For many years, J.A. Air Center was known solely for its maintenance and avionics services, which since 1975 have been housed at Dupage Airport in West Chicago, Ill.
But the company, which was founded as Joliet Avionics in 1965 at Joliet Airport, added maintenance and fuel services in 1982, and its owners felt that customers might not perceive a company named Joliet Avionics as a full-service FBO. They renamed the company J.A. Air Center, which stuck, even after the owners sold the fueling rights back to the airport authority.
In the early 1990s the Dupage airport authority had built the beautiful new Dupage Flight Center terminal, which did not attract transient traffic because the fuel concession still belonged to the FBO.
After buying back the fueling rights in 1995, the Flight Center terminal attracted more traffic at a dramatic rate, aided by a young airport director who recognized the benefits of selling Dupage as an alternative to busier Chicago airports.
That director was Randy Fank, J.A. Air Center’s current FBO operations manager, who started at Dupage in 1985 as a lineman and worked his way up. Fank saw a new opportunity to expand a business when J.A. Air Center’s owners decided to move to a new facility at underused Chicago Aurora Municipal Airport in nearby Aurora, Ill. He joined J.A. Air Center in December 2007 and was put in charge of overseeing construction of the new FBO. Last April, Fank secured the
new FBO’s first fuel truck and began providing fuel to a few select customers.
Located 14 miles farther from downtown Chicago than Dupage, Aurora Airport is just three miles from the I-88 tollway, while travelers heading downtown from Dupage must endure a gauntlet of traffic lights. Travel time from either airport is therefore almost the same. Aurora is also a useful alternative when President Obama is at his Chicago home, which shuts down a significant amount of the area’s airspace.
The other advantage of moving to Aurora, besides getting that valuable fuel concession, was that space was available to build a much larger facility. And although the new J.A. Air Center opened last December, the timing turned out fine, despite the recession.
The new $10 million facility is more than three times as large as J.A. Air Center Dupage. At Dupage, the company occupied 40,000 sq ft, but at Aurora the J.A. campus includes four buildings with 149,000 sq ft of space, a 20,000-sq-ft 29-ft tail height arrival/ departure canopy and a 60,000-gallon fuel farm storing Phillips 66 fuel products. The maintenance and avionics hangar covers 38,000 sq ft. Tenants who base their aircraft in the 57,000-sq-ft community hangar can lease office space in the building, which features its own conference rooms, kitchen area, weather/flight planning room and secure arrival entrance suitable for VIP passengers.
The FBO is housed in a 12,000-sq-ft terminal that includes all the traditional amenities such as a pilots’ lounge, two snooze rooms, coffee bar, game room, 12-seat theater and a stunning lobby that incorporates a huge glass door from the previous hangar that occupied the J.A. Air Center campus.
Since opening the facility in December, J.A. Air Center has added 200 new FBO customers who had never been to Aurora, Fank said. “We’re chugging along, adding new customers every day.” Unlike many airports that have seen a significant drop in activity during the recession, operations at Aurora climbed 30 percent in the first quarter. “It’s not all because of J.A. Air Center,” said Fank, “but 40 new airplanes are here because of us. If we weren’t here, they sure wouldn’t be here.”
Part of the allure of J.A. Air Center is the absence of landing fees or ramp fees at Aurora, unlike other Chicago-area airports, Fank told AIN, adding that the FBO sells fuel at much lower prices. At Dupage, even though he was running the operation, Fank said he had no latitude to offer fuel discounts.
The big canopy helps, too, because there is enough room for every arriving and departing customer to park with protection from the weather. “What does Chicago have?” Fank asked, “It’s got bad weather. In April, we had a ton of rain.” Welcoming all comers, J.A. Air Center literally rolls out the red carpet for every customer, or in the case of a light airplane with double doors, red carpets on each side of the airplane. The goal was to avoid having customers walk from parking spaces to the FBO, “which is most convenient for the passengers,” he said.
J.A. Air Center is also riding out the recession in good shape because of the diversity of services that it offers. “Our eggs are not all in one basket,” said Fank. “Here we have 10 streams of revenue.” While the company’s flight services division–charter and flight school–is suffering, the fuel, hangar rental, maintenance, interiors and avionics businesses are growing, as is J.A. Air Center’s popular mail-order avionics and pilot shop business.
Aurora is likely not J.A. Air Center’s last stop. The company also owns a small FBO at Dekalb Taylor Municipal Airport, 25 miles west of Dupage, and someday as the Chicagoland metropolitan area expands, that airport could be next in line for the full J.A. Air Center treatment.