FBO Profile: Jackson Hole Aviation

 - May 5, 2008, 5:56 AM

Jackson Hole Airport in Wyoming has the unfortunate distinction of being the only large public-use airport located in a national park and operating under a special-use permit from the National Park Service. While pilots landing at the busy airport might wonder why the crowded ramp can’t be expanded into nearby open land, doing so is impossible, according to Jackson Hole Aviation president and CEO Jeffrey Brown. “There isn’t any more ramp space,” he said, “and we’re not going to get any more.” The airport is within the boundaries of Grand Teton National Park, and those wide-open spaces adjacent to the airport are simply not available for development.

Brown is celebrating the 25th year of his ownership of Jackson Hole Aviation; he purchased 75 percent of the company in 1983 after becoming familiar with Jackson Hole Airport when he sold a Citation I to two buyers who owned a house nearby. Needing a pilot, the owners hired Brown, and he ended up flying frequent trips between Burbank, Calif., and Jackson Hole. “You get to know everybody,” Brown said, and one day a lineman mentioned that the FBO was for sale, so Brown and the lineman’s father went in 75/25 on the deal and bought the FBO.

For a few more years, Brown continued flying, moving up to a JetStar, but, finally, commuting back and forth and running the FBO took too much of his time and in 1986 he decided to move to Jackson to run the FBO full time. “Jackson Hole really took off and grew in the late 1980s and 1990s and property values skyrocketed,” he said.

What makes Jackson Hole Airport unique is that it is a pure destination airport, and rarely do pilots stop there just to buy fuel. Jackson Hole Aviation’s fuel prices aren’t terribly attractive, but 96 percent of aircraft that land at the airport upload fuel while dropping off charter, fractional and aircraft-owner passengers, according to Brown.
Fewer than 50 aircraft are based at Jackson Hole Airport, and apart from two jets and a handful of turboprops most of them are piston airplanes. The FBO has one 18,000-sq-ft hangar available for jets and a 10,000-sq-ft hangar for smaller airplanes, as well as some T-hangars.

Given enough room, Brown said, many more airplanes would base at the airport. But the national park constraints mean that almost all of the available airport space has already been developed, and there is no prospect of the park service releasing additional land for development. “I would build a 40,000-square-foot hangar next week,” he said, “if the park would let me.”

During the airport’s busy periods space is at a premium, and airplanes fill the hangars, ramps and even some closed taxiways. Brown has seen as many as 80 business jets on the airport at one time, and when it is that busy, customers must call ahead to ensure there is enough parking space if they plan to stay for more than a quick turn. A pre-prepared notam is available to warn pilots planning to fly to Jackson Hole when heavy volumes of traffic fill available parking space.

It is Jackson Hole’s 6,300-ft north-south runway that is a real constraint, however, because the airport’s 6,451-foot elevation robs airplanes of a lot of engine and aerodynamic performance. The airport’s location in a north-south valley minimizes rising-terrain problems and the ILS to Runway 19 offers comfortable 200-foot and three-quarter-mile visibility minimums. But a runway overrun by a United Airlines Airbus A320 on February 25 raised the issue of runway length yet again. “The National Park Service was concerned,” said Brown, “and agreed with the airport to do a safety audit. We’ve got a great airport, but it’s right at the limit, at the margin of error.”

The safety audit will examine the runway length issue, procedures, airport lighting and other factors. But the airport has been trying to expand the runway to a safer and more desirable 8,000 feet since 1959, according to airport director Ray Bishop. In the 1970s, all necessary funding and congressional approvals were in place, but environmental groups shot the plans down. “Every time we get ready to [lengthen the runway], we have been told ‘no’ by the environmental groups,” Bishop said.

Runway length might not have been the most critical factor in the A320 accident, but some extra runway might have helped prevent the resulting overrun. The NTSB found that the A320’s left main wheel inboard and outboard wheel speed tacho-meter wires were cross-connected. According to the Board, “Such a configuration would be likely to cause the antiskid system to use the inboard wheel speed to control the outboard braking, and vice versa. In such a situation, it would be likely that when the inboard tire began to skid, the antiskid system would release the pressure on the outboard brake instead of the inboard brake.” A SkyWest CRJ700 also departed the runway earlier in February, according to Bishop.

Brown is keenly aware of the airport’s need to keep noise to a minimum, especially after Congress, over FAA objections, enacted a mandatory Stage II jet ban at the airport. A voluntary curfew minimizes operations between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m., but Jackson Hole Aviation has added heavy fees to discourage nighttime operations.
Another problem with Jackson Hole is the high cost of living, which makes it hard to attract employees. Jackson Hole Aviation pays much more than the average for FBO personnel ($14 per hour and up to start), then offers safety incentives that can add a large amount to employees’ incomes.

In the past 10 years, Jackson Hole Aviation hasn’t had a reportable incident, and Brown attributes that to participation in the National Air Transportation Association’s Safety 1st training program and implementation of a safety management system. The FBO has rules that if broken can result in instant termination, for example proper towing practices, or wingwalking during towing. But the incentive programs are a more important factor in Jackson Hole Aviation’s safety record, rewarding employees for maintaining and improving the level of safety.

The first incentive program is simple profit sharing, which has reached the maximum limit of 15 percent of wages every year during the past four years, according to Brown. Second, two cents for every gallon of retail fuel sold is put into a “gain share” account. Any damage that an employee causes, such as hangar rash, is paid for from this fund. The less damage, the more money in the fund, and the money is paid to all qualifying hourly employees.

The third program pays 10 percent of wages for employees who rate high on attendance, attentiveness and attitude.

In a time when giant chains are swallow- ing every good FBO they can, it’s surprising that a destination resort FBO like Jackson Hole Aviation has remained independent. Investors call about buying the FBO “all the time,” Brown said. “They all have a standing deal: ‘Any time you’re thinking about it, call me.’ I enjoy what I’m doing. It’s a good operation, it’s profitable and we work hard to keep it that way.”