Located approximately 25 nm northwest of downtown Detroit and 12 sm from DaimlerChrysler’s North American headquarters, Oakland County International Airport (PTK), aka Pontiac, has become to Detroit what Scottsdale is to Phoenix–the premier corporate aviation airport in the area. With three runways, the longest at 6,200 feet, Pontiac can accommodate aircraft up to the size of Boeing 757s.
Eight FBOs serve the airport, and all of them sell jet fuel, which creates fierce competition and artificially low prices. Although the airport averages 760 operations per day–about 200 more than either Scottsdale, Ariz., with its three FBOs, or Teterboro, N.J., with its five FBOs–Pontiac personnel say the traffic level is too low to support all of the FBOs the county allows.
“There are a number of FBOs on the field that struggle financially, and that leads to a lot of fuel discounting,” said Tom Seeber, president and COO of Pentastar Aviation, arguably the largest FBO at Pontiac. Pentastar began its life as the corporate flight department of automotive giant Chrysler (now DaimlerChrysler) and Edsel Ford II purchased it in 2001. “The frustrating part is that [when] the county allows as many FBOs as want to come onto the field, the only way these FBOs can stay in business is to discount fuel without investing money in their facilities or people.”
The contrast between FBOs at Pontiac is nearly as pronounced as the contrast between downtown Detroit and Grosse Point. At one end of the spectrum are the FBOs for which selling fuel and servicing passengers is basically a side business to their other aviation operations. Three Pontiac FBOs– Royal Air Freight, Aviation Station and Taubman Air Terminals–all fit into this category and, as such, have minimal facilities for pilots and passengers.
At the other end of the spectrum are the FBOs for which servicing corporate aircraft is the number-one priority, the most prominent of which is Pentastar Aviation. It was established in 1979 as an aircraft charter subsidiary after Chrysler officially disbanded its corporate flight department at Willow Run Airport. Pentastar had been preparing to support the German automaker’s Airbus A320 before DaimlerChrysler decided to divest itself of the public FBO.
Just a few months before the company announced the sale to Ford in November 2001, the FBO (then named DaimlerChrysler Aviation), completed its largest hangar, capable of housing the A320 or Boeing 727/737/BBJ-size aircraft, and a new international passenger terminal with jetway, baggage claim, U.S. customs areas for both agricultural and immigration agents and a security system that meets current TSA standards.
The 130,000 sq ft of combined hangar space houses 16 of Pentastar’s 19 managed aircraft, which range in size from Learjet 60 to Gulfstream V. Although the terminal is still used primarily to load and unload DaimlerChrysler’s A320 shuttle to Europe, other large aircraft use the Pentastar facility for its security, customs and passenger convenience features.
Pentastar renovated its domestic passenger terminal in September last year. The renovated main terminal, which converted a second-floor street-side entrance to a ground-floor entrance leading directly into a brightly lit centralized lobby area, contains a luxurious passenger lounge stocked with complimentary beverages, chips and freshly baked pastries; a small café; six conference rooms, one of which can hold up to 60 people; a pilot lounge; a flight planning area; and a sleeping room with massage chair and shower facility. Wireless Internet is available in all areas of the terminal.
The only independent factory-approved Gulfstream service center in the U.S., Pentastar also recently upgraded its maintenance facilities, allowing maintenance personnel and customers access to many of the same amenities available in the terminal for pilots, including free beverages, a lounge and office areas. The renovation increased the number of small offices available for maintenance customer use from six to 12.
“Many of our maintenance customers are here for five days at a time,” said Lauran Weiner, Pentastar marketing manager. “They can adopt an office equipped with desktop computer, Internet access and telephone to use during their stay. Some of our frequent customers have permanently claimed certain offices with airport views.”
While Pentastar has completed its remodeling, Million Air is about to begin, even though its facilities are barely seven years old and the FBO has been rated the number one Million Air franchise by pilots and passengers for two years in a row. Breaking ground early next year, Million Air plans to spend $25 million on a 62,000-sq-ft office and terminal building and two hangars of 50,000 sq ft each on 17 acres.
“We’re currently looking for an anchor tenant for the office building,” said Joe Borgesen, who acquired the franchise with co-owner Hoot McInerney in April last year. Borgesen, estimates that the new facility could boost combined annual revenues to $20 million, more than triple the companies’ current combined total of $6.3 million. “We sold two million gallons of fuel in 2003, and [approximately] 2.6 million last year,” he explained.
Plans for the new terminal also include a 26,000-sq-ft covered ramp that will allow passengers to deplane from aircraft up to the size of a Boeing 757 without facing Michigan’s harsh winter elements. Million Air’s current facility includes a 40,000-sq-ft hangar, divided by offices and large enough to hold a Gulfstream V and other aircraft on one side while maintenance and avionics installations are conducted on the other side. Million Air is a prime insurance vendor for USAIG and performs structural repairs on aircraft as large as Boeing 727s.
Niche Markets for Aerodynamics
To survive Pontiac’s cutthroat competition, FBOs have had to find at least one niche, and Aerodynamics has found two. Not only is it the only Raytheon Authorized service center on the field, servicing King Airs, Beechjets and Hawkers, but it also houses the only interior completion and modification center at Pontiac.
“We’ve performed repairs for every [FBO] on the field, and work closely with [Pentastar’s] Gulfstream service center,” said Steve Salter, Aerodynamics interior sales and marketing manager. Providing approximately 15 percent of Aerodynamics’ annual revenue, the interior center employs 24 people on two shifts in its woodworking, seat fabrication, carpet, cabin avionics and sheet metal shops. Its interior design showroom, complete with fabric swatches, paint chips, carpet squares and finished wood samples, lies directly off the Aerodynamics ramp for easy fly-in consultations.
Located on 20 acres in the center of the south side of the field, Aerodynamics occupies four hangars and an office annex building totaling 140,000 sq ft. Aerodynamics is one of the oldest FBOs at Pontiac, with a history that dates back to 1959. Its facilities, however, have been upgraded to modern standards. For example, its 15 acres of ramp space contain three concrete pads large enough to fit Boeing 757s, and its two terminals contain passenger and pilot lounges, flight planning rooms, WiFi and conference/training rooms. The more recently remodeled terminal area is the executive terminal, while an older terminal area is used mainly for maintenance customers.
Two other PTK FBOs have their niches, as well. Pontiac Air Center, located at the northeast corner of the field, provides over-the-top pilot facilities, including a Jacuzzi, fitness center with locker rooms, dry and wet saunas, laundry room and second-story pilots’ lounge with a full kitchen. Michigan Aviation, the easternmost FBO on the south side of the field, houses more than 50 aircraft ranging from Cessna 172s to Citations and Hawkers in its four storage hangars.