National Jets: Small shop offers service for even the biggest jets

 - December 8, 2006, 10:54 AM

National Jets began life as an air ambulance operator and branched into other aviation services, such as FBO and maintenance offerings, to support that business. Eventually the company realized that those ancillary services should be profit centers themselves, and the company made a name for itself as an MRO operation. Sam Robbin, president and CEO, told AIN, “I think one of our key ingredients is that we really are an aviation company rather than just a single entity such as an FBO or a charter operator.”

National Air Ambulance, the first air ambulance company to be licensed in Florida, has been in operation for 31 years and is one of the largest providers in the U.S. The management program and air ambulance operation have been primary drivers for the company.

“We initially built the FBO operation so we could provide our own fuel,” Robbin said. “When you operate an air ambulance business you can’t rely on anyone else to keep it flying. It became crucial to be able to provide fuel and maintenance 24 hours a day.”

National Jets has held FAA repair station certification since 1980, but the shop goes as far back as the 1960s when the company was flying DC-3/6/7s and Convairs delivering The Wall Street Journal. In the early 1970s the company began acquiring Learjets and expanded the shop operation to accommodate its move into turbine aircraft.

Over the years both the FBO and maintenance operation grew steadily but were always regarded primarily as support for other facets of the business. “It was about 10 years ago that the company decided the FBO and maintenance operations should become their own profit centers,” Robbin explained. “We expanded into servicing additional aircraft types as our FBO tenant customers acquired new aircraft or we took over managing a new aircraft. We simply did the training and tooling necessary to support those aircraft as they appeared.”

National Jets currently has 103 employees at its Fort Lauderdale International Airport facility and operates five divisions, including the FBO, executive charter, air ambulance, aircraft management and airport properties divisions. Two hangar facilities provide more than 22,000 sq ft to house the repair station, avionics shop and parts depot. The maintenance staff includes two IAs and 10 A&Ps who are Learjet, Garrett, FlightSafety, GE and J.E.T trained. There are also two FCC-licensed technicians.

The Family Business
National Jets attributues much of its success to its family-oriented environment. Robbin is evidence of the company’s focus on family; he was appointed president by one of the founders, his father-in-law Thomas Boy. The family connection doesn’t end there. The company’s vice president, who runs the FBO portion of the business, is the son of founder Carl Boy.

Robbin said he obtained degrees in business and law and went into commercial aviation after college. He married Tom’s daughter and went to work for Evergreen International Airlines, where he was director of Latin America and in charge of leasing heavy jets to Latin American airlines for supplemental lift. “We spent a lot of time in South America in those days and I got quite an education in the world of aviation,” he said.

Robbin worked for several different commercial operators, including a stint as director of sales and marketing for an air cargo operator in Miami before his father-in-law asked him to join National Jets.

“About eleven years ago, Tom was president, CEO and chairman of the board and he was starting to plan for retirement, so he asked if I would join the company. I was vice president for nine years and took over as president two years ago,” Robbin said. The family element extends to employees as well. “We’re very proud of our people; they are as good as you can find anywhere,” Robbin said. “Forrest (Twig) Dodd, director of maintenance, has 28 years of experience in heavy corporate aircraft maintenance, and avionics manager Rogers Walkers has 32 years in the corporate aircraft avionics field.”

The maintenance and avionics staff are divided into three groups. One group is assigned solely to Learjet inspections. The company does 300-, 600-, 1,200- and 2,400-hour inspections; 3,000- and 6,000-landing inspections; and 7,200-hour/12-year, 12,000- and 20,000-hour time control inspections.

The second group is assigned to providing “up aircraft” with turnaround line maintenance. Members of this group meet the aircraft as they arrive for maintenance. The third group is assigned to the aircraft management division, oversees BBJ maintenance and provides maintenance for resident hangar clients and FBO customers.

The avionics shop holds a Radio Class 1 rating for communications equipment, Radio Class 2 rating for navigation equipment and Radio Class 3 rating for radar. The repair station works on the Cessna 500 through 560; Bombardier Challenger 600 series; Boeing 737-700/800/900; Gulfstream II/III/IV and G100/200; Westwind Astra; and all Beechcraft and Pipers. But National Jets has built a strong reputation working on Learjets and BBJs.

“We fly 800 to 1,000 hours a year on [each of] our Learjets and we typically have four or five in the fleet,” Robbin said. “We started with the Learjet 24 and 25 and have moved up to the 35. When you spend that much time flying and maintaining an aircraft you acquire a serious understanding of it.”

Six years ago the company was the first to do a 20,000-hour inspection on a Learjet 35A. “No one had ever done it before,” he said. “We did it in-house and it came out on schedule and on budget.”

Robbin is particularly proud of his maintenance group’s management and oversight of the exterior paint and interior cabin completion of its managed BBJ. Company personnel supervised the nine-month process of outfitting the BBJ and ensured that it came out on schedule and met its interior weight and sound level targets.

“The aircraft has been operating around the globe for the past five years and is still maintained and managed by our group,” Robbin said. “We have become experienced on the BBJ and have gone through all the checks. We get a lot of BBJ business from Latin America and Europe now.”

Robbin said National Jets’ business has grown so much in the past few years that about 75 percent of the work the shop does is on its own or managed aircraft. “Two years ago it was about a 60/40 split, but the demand for maintenance from our own operation just keeps growing,” he said. “We plan to expand our capacity to accommodate more outside maintenance by adding a 15,000-sq-ft hangar. We hope that will happen in about a year or so, because although we don’t go out looking for more work, the demand from outside operators just continues to grow.”