Some feel that the rise in publicly owned aviation companies managed by MBAs has resulted in a decline in personal service. Betting that there is room for both old-fashioned personal attention and modern smarts in one operation, Savannah Air Center, located on Savannah International Airport, Georgia, is a full-service aviation center offering aircraft maintenance, avionics installation and repair, interior modifications and completions and exterior aircraft painting. President Frank Dodds, vice president Jeff Zacharius and chief engineer/certification Hoss Motlagh started working on the idea of creating their own company in 1991. According to Zacharius, they formulated the concept, developed a business plan and set about raising the necessary capital to make it happen.
“It took about seven years to put the whole thing together,” Zacharius told AIN. “We incorporated in 1998, built our first hangar and opened the door in December 1999. It’s a 50,000-sq-ft facility for exterior paint and moderate interiors such as refurb, carpet and so on. Our administrative offices are on the second floor.” It was a logical first step for Zacharius, who has been involved with corporate aircraft interior modifications and completions since 1976.
Zacharius worked with the Dee Howard Co. as manager of interior fabrication and support early in his career. He joined Gulfstream Aerospace as completion center manager in 1987 and in 1992 moved to Bombardier, where he developed and managed the Tucson Completion Center for Challenger completions. Zacharius also served as a completions consultant for Bombardier from 1995 through 1999. His responsibilities included overseeing Challenger completions at non-Bombardier facilities, accepting green aircraft from the Montreal production facility for completion at the Tucson facility and overseeing the development of a completion center organization at Bombardier’s Tucson Service Center.
“We opened Savannah Air Center because we were all in the industry but wanted to be in business for ourselves. We shared the common desire to provide full service for customers, from engineering to complete interiors to heavy maintenance,” Zacharius said.
“It’s the way it used to be done years ago when business was often conducted on just a handshake. There was very little in the way of contracts back then. People related on a personal basis and there was trust. That’s the model we are trying to emulate. It has never been our intent that this should be something we start up, work at for a while then sell to make money. This is in our blood; it’s what we want to do,” he explained.
Dodds also has more than 20 years’ experience in corporate aircraft interior completions and exterior painting. His previous positions include managing completion and paint facilities for both Raytheon Aircraft and Gulfstream Aerospace. During his 11-year tenure with Gulfstream, Dodds held various positions, including manager of completion center trim and upholstery shop, completion center assistant manager in charge of service center interior support and paint operations manager.
“We were very good at what we did. We all made money for Bombardier, Gulfstream and Dee Howard but we got tired of the management changes over the years,” Zacharius said. “You’re always having to justify your existence. Worse, the trend today is for large companies to be run by banks and investors who care only about the bottom line.”
Motlagh, the third member of the team, has 22 years’ experience in the aerospace industry, including 17 years with Gulfstream Aerospace as a mechanical systems and weight-and-balance engineer. During that time he was the certification group leader for the completion center engineering department.
For the last five years Motlagh has been involved as a partner with Garrett Aviation Consulting Group and Savannah Air Center. His key expertise includes cabin layout for large executive aircraft, interior system design and development (oxygen, water and ECS systems) and certification. As a structural/mechanical system and cabin compliance FAA-designated engineering representative (DER), Motlagh was instrumental in securing cabin STCs for the first Gulfstream V and Global Express.
Zacharius said the company initially had been doing minor maintenance on aircraft brought in for refurb work but that it made sense to expand the maintenance offering. “Often we will have an aircraft here for several weeks to a month,” he said. “So we decided to expand our maintenance offering in 2002. We are now into heavy maintenance, including prebuys, 5,000-landing inspections, 72-month inspections and so on. We can take care of all the client’s needs in one shot, thereby reducing the total downtime.”
In 2002 the company opened a new 50,000-sq-ft hangar for interiors, avionics and maintenance. “We signed the contract to build it in 2001, and people thought we were crazy with the economy being the way it was,” Zacharius said. “But the hangar filled as soon as we opened it. Upstairs is a full design center where we show different styles of seats, fabrics, color boards, woods, china, glassware, the works. So then we had one complete building for paint and another for refurb and maintenance. Up to that point we had a cabinet shop located off-airport about 20 miles away, so about a year ago we opened a new 13,000-sq-ft cabinet shop here to bring our operation up to about 113,000 sq ft.”
Zacharius said Savannah Air Center is an FAA-approved repair station for Challengers and Global Expresses as well as for Gulfstreams II through V and Falcons and Hawkers. “We even have Boeing 737 for paint and interior work on our repair station ticket,” he said.
The company is building a new 70,000-sq-ft hangar that it expects to complete by late spring. It will be used for interior work, maintenance and avionics. “We designed it to fit a minimum of five Global Expresses or GVs with smaller aircraft around them,” Zacharius said. “We’re expanding our facility again because we just don’t have enough room to meet the demand; we’re turning away business. In the past seven or eight months we’ve been having increasing difficulty accommodating our customers. We’re getting a lot of return clients plus new calls. We’re very pleased with the progression.”
Savannah Air Center employs 135 people, including an on-staff designer and a DER. “We do everything in-house. There’s been a trend in the industry to outsource work but we’ve never liked that idea,” Zacharius said. “We do everything in-house from upholstery to cabinet-making to harnesses. That way we can control the schedule far better.”