FBO Profile: Million Air gets a makeover in asheville

 - February 7, 2007, 9:37 AM

For general manager Bob Cruey, the recent renovation at Million Air Asheville (N.C.) was finished just in time. He told AIN, “We opened the refurbished terminal building on October 1. That’s our busiest month for visitors–with the fall colors in full bloom.”

Asheville (AVL) is certainly not the most button-down facility among the Million Air network, but it does pump approximately two million gallons of jet-A per year, making it a significant contributor to the Million Air chain of FBOs. Most traffic to and from AVL involves either part-time residents or tourists visiting the area’s summer camps, hiking trails and golf courses. Million Air is the sole FBO on the field, a fact that did not dissuade owner Ken Allison from investing in a refurbishment project.

Cruey said, “The place had not been upgraded since it was built.” He wasn’t exactly sure when that was, but it was clearly time for a change. And Million Air did its homework on what customers–pilots and passengers–want in an FBO. Cruey said, “The lobby was too small, so we doubled the size of it to about 1,000 square feet, added a fireplace and opened up the view to the airport and the mountains beyond.”
There are now three business work stations and wireless Internet access throughout the building. Million Air relocated the pilots’ lounge upstairs for a great view of the ramp and the mountains. Plans for the crew area also include closed circuit television so the pilots can watch the streetside front door for their passengers. An expanded galley with three comfortable tables and a beverage station gives waiting crews a place to relax and grab a bite to eat.

Million Air Asheville is not lacking for ramp or hangar space. With five separate ramps along the east side of the 8,000-foot single Runway 16/34, the FBO can accommodate aircraft the size of a Boeing 757. Million Air currently has some 75,000 sq ft of hangar space under roof and two rows of T hangars for its substantial population of owner-flown piston aircraft. A new 25,000-sq-ft hangar and a third row of T hangars are under construction, with a June completion date expected.

Million Air Asheville is one of the cases where a general aviation FBO coexists comfortably and profitably with regional airline service. Some 30 percent of fuel sales go into the tanks of regional jets at AVL, with commercial flights up 19 percent this year compared with last year. Cruey estimates an average of about a dozen flights in and out per day, with the numbers increasing as Asheville’s population of second-home owners and retirees continues to grow. “There’s no doubt,” he said, “the average age of the residents and most of our FBO customers around here is…well…it’s up there.”

Cruey heads a staff of 18 at AVL, including two A&P technicians. With a total of 136 based tenants, most are piston aircraft, but the two dozen or so turbine tenants buy a lot of fuel–especially the Lockheed JetStar owned by a local resident. Cruey said, “He also owns a Learjet that he uses for his longer trips, but we wish he’d use the JetStar for those.” Million Air has three 5,000-gallon jet-A trucks and two avgas trucks, all leased from fuel supplier Air BP.

Cruey said about 20 percent of his T hangars are empty in the winter when their tenants fly south to Florida to escape the weather. But even the winter is relatively mild in Asheville, said Cruey, a Cincinnati native who has worked for Allison for 11 years, but came to Asheville about a year ago. “We’re more likely to get ice than snow here,” he said. “But a day can start out below freezing and the temperature can reach 55 degrees [F] by noon.” He also said that 70-degree days in mid-January are not uncommon. Most area golf courses–and he said there are numerous excellent facilities–remain open and active year round.

Still, Million Air keeps a deicer in service from November to March. Cruey said he has had little trouble getting deicing fluid, despite warnings from manufacturers of shortages. “We typically use a heated 60-40 mix of Type 1 fluid and water. That’s good down to about minus 47 degrees F.”

Cruey has nothing but glowing praise for Allison, who also owns four other Million Air facilities in Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio; Nashville, Tenn.; and New Orleans. Cruey said Allison started out as a line tech and worked his way up. “He believes in promoting from within, and most general managers started out on the line. I did. I think the world of Ken Allison as an owner. If he left the business tomorrow and went into the used car business, I’d be selling cars.”

Cruey also has praise for Million Air Interlink, the Houston-based company that owns the rights to franchise the Million Air brand. Roger Woolsey, owner of Million Air Houston, bought Million Air Interlink a few years ago and Cruey likes what he’s done with it. He said, “Training programs have really taken on a new meaning–whether it’s for line technicians, customer service reps or management. I had bad experiences with training seminars, but the “What Is Your Next Destination” program had some really enlightening material I could use in my job every day. The folks came back from those one-day seminars really pumped up.” Cruey also credits Million Air Interlink with increasing the buying clout of all 30 independently owned Million Air franchises when it comes to consumable products, such as Prist anti-ice fuel additive.