their sophisticated dispatch systems are keyed to provide advance information on arrivals and departures. “It’s also an advantage to have a single point of contact for communication on issues such as changing noise abatement procedures and so on,” said Flynn.

With its distinctly New England gray-shingle control tower and its low-key appearance in general, MVY could easily be mistaken for a sleepy, unsophisticated airport. But when the soft summer breezes start to replace the howling northeast winds of early spring, Weibrecht, Flynn, the rest of the airport staff and the tower controllers are ready to fulfill their role as efficient aerial gatekeepers to the island.