New York and Las Vegas are two of the most rarefied helicopter markets in the country. While the winds of fortune can be lucrative for operators and service providers in both places, the environments also feature cut-throat competition, congested airspace, an aggressive amount of multi-level government oversight and regulation and robust anti-noise litigation from an affluent citizenry and their environmentalist allies.
The Trenk family operates in both locations. Since 1980 it has run New York’s West 30th Street Heliport under its Air Pegasus umbrella. West 30th is New York’s only 24/7 commercial heliport. It is a busy place, with an average of 120 operations and a peak of 250 operations daily. Half of these are air-tour flights operated by Liberty Helicopters. Seventy-five percent of Air Pegasus’ revenues come from landing and parking fees while the remainder is derived from fuel sales, according to Al Trenk, Air Pegasus’s CEO. Landing fees range anywhere from $75 to $175 depending on the size of the helicopter.
Trenk has been a pilot for 30 years and holds both fixed-wing and helicopter ratings. West 30th had been shut down during the 1970s, but in 1980 the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey requested bids for a new operator to re-open it. “I decided to take a shot at it and here I am,” Trenk said. “Here” is a 60-foot-deep by 450-foot-long stretch of land along the Hudson River at West 30th Street, land that was once owned by the State of New York and later given over to the Hudson River Park Trust. Pegasus generates more than $1 million annually for the Trust to operate on the site, but not for much longer.
In late 2007, a group calling itself “Friends of Hudson River Park” filed suit against the Trust, challenging the legality of the Trust’s agreement with Pegasus and seeking to evict it and shut down West 30th. Even by New York standards, the resulting rhetoric rose to a level just below a cage fight. Trenk fashioned a compromise agreement that resulted in a settlement in June, but it will eventually mean the end of West 30th.
In the short term, the heliport will be moved onto adjacent floating barges connected by ramps, and the bulk of the land will be repatriated to the park. The move will cost Air Pegasus $2 million. It also calls for Liberty to power down its tourist flights from the site and to end them from the location altogether by March 31, 2010. Air Pegasus will be allowed to continue to operate from the site until a new West Side heliport can be built. Trenk said the company has already identified several potential sites. However, given the intricacies of New York’s permitting process, that could take some time. But when it does happen, Air Pegasus will have to get in line with other interested parties to bid on running the new facility.
“We are realistic. We know our business and know how to provide customer service and we will be able to stand with the best of them. But it is going to be a jump-ball,” says Trenk.
Additional Heliport Projects
Trenk and his children, who run Air Pegasus, already are looking past this transition to a new and much larger heliplex project in Newark’s North Ward, less than five minutes by helicopter from Manhattan. The new five-acre, $10 million facility will consist of 60,000-sq-ft of hangar space, or room for about 20 helicopters under roof. There will also be 15,000 sq ft of offices with a large outdoor parking ramp with room for up to 20 more helicopters. Trenk sees the facility having enormous potential as a helicopter maintenance base.
He hopes to break ground “early next year.” The heliplex will be part of a multi-use complex on a vacant Newark Housing Authority site that will include a new $6 million community center and a police precinct. So far, Trenk has publicly announced only one tenant: Newark’s Police Aviation Unit, currently based in Morristown.
Trenk got the idea for the heliplex from his current customers, many of whom must base their helicopters “farther and farther” away from Manhattan as general aviation throughout the region continues to grow and airport space for helicopters becomes scarcer. “There is a tremendous need in the New York metropolitan area for space to hangar helicopters and do helicopter maintenance,” said Trenk.
His goal is to have construction completed by the end of next year. While Air Pegasus would employ 20 to 25 staff on site to support 24/7 operations, he sees the entire heliplex as an economic driver for the area, with its tenants providing as many as 200 new jobs there. “We’re going to encourage employment of people from the local area,” he said. To that end, Trenk said, Air Pegasus already has been holding “conversations with an aviation vocational high school we hope to be working with” and helicopter OEMs and independent service providers.
Trenk recently opened another heliplex–in Las Vegas–in July. Two-and-a-half years ago, he became partners with Las Vegas Helicopters, a firm that now operates under the name Stars & Stripes and subsequently bought the FBO at Boulder City, Nev. Stars & Stripes operates a mixed fleet of seven single-engine turbine helicopters. The Boulder City site, southeast of McCarran International Airport, was an excellent jumping-off spot for air tours of the Hoover Dam and the Grand Canyon, but it is not an optimum location for nighttime tours of the Las Vegas Strip.
As part of the deal to acquire the Boulder City FBO from Jerry Airola, the former owner of Silver State Helicopters, Trenk also acquired the right of first refusal on Airola’s North Las Vegas heliplex at Cheyenne Avenue and Fifth Street. Silver State filed for bankruptcy on February 3 and Stars & Stripes acquired the heliplex earlier this year. On July 10, the Stars & Stripes Heliplex opened for business.
The 3.5-acre site has 15,000 sq ft of hangar and shop space close to the Las Vegas Strip and is the only licensed off-airport heliport in Las Vegas. Stars & Stripes currently operates night tours from the site and is moving its maintenance shop there from Boulder City.
Trenk said the Cheyenne site has inherent advantages as opposed to operating out of McCarran, as some of his competitors currently do. “We don’t interfere with any of the activity in and out of McCarran. We have no reason to cross extended runways. We don’t need that kind of cooperation from the tower.”
Cheyenne will become important as a long-term acquisition, according to Trenk, as McCarran “encourages” other heli-tour operators based there to leave. “They might have to relocate 20 or 25 miles [from the Strip]. That is going to make night tours impractical for them,” Trenk said.
Trenk characterized the Las Vegas acquisition as opportunistic and says there is little potential to build a large national chain of heliport FBOs. “There is relatively limited potential in the United States for heliport management and there are relatively few off-airport helicopter sites where there is a lot of activity. There are not a lot of cities in America that have sufficient activity to make it really economically interesting.”
But where it is “interesting,” Trenk has found opportunity, and he plans to expand.