FBO Chain Profile: Avantair

 - September 1, 2009, 9:05 AM

Camarillo Airport in Southern California is one of those airports that reveals its treasures as visitors either drive or fly in, starting with the hulk of an ancient Convair CV-240–used for firefighting training–in a field on the east side. Surprisingly, this excellent airport is not unduly busy for an airfield with four FBOs, a 6,000-foot runway, control tower, a museum full of flyable World War II aircraft, a Lockheed Super Constellation, a café and even a stunt driving school.

One FBO at Camarillo has a slightly unusual pedigree. Many FBOs are started by aircraft owners who rent hangars and eventually decide to open a retail business or by companies that grew from small charter operations into full-service facilities. Fractional-share operator Avantair opened a small chain of FBOs because they help the company serve owners of shares in its fleet of Piaggio Avanti turboprops, save money on fuel costs and make maintenance scheduling more efficient by spreading it among the company’s three Avantair Elite Services facilities in Caldwell, N.J.; Camarillo, Calif.; and at company headquarters in Clearwater, Fla.

“They’ve helped keep costs down,” said Avantair CEO Steven Santo. Avantair’s fleet now numbers 55 Avantis, and the facilities allow more tankering of less expensive fuel. Another benefit is that each facility is equipped and staffed to maintain the fleet, so schedulers can minimize repositioning time by planning for the airplanes to stop for maintenance at Avantair’s shops. With its own in-house maintenance capability, Avantair technicians can work on the fleet at night instead of having to wait for a retail service facility to open the next morning, and this helps make the Avanti fleet more available for shareowner trips, Santo noted.

Owning the FBOs helps Avantair in another way, too. “People are constantly asking, ‘Can we check out one of the Avantis?’” said Michael Hushek, who oversees the three FBOs as system FBO manager, and this helps Avantair sales people, who are based at each FBO, meet new prospects.

Camarillo turned out to be an ideal location for Avantair, according to Hushek. Relative to higher-priced and more congested airports closer to Los Angeles, Camarillo offers a lower-cost alternative for employees and customers, and the airport also had room to allow for building another FBO.

While Avantair’s FBO is there to provide the fractional fleet with fuel, maintenance and catering, it is clearly targeting the retail trade as well, offering hangar space, a modern and elegant terminal building and consistently low fuel prices. None of the Avantair FBOs charges ramp fees, even if customers don’t buy fuel. Avantair also offers volume discounts for larger fuel purchases and special promotions. For example, during the last Super Bowl in Tampa in January it offered free hangar space for the first arrivals at its Clearwater base.

The Camarillo Avantair FBO offers the standard amenities, with a spacious lobby looking out over the ramp, complimentary beverages and freshly baked cookies, a WSI weather terminal in the flight-planning room, a conference room and a pilot lounge with its own shower facility.

Two 54,000-sq-ft hangars bracket the Camarillo FBO terminal; one is used for aircraft storage and the other for Avantair’s maintenance operation, which is focused primarily on the charter company’s Avanti fleet. The three-shift maintenance operation averages about 2,500 man hours and 60 maintenance events per month, Hushek said, handling all Avantair maintenance (including heavy maintenance and engine changes) west of the Mississippi. The Camarillo base doesn’t look for retail maintenance business, but does serve one Avanti owner, he said.

Camarillo doesn’t see a lot of jet traffic, according to Hushek, but that’s OK, because Avantair flies only turboprops and is happy to serve customers flying aircraft with smaller fuel appetites.

For now, Avantair’s FBO strategy is to stick with the current three facilities and not expand unless there is rapid growth in an area that could benefit the fractional-share network, according to Hushek. “We’re still small and growing,” he said, “but we’re definitely going to be a force in the FBO business.”