Universal Jet Services savors steady growth

 - May 9, 2008, 7:46 AM

Times are tough, but you won’t hear a lot of complaints from Universal Jet Services. In fact, the company is doing well enough that it made its first appearance ever at  September’s NBAA Convention in Orlando, Fla.

Universal Jet was founded in 1994 as strictly a charter operation,  according to founder and president Michael McCauley. But for McCauley, the journey began much earlier. In 1983, at 16, he was “sweeping floors and cleaning toilets” at Hop-A-Jet in Fort Lauderdale. Hop-A-Jet founder Harvey Hop became McCauley’s mentor and taught him to fly, an experience that he says served him well.

McCauley soloed while he was still in high school, became a copilot at 18 and a captain at 21. He left Hop-A-Jet “with Harvey’s blessing,” flew cargo night runs in a Learjet 25, and at 27 managed to talk a food distributor into putting up the money for the asset-management lease of his first airplane, a Learjet 25D. “It took off from there,” said McCauley.

The growth over the years has included business aircraft management and a brokerage center. A Part 145 maintenance operation and an interior refurbishment facility were added to meet the needs of a growing charter fleet. And finally, EZ-Jet Shuttle was created to capitalize on empty legs on charter flights.

To date, EZ-Jet is running about 10 flights a week, “usually between south Florida and the Washington and New York City metropolitan areas.” The number-one destination for EZ-Jet passengers (about half the flights) is New Jersey’s Teterboro Airport, a short cab ride from Manhattan. “Our target market is the Northeast,” said McCauley, “for the time being.”

The charter fleet, based at Boca Raton (Fla.) Airport, just north of Miami, is a mixed bag of 25 airplanes, from as small as the Learjet 35 to as large as the Challenger 601-3A. There are also two executive-configured helicopters–a Sikorsky S-76B and a Bell 206 JetRanger.

The company’s own Learjet 35 seems an unlikely candidate for a showcase airplane, but McCauley said it rarely fails to impress charter customers, in particular the audiophiles. While the airplane was in for a refurb, Universal Jet’s interior specialists installed a 22-speaker, 2,500-watt sound system that makes the aircraft into something of a high-fidelity flying boom box. Or, with two overhead-mounted, electric drop-down flat-screen monitors, maybe it’s a flying theater. Asked if the idea wasn’t just a little over the top, McCauley admitted that it was one of those projects that, once started, “took on a life of its own.”

Universal Jet has some 80 employees, of which about 50 are either full- or part-time pilots and two are part-time contract flight attendants. A pilot himself, McCauley reluctantly admits that pilots are his biggest expense, in particular the cost of their recurrent training. The 62-percent increase in insurance premiums–renewed since last September 11–has not been as costly as expected, he said.

Like everyone else in the business aviation industry, Universal Jet felt the effects of September 11. Revenue growth last year was down substantially from the 45-percent growth the company had experienced in 2000. But at 15 percent,
McCauley isn’t complaining. “I’m not in a conservative mode,” said the company’s 35-year-old founder, expressing optimism for the immediate future of the business aviation industry and the intent to “buy some more airplanes.” Mc Cauley recently concluded deals that added seven aircraft to his asset management program.

For Universal Jet, the key to surviving the current economic malaise, said McCauley, is its diversified profit centers. If the company had had to depend on charter alone, it would likely have gone under, he told AIN.

At the NBAA show, McCauley chose not to put a great deal of effort into the company’s booth, choosing instead to focus on an attention-getting static-line display at Orlando Executive Airport. In addition to the Learjet 35, Universal Jet had on display a Learjet 45, a Learjet 60 and a Citation III. But the more unusual draw was race-car driver Jeff Gordon, whose Falcon 200 is managed by the company. Gordon spent an afternoon on opening day signing autographs and posing for photographs, and one of his nascar machines was on display there throughout the show.

Asked why, after eight years in business and some degree of success, this was Universal Jet’s first appearance at the NBAA Convention, McCauley replied simply that an eight-year-old company is still relatively new. “We just didn’t think we were ready.”

And now? “Well,” said McCauley, “Orlando wasn’t that far away.”