Priester profitably surfs changing charter seas

 - May 6, 2008, 5:14 AM

“Two years ago we were doing Wall Street road shows and rock band tours,” Andy Priester, director of charter operations at Chicago-based Priester Aviation, told AIN last month. “But the economy and world events have made those types of charters now almost extinct. Our new charter customer is the individual who can’t afford to spend five hours waiting for the privilege to get on a cramped airliner.”

He said the charter and management company, headquartered at Palwaukee Airport, is on track to log up to 10,000 charter flight hours this year, at least 20 percent more than last year. “In terms of our customer base, we’re aggressively trying to build strong relationships with the national charter brokers,” Priester said. “At the same time, we’re increasing and strengthening our local customer base. At this point we have a repeat customer base of more than 400 clients.

“Many of our new customers are finding us,” he explained. “We get a lot of referrals and we often get calls from people who have read stories or seen television coverage about the charter business. All they know is there has to be a better way than the airlines.”

Joe Mangi, Priester’s manager of charter sales, said, “The days of the Chicago-New York-Chicago airline ‘day trip’ are essentially gone. Many of these business flyers have found that by traveling in groups of four or more people this type of day trip on a private charter is not only possible but the per-person cost is very close to a full-fare ticket on the airlines.”

Priester Aviation manages about 25 aircraft, which are crewed by 45 pilots, located around the country, but has just 12 administrative employees at its Palwaukee Airport base north of Chicago O’Hare Airport. “That makes more sense when you understand we don’t own any aircraft ourselves,” Priester said.

Most of the airplanes are based in the Chicago area but there are also aircraft and crews in such places as Hawaii, Florida and California. The roster of aircraft ranges from a Challenger 600 to a pair of Conquests. “We offer a diverse fleet, and we’ve flown trips as short as 100 miles in a King Air 90 and as long as a 12-day European trip in the GIV-SP,” he said. This year the company has added a GIV-SP that came out of the factory last December, a Citation Bravo that was delivered last November, a 1999 Learjet 31A and 1992 Citation VII.

Priester Aviation enters into a leaseback arrangement with aircraft owners that gives it use of the aircraft for charter when the airplanes are available. “We’re flexible in our negotiations with owners. Under some agreements the owner has priority of scheduling, and in others it is first come, first served,” Priester said. “In some situations we completely manage and crew the aircraft. In others, owners provide their own crews for their operation and we provide our crew for charter operations. We even have agreements whereby the owners provide their own crews while the airplanes operate under our jurisdiction.”

Priester Aviation also offers complete aircraft turnkey management for those who want the benefits of private aircraft ownership without the complication of running their own flight department. “We provide conceptual planning, administrative and operational management, professional flight crews, aircraft storage, catering and in-flight services, aircraft detailing, leaseback options and substitute service,” said Priester.

History and Pride

“Two of our strongest assets are longevity and experience,” Priester claimed. “The Priester name has been associated with this business for almost 60 years. I’m third-generation Priester. My family’s name is on the door. This business is a matter of personal pride.”

George Priester, Andy Priester’s grandfather, pioneered corporate aviation in the Midwest in the late 1940s and was often seen landing his Beech 17 Staggerwing in a field near a breaking news story. As soon as the aircraft came to a halt, famed newscaster John Cameron Swayzie would jump out to cover the story and then swiftly return to Chicago to scoop the rest of the TV news shows. Priester Aviation’s corporate motto, “Business people flying business people,” began in those early days.

The Priesters bought Palwaukee Airport for the purpose of starting an FBO. The airfield’s original 40 acres grew to 387 until the mid-1980s when it was sold to its current owners, the municipalities of Wheeling and Prospect Heights. From its humble beginnings in 1945, Priester Aviation grew to be a multimillion dollar business.

One year ago, Priester Aviation sold its FBO assets to Signature Flight Support. Following the acquisition, Priester Aviation’s current president and CEO, Charles Priester– Andy’s father–joined Signature as a consultant. The name Priester Aviation was retained by the Priester family and became the charter and management company it is today.