At meetings like this year’s Schedulers & Dispatchers conference, the state of the economy is on everyone’s minds. Yet judging from the strong level of activity and the number of attendees, people who work for the companies that provide the infrastructure that supports general aviation flight operations are cautiously optimistic about the future and busy serving customers who are–for the most part–still flying.
True, there are many cases of reduced flight activity, in charter, fractional and Part 91 operations. Fuel sales are down at many FBOs, there is a lot more hangar space available than at the same time last year and many companies, while not laying off workers, are not replacing those who have left their jobs. According to statistics compiled by ARG/US, activity in the U.S. charter, fractional and Part 91 segments last year is down more than 10 percent.
“This has a residual effect on everyone,” said Marilyn Sullivan, customer relations manager at Del Monte Aviation in Monterey, Calif. Not only do FBOs such as Del Monte see reduced traffic, but local limousine companies, hotels, caterers and other service providers suffer. Yet, she added, “We’re selling fuel and airplanes are coming in.”
Many FBOs that exhibited at the Schedulers & Dispatchers conference are going ahead with plans to renovate and add to their facilities, despite the downturn.
Pentastar Aviation opened an FBO in Van Nuys, Calif., in 2006 and has been operating there from temporary facilities while awaiting approvals to start building a new facility. The Van Nuys plans now are nearing the next phase, according to Kristie Mayle, senior vice president of business development, and Pentastar is looking at some level of green certification for the new facility, under the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification system.
Clay Lacy Aviation recently opened a new 40,000-sq-ft hangar at its Seattle FBO, supplementing its existing 27,000-sq-ft hangar. The new hangar features a 200-foot clearspan and 28-foot height. By May, a new two-story 15,000-sq-ft office building will open next to the new hangar.
Adam Elzinga, facilities and line service manager for Clay Lacy’s Seattle base, sees some interesting developments in the aviation service business during the recession.
“A lot of FBOs are highly leveraged,” he said. “In the next six months, this will be a different [industry].” Owners of FBO assets are going to expect more return on their investment and are going to think twice about keeping under-performing bases open, he said. Competition among FBOs will increase and FBOs themselves won’t be selling for the high prices they fetched in the recent past.
At Montgomery Aviation’s three FBOs in Indiana business is down in some areas, but the company’s flight school made money last year, according to Andrea Montgomery, vice president of operations. The new facility at Grissom Aeroplex is doing well, she said, although at the three Montgomery FBOs jet-A volume was down by about 12 percent over the previous year.
While the business environment is challenging, Montgomery is more worried about the potential effect of the Transportation Security Administration’s proposed Large Aircraft Security Program (LASP) regulations, which would regulate operation of aircraft with an mtow of more than 12,500 pounds if adopted. “It’s going to hurt the aviation business financially,” she said. Attendees at the conference were treated to a session on the Transportation Security Administration’s LASP proposal, and it was standing-room only, with about 250 people showing up to learn about how the rules could affect their customers.
Rectrix Aerodrome Centers at Sarasota/Bradenton International Airport in Florida saw an 8-percent drop in business last year, according to COO William Weibrecht. But the FBO’s new Hangarminium development is sold out except for one small hangar he said, which is still available to build-to-suit.
With all the talk of doom and gloom from auto manufacturers headquartered in Michigan, one might assume that Michigan FBOs are suffering, but that isn’t the case, according to Avflight’s Joe Meszaros. Avflight operates five FBOs, four of which are located in Michigan. At the Ypsilanti location at Willow Run Airport Avflight has two facilities, the east side for transient traffic and the west side for based corporate aircraft. Avflight recently renovated its 5,000-sq-ft east-side FBO facility at Willow Run, with a new conference room, pilot lounge, sleep room and VIP lounge.
Attracting New Customers
Eddie Allison, managing director of FBO operations for Ocean Sky, came to the conference to continue building awareness of Ocean Sky’s Glasgow Prestwick Airport FBO. According to Allison, handling fees at Glasgow Prestwick are half those at more commonly used Shannon, and the weather in Prestwick is less foggy and there is much less congestion. Ocean Sky is next to a sterile area on the airport, too, so passengers can get off the airplane during a tech stop, something they cannot do at other airports, according to Allison.
The team from Fargo Jet Center faces a similar PR challenge, trying to persuade long-distance travelers to stop at North Dakota’s Hector International Airport on the way back to the U.S. from long-range flights to clear customs and pick up a load of reasonably priced jet-A. To that end, Fargo Jet Center launched the “Why Fargo?”
campaign at the Schedulers & Dispatchers conference. “Still today, so many people equate us and our outstanding city with what they saw in the movie Fargo,” said Darren Hall, vice president of marketing. “While we appreciate the notoriety the movie brought us, it just isn’t an accurate reflection of the area and the people here.” Hall and his team are hoping to show potential customers that the recently remodeled Fargo Jet Center offers a world-class FBO experience in what might seem like a remote destination.
Southwest Airport Services also came
to the Schedulers & Dispatchers conference to try to attract more business to Ellington Airport on the south side of Houston. For travelers who don’t want to brave the busy traffic at Hobby Airport, Ellington offers a much quieter alternative with no airline operations and lower-cost fuel. Southwest Airport Services just completed a new hangar, which has space available, and is planning to build another 35,000-sq-ft hangar/office building.
Ambassador Aviation “is the best-kept secret in Dallas,” according to Blair Descourouez, director of business development for the FBO. Ambassador is located at the former Redbird Airport, now named Dallas Executive Airport, a 10-minute drive south of downtown Dallas. According to Descourouez, Ambassador Aviation offers the lowest jet-A prices in the Dallas area and charges no landing or overnight fees and requires no minimum fuel purchase. Ambassador has plenty of luxury hangar space available, with a total of 200,000 sq ft, and offers cost-plus fuel for hangar tenants.
Charter/management firm Gama Aviation, based in Stratford, Conn., has seen its charter flying decline, but management business continues to hold steady. Gama Aviation is primarily an aircraft management firm, according to vice president of business development Scott Ashton. “That has helped. We see ourselves as the steward of an asset.” While some management customers are looking for more charter revenue for their aircraft, most are continuing to fly their own trips because of the value of their time, he said. While charter business dropped fairly rapidly last year, he said, “it’s trending upward in 2009. The value proposition of private aviation is timeless.”
For Jeff Carrithers, president and CEO of airport and FBO information Web site GlobalAir.com, this year’s conference was the first Schedulers & Dispatchers that he has attended. “I’m impressed with the show,” he said. “It gives schedulers and dispatchers a chance to meet face-to-face with people they’ve talked to on the phone every day.” GlobalAir.com offers a cornucopia of airport- and aviation-related information and isn’t just about fuel prices, Carrithers said. “We’re helping people use information better.”
A new exhibitor this year was FuelerLinx, which launched its new fuel price comparison software at the Schedulers & Dispatchers show. FuelerLinx is not an online system; it is standalone software installed on a user’s personal computer. The software helps users find the lowest fuel prices by comparing prices from a number of contract fuel companies and showing the results for the specified locations and at the planned number of gallons to be purchased. The software includes transaction tracking, so users can review quoted prices against actual price paid. FuelerLinx also sends fuel requests to the FBOs the user selects for a particular trip.
The 2009 Schedulers & Dispatchers conference, the event’s 20th anniversary, was smaller than last year’s, with total attendance at 2,027 people, down from 2,612 last year. Exhibitors this year numbered 335, also down from 391 last year.