Republican Convention provides first test for newly opened Key Air

 - October 9, 2008, 6:34 AM

Three days before the start of this year’s Republican National Convention (RNC) in Saint Paul, one of the Minnesota Twin Cities’ biggest fly-ins of transient business aircraft, Key Air opened the doors to its brand-new FBO on 25 acres on the northwest corner of Anoka County Airport.

Located in Blaine, Anoka is 20 miles northwest of downtown Minneapolis and was just outside the border of the temporary Reagan National-style security gateway system imposed on close-in airports during the RNC, held from September 1 to 4. (Under the Reagan National plan, aircraft crew and occupants must be pre-vetted, the aircraft must depart from, and is subject to search, at a designated “gateway” airport, and a TSA-approved armed guard must be aboard the aircraft.)

Uncertainty about when Key would receive its certificate of occupancy prevented the new FBO, now the largest at Anoka, from publicizing its grand opening much in advance, according to CEO Brad Kost. Rather, it alerted its base and aircraft management customers in Connecticut and Florida via e-mail and word-of-mouth that it was open for business in Minnesota. 

“We did not have time to get into the print media because of the closeness of the certificate of occupancy,” he said. “So everything we did was electronic and that was really unique for me,” he said. The Friday before the start of the convention, Key personnel were still cleaning and detailing the new terminal building.

The initial response was gratifying. Key received almost 100 reservations from
inbound turbine aircraft operators.

Then Hurricane Gustav took aim at New Orleans. The Republicans, who had been hit with a big public-relations black eye for the federal government’s anemic disaster relief performance in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, were loath to be seen partying on national television while another killer storm bore down on Louisiana. President Bush opted to stay in Washington and the Republican presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain, ordered the convention, initially, to be scaled back, at least while the impact of Gustav was evaluated. Just as quickly, inbound aircraft reservations to Key were being cancelled.

By late Monday night it was clear Gustav was no Katrina, the Republicans decided to power up the convention, and Key started to see a flood of cancellations being reversed.

“It was quite a stutter-step,” said Kost.

Key also received new reservations from aircraft that had cancelled flights into Minneapolis-Saint Paul’s close-in Holmen Field, and did not have time to once again arrange gateway security before the event. “A lot of people wanted to come in last minute, and they didn’t want to go through the gateway system,” Kost said.

The FBO also “staged” or hosted 10 to 12 aircraft that are normally based at Saint Paul Downtown, whose operators did not want to deal with the extra security requirements.

Key started to see accelerated arrivals, an average of 30 to 40 jet aircraft per day, between Tuesday and Thursday–everything from Citations CJs to a Gulfstream G550. Its new 70,000-sq-ft hangar was full of transient aircraft and its new 12,000-sq-ft terminal turned into a 24-hour buffet.

“We had people leaving at one and two in the morning; some left at three or four,” Kost said. Key handled the crush with extra line staff brought in from its Connecticut and Florida FBOs, and two more Chevron fuel trucks to supplement the two it already had. It brought in more rental cars from Hertz. The TSA sent out agents to monitor Key’s operations and Key hired its own private security to patrol 24/7.

Kost estimates that Key captured up to 20 percent of the convention’s transient
turbine traffic.

“Customers were pleased and curious. For us, this [the RNC] was a fantastic catalyst for customers to see this airport,” Kost said. “The Republicans had a good convention and we did, too.”