Bob Walesch since 1984 has held senior positions with four major FBOs and spearheaded the launches of two of them that are located on medium-size business-aviation airports near warm oceans. He’s now the v-p and general manager of the brand-new Avitat Boca Raton (Fla.), which opened late last year. He told AIN Avitat Boca’s parent company, cineplex developer Muvico Theaters, lured him away from his previous post, Sun Air Jets in Camarillo, Calif.
“My career started in about 1983,” he said. “I had soloed here in Florida when I was 17 years old and went to Florida Institute of Technology to get all my ratings [and a degree in aviation management–Ed]. I thought I’d have a career as a pilot, but I always seemed to find a chair somewhere instead.”
Before going to Camarillo in 1997 to “help bring Sun Air Jets out of the ground,” Walesch did management-level stints at Signature Flight Support (1997 to 2001) and International Aviation (1984 to 1997), both in Palm Beach, Fla. His first time on the West Coast was with Western Aviation Enterprises, Santa Rosa, Calif., from 1979 to 1983.
The political path toward establishing Avitat Boca Raton (BCT) has not been a smooth one. It was in 1997 that the Boca Raton Airport Authority chose to develop the 15-acre land parcel on the airport’s south side. The authority put out a request for proposals and awarded the contract to the sole existing FBO on the field, 45-acre Boca Aviation, founded in 1984. Another bidder challenged the award on the grounds that it constituted a monopoly. The FAA supported the contention and, in 1999, the authority rescinded the development rights and issued a new request for proposals. Not surprisingly, Boca Aviation protested by filing a breach-of contract lawsuit against the airport authority. Though a U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the FAA and the airport authority in November last year, Boca Aviation president Mark Wantshouse told AIN the suit is ongoing. He said the new FBO could be forced to vacate if Boca Aviation prevails and regains its lease on the property (see box on page 69).
Walesch is far from bitter about it. He said, “You can’t blame them for trying to retain their business advantage, but in the long run, having two FBOs on the airport could end up better for everyone. I talk to people every day who are interested in hangar space–and they’re not coming from across the field.” He said he’s getting interest from based tenants at Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale airports. He also said he’s heard of a lot more interest in BCT among transient customers.
As it is, the airport accounts for about five million gallons of aviation fuel per year, said Walesch. He said he hopes that number will increase, and Avitat Boca Raton ultimately aspires to a 50-percent share of the market. “We expect it to take a while,” he said. “The Scottsdale [Ariz.] Air Center is our model. It took them a couple of years to build their market share.”
As with Camarillo, Boca Raton airport has a relatively short single runway (5/23) without benefit of an ILS. Walesch said that’s not a problem, since the weather in Florida is almost always compatible with VFR arrivals. He told AIN, “Even in the worst IMC, radar will get you down to 1,500 feet–and it’s virtually always VFR from there.” The airport also has a GPS Runway 6 approach and VOR/DME and GPS-A approaches. BCT is usually “jammed with Gulfstreams,” according to Walesch.
Avitat Boca Raton did not escape the ravages of the hurricanes that tore through Florida last fall. Walesch said three of the four hangars were damaged and needed to be at least partially reconstructed. “It set us back about two months,” he said. Once repairs are completed, Avitat Boca Raton expects its hangars to be chock-a-block with tenant aircraft–many of them refugees from other airports.
There is one 28,000-sq-ft common storage hangar, two air-conditioned 29,000-sq-ft tenant storage hangars (including a total of 3,000 sq ft of office space) and 18,000 sq ft of additional hangar space for maintenance and maintenance offices. Avitat Boca Raton also has its own fuel farm for 100LL and jet-A, supplied, of course, by ExxonMobil Aviation.
Inside the 17,000-sq-ft terminal building, passengers can wait for their flights in the expansive lobby or conduct meetings in private conference rooms with teleconference capability. Gourmet catering is available. There is also wireless Internet access throughout the facility.
Walesch described Avitat Boca Raton as “designed by pilots, for pilots.” There are crew cars (on request), private workstations, satellite weather and flight planning, a modern pilot center, showers, plasma television, refreshment center, overstuffed reclining chairs and snooze rooms. With Muvico Theaters for a parent company, Avitat Boca Raton naturally provides passes to an adjacent theater and entertainment center as well as providing other concierge services, hotel reservations and limo/rental car availability.
Walesch specified that one of his firmest commitments was that he did not want to be operating a “training camp” for FBO employees. As it turned out, he didn’t have to look very far for experienced employees. “When he heard I was coming back to Florida–and why– Bill Moran came knocking. He was my operations manager at Palm Beach and has years of excellent experience.” Others followed. Rhonda Hughes was named customer relations manager in August last year. She has 10 years’ experience in business aviation, most recently with credit-card provider Multi Service. She also has five years of experience as a corporate flight department scheduler for a major corporation based in Kansas City.
Walesch said, “All of our employees, about 25 in total, have at least four or five years’ experience. It gives me a good feeling, especially on the ramp.” (Fifteen of Avitat Boca Raton’s employees are line techs.)
And it could be that he will be spreading the cheer even further. “We are in the acquisition mode, looking for new FBOs,” he said. Though he wouldn’t get specific, Walesch said he had been back out to the West Coast for a look-see at one operation. “We’d be interested in good-size operations–at least two million gallons. I tend to prefer the leisure destinations as opposed to, say, Teterboro or Pittsburgh.”
He said, “You know, I sure would love a place in Montana.”
Counterpoint: Boca Aviation’s View
Boca Aviation feels the Boca Raton Airport Authority (BRAA) has been unfair in its rulings on the parcel of land now occupied by Avitat Boca Raton. Boca Aviation president Mark Wantshouse explained his company’s position to AIN, going back to the BRAA’s original decision to develop the 15 acres in question back in 1997.
“We got the contract,” he said. “The airport authority had commissioned a study on how best to use that 15-acre site, and the BRAA’s own consultant group recommended adding hangar, maintenance and ramp space, but did not recommend that a second FBO was needed.”
Wantshouse said Boca Aviation hired consultants and engineering contractors to begin the process of building more hangars and adding ramp space on the 15-acre parcel. Then, he said, there were changes at the BRAA, and one of the original bidders protested the award of the lease to Boca Aviation. That’s when the contract was rescinded and the request for proposal process restarted, with Boca Aviation frozen from the bid process based on its status as the incumbent FBO, so there would not be a monopoly.
Boca Aviation filed a breach-of-contract lawsuit and still has aspirations of prevailing–despite the fact that Avitat Boca Raton is now open and Florida state court, U.S. District Court and, on November 18, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., have all ruled against Boca Aviation. Wantshouse said the configuration of the Avitat Boca Raton facility constitutes only half the added hangar space that Boca Aviation would have built. Avitat Boca Raton v-p Robert Walesch answered that the terms of his company’s lease also include a later phase in which it will build a multi-story 110-sq-ft office building on the leasehold with a guaranteed percentage of the office space going to aviation-related businesses.