Touching Bases FBO profile: FBO provides a fuel stop for southbound U.S. pilots

 - November 5, 2007, 10:35 AM

Pilots looking for an alternative for clearing U.S. Customs on the way back from southern destinations will find a useful one at Rafael Hérnandez Inter-national Airport in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico. Aguadilla is located on the northwest corner of Puerto Rico’s Porta del Sol coast, and Rafael Hérnandez is a convenient and low-cost fuel stop for trips to and from the Caribbean and Latin America.

Early last month jet-A was $3 a gallon at FBO Copeca Jet Center, including all taxes. Copeca’s trucks can deliver fuel to aircraft parked on the customs ramp, according to Celso López, president and CEO. U.S. Customs clearance is much easier, too, because there is no airline traffic at Rafael Hérnandez so pilots and passengers don’t have to stand in line with huge numbers of passengers to clear customs as they do at Puerto Rico’s main airport in San Juan. Pilots who provided feedback to NBAA’s international operations Web site ex-pressed disappointment with the hassle of clearing customs at San Juan’s Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport and praised the simpler process available at Rafael Hérnandez.

At Rafael Hérnandez the only significant traffic is cargo carriers, which frequent the airport in the early evening. Copeca Jet Center can turn around a business jet in about an hour, according to López, including customs, immigration and refueling. “Once people come here and do customs, they are enchanted.”

López, a former U.S. Army Reserves petroleum officer, was in the fuel business at Rafael Hérnandez for many years and at first didn’t see the opportunity business-jet traffic offered. After attending the NBAA Convention in Dallas in 1997, López quickly learned that there was more to aviation than airlines. “I realized that to sell more fuel, I had to go into the FBO business,” he said. “It’s a lot more interesting and glamorous than the fuel business. To sell the fuel, I could not just wait for people to land here and try to sell to them, I had to drum up business.”

Three years ago López and his partners leased at Rafael Hérnandez a hangar that was about to be demolished and fixed it up. “Business has slowly but surely been increasing,” he said. A year ago, one to two business jets a month used the airport; now it gets an average of three to four jets a week. “I would like to increase that to three or four per day,” he said. “I’m trying to develop this airport and FBO as a tech stop market between Latin America and the U.S.” On July 7, a contract FAA tower opened at Rafael Hérnandez Airport. Runway 8/26 is 11,702 feet long and the airport is served by GPS and VOR approaches.

Copeca Jet Center has a 16,000-sq-ft hangar that can accommodate jets up to the size of the Gulfstream G200 and a 36,000-sq-ft ramp. The FBO also operates the airport’s general aviation terminal. Copeca’s fuel farm holds 55,000 gallons of jet-A and 12,000 gallons of avgas.

Handling fees range from $100 to $400, depending on the size of the airplane and number of passengers, but the FBO charges the fee only if customers need assistance clearing customs on the way back to the U.S. mainland. For an ordinary outbound fuel stop, there are no handling fees, although parking fees are assessed for overnights. Copeca Jet Center’s 15 employees operate the FBO from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. and are available on-call at other times. Maintenance is provided by Copeca tenant Aero Mech, which isn’t a repair station but serves airline and general aviation customers using A&P technicians.

Pilots who can spend some time in Aguadilla will find that the Porta Del Sol offers memorable vacation experiences. Within walking distance of Copeca Jet Center is the former Ramey AFB golf course, now called Punta Borinquen Golf Course, which features cliff-side fairways and greens. Some of the best surfing spots–including Gas Chamber, Table Top and Survivor–are a five-minute drive away.