Resort FBO is a worthy destination in itself

 - October 4, 2007, 6:37 AM

It helps to have a clear mission in business, and Yellowstone Jetcenter, at Gallatin Field (BZN) in Bozeman, Mont., enjoys just such a focus. Jim Dolan, one of the financial driving forces behind the elite Yellowstone Club real-estate project, acquired the FBO in 2000 as a gateway to the region. His plan for promoting the Yellowstone Club included easy access by business jet, and the FBO was an integral piece of the puzzle.

Kent Foster, general manager at Yellowstone Jetcenter, describes the Yellowstone Club as a members-only family resort that features skiing in winter and summer sports such as fishing, hiking, horseback riding. “Imagine a summer camp for the whole family,” he told AIN. Though club members rank in the wealthier social strata, the emphasis at Yellowstone Club is on rock climbing, not social climbing. Foster said, “There’s even a sign at the entryway that reads, ‘Check your ego at the door,’” he said. At last count, Foster said, the club had more than 145 member families, with an ultimate cap set at 864. The net result for the airport business has been a significant increase in jet operations, with more growth on the horizon.

“We’ve doubled our fuel sales over last year,” said Foster, “now up to about 50,000 gallons per month. That’s not much compared with, say, Signature in San Francisco, where I used to work, but it’s big for out here and getting bigger.”

The original plan for Yellowstone included a completions and refurbishment shop, which was established in 2000. But business didn’t pan out after four aircraft were completed. Dolan then invested in using the building originally intended for the refurb shop as a new showcase FBO. It opened in September 2002, and Foster said it leads to some interesting reactions from visitors.

“From the outside, it looks like most any other metal building. But the inside, well, most people walk inside the door and say, ‘Wow!’” Foster contrasted the design goals of the Yellowstone Jetcenter with those of most other FBOs built in the past decade. “They can be beautiful, but cold and sterile,” he said. Yellowstone was designed to be inviting and comfortable, “The kind of place you wouldn’t mind spending the day. We wanted the FBO to reflect the environment of the Yellowstone Club and Montana,” he said.

Foster has some good perspective on the FBO business. Right after a stint in the Navy, he started as a lineman at International Aviation (now Mercury) in Newport News, Va. From there, he gravitated back to his home state, Texas, to work for AMR Combs and then on to San Francisco, where the Combs FBO was ceded to Signature along with the rest of the chain in a deal struck in 1999. He loves the atmosphere and environment in Bozeman, said to be the fastest-growing city in Montana.

By East or West Coast standards, that might not seem so impressive. But for skiing enthusiasts who are frustrated with the air traffic snarls at resort areas such as Aspen, Vail and Jackson Hole, a place like Bozeman can start to look that much more attractive. Foster said, “In some of those places with ATC slot systems in effect, you get frustrated aircraft owners and fractional-share owners wondering out loud, ‘Why do I own this $3.5 million home if I can’t fly there when I want to?’”

With its reputation for fishing and other outdoor sports, Bozeman is also a summer destination as well as a skiing mecca. Foster said the summer busy season starts in May or June and keeps up until September. “Then there’s a bit of a break until early December or so when ski season takes hold,” he said. The snow can last well into April, when a second lull occurs until the June fly-fishing rush begins after the muddy spring runoff is over and the streams clear.

Foster said ATC access to BZN is far less complex than at other mountain-resort airports. With a field elevation of 4,471 feet, the airport has a 9,000-foot primary runway with ILS and GPS approaches. There is also a 2,650-foot crossing runway for the airport’s substantial piston traffic. Foster said the airport is unusual in that it has “no bonds and no bills. It’s all paid for.” When the FAA said last year that it didn’t have the budget to add radar coverage at BZN, the airport board took it upon itself to fund the development. Foster said, “I can’t give you a timetable on when that will happen, but we’re working with the FAA on it now.”

Yellowstone offers a total of 65,750 sq ft of heated hangar storage area, with one 35,000-sq-ft hangar large enough for a pair of Boeing Business Jets. One of the other two storage hangars is directly attached to the terminal building. Yellowstone currently counts a Falcon 900, Falcon 2000 and Challenger among its based aircraft. Until recently, Foster said, there was a Bombardier Global Express based there. The Yellowstone Club operates a Gulfstream III as a sort of shuttle, bringing in club members from both coasts and points in between. It makes for an attractive supplement to the real-estate value of the houses and condominiums at the club.
In line with its role as a ski destination, Yellowstone Jetcenter also operates a heated de-icing truck and fields a fleet of new refueling bowsers. Foster said, “When I came on board in September 2002, that was one of my missions–to replace the 1970s-vintage fleet of refuelers with more modern equipment.”

Built to be an inviting gateway to a family-friendly get-away, Yellowstone Jetcenter appears to have met its goals. As the real-estate project fleshes out over time, the aviation side of the equation can only continue to increase in value.