FBO PROFILE: Great Circle Flight Services, Anchorage

 - November 24, 2009, 10:02 AM

After nearly 30 years working in aviation in Alaska, mostly for airlines and in the fueling business, Louis Jennings got the opportunity to join the general aviation fraternity as general manager of Great Circle Flight Services at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. “This is the best job at the airport,” he said.

Great Circle is part of the Ross Aviation FBO chain, which is unique in that none of the FBOs in the network goes by the Ross brand name but each retains its original name. Ross purchased Great Circle Aviation in late 2007, two years after Shaen Tarter and Justin Charon opened the FBO in October 2005. Ross Aviation now owns 13 FBOs, including six Bradley Pacific facilities in Hawaii, three FBOs in the AirCenter brand (Santa Fe, N.M.; Denver; and Scottsdale, Ariz.); CorpAir in Fresno, Calif.; Laredo Air Center in Texas; and Miami Executive Aviation in Florida.

Jennings is an FAA-certified aircraft dispatcher and mechanic with a powerplant rating and worked for Alaska-based airlines MarkAir Express and Northern Air Cargo in the flight control departments and at MarkAir as director of planning and marketing. Later as manager of Yukon Fuel’s aviation department, he worked with Tarter and managed 12 fuel farms located in Alaska, including some that were associated with FBOs, which provided an introduction to the FBO business. After Yukon Fuel was sold, Jennings worked on starting a new company to provide supplemental lift to Alaska operators, but that never took off.

When Tarter and Charon sold Great Circle to Ross Aviation, Tarter swapped the extreme Alaskan weather for the sunnier climes of Hawaii and accepted a position as general manager and executive vice president at the Bradley Pacific FBOs. Tarter then asked Jennings if he would be interested in the general manager position at Great Circle.

Anchorage Tourism
Anchorage is a busy airport, and given the importance of aviation operations to the state’s livelihood, the airport and the state are strong supporters of general aviation and airlines. Anchorage Airport is unique in that it is not only capable of handling the largest airliners but also welcomes all varieties of general aviation traffic, including floatplanes that operate from the airport’s Lake Hood seaplane base, the world’s busiest seaplane airport during the summer months.

Although Alaska is a tourist destination, few customers at the Great Circle FBO spend much time in the state, according to Jennings. “The majority of clients are coming from or going to Asia,” he said, “about 95 percent. The rest are local.” During the summer months, domestic traffic grows as more visitors arrive for hunting and fishing trips.

In the summer, Jennings said, “It’s absolutely gorgeous; it never gets darker than dusk. On a good summer day, temperatures are in the low 70s. Everything is green. Summers are what have kept me here for 30 years. I can’t imagine a more beautiful place.” Jennings lives nine miles from work and sees moose and bear in his neighborhood. “Our customer service manager saw a moose that had just been born 10 minutes before he drove by [on the way to work],” he said.

For visitors who have some extra time, there is plenty to do in the Anchorage area. “For a place that’s so far out of the way, Anchorage has a big population of four-star restaurants,” Jennings said. Activities include marine tours, ski resorts and local charter flight tours. On a clear day, Jennings can see the highest mountain in the U.S., 20,320-foot Denali (Mt. McKinley), a popular aerial tour destination.

Adventurous mountain climbers travel to a glacier landing site on the mountain as a launching site for a climbing trip. Jennings also recommends the four-hour drive to Seward, “one of the most magnificent drives,” he said. For those who enjoy fishing, he added, at Lake Hood “you can fish right here in town.”

By contrast, the Alaska winters are dark and cold, Jennings said, and last for about five months. “Last winter there was a six-week period when it never got above 10 degrees [F].” Winter isn’t always dreary, however, and visitors might want to try out a snow-machine rental, he said.

A Customer-service Focus

Great Circle Flight Services offers the amenities found at most FBOs, including a 16,000-sq-ft hangar, which houses charter company tenant Security Aviation, plus a big-screen television, wireless Internet access, Phillips 66 fuel and Hertz and Enterprise rental cars. Great Circle is also the Corporate Aircraft Association-preferred FBO for Anchorage. While Great Circle doesn’t offer crew cars, pilots and passengers can get a ride to nearby destinations such as Alaska Sausage & Seafood in the FBO’s nine-passenger Mercedes van.

What sets Great Circle apart, Jennings explained, is that founders Tarter and Charon built a company that focused on customer service and aggressive pricing to compete with the Signature Flight Support and Million Air FBOs at Anchorage. Now that Signature has adopted its own fuel price cuts, he added, “differentiation has to be on service. We’ve got line technicians who are exceptional. With all due respect to everybody else, the guys here are most motivated to provide high-caliber service. They do quick turns competently and safely and get high marks from customers.”

Since Jennings took over the management helm in January, he can remember two times that he has failed in service delivery. One time he was late to pick up a crew by 10 minutes. More recently, he accidentally left a crewmember’s suit bag in the van and so he sent it to Jakarta, Indonesia, via FedEx. The bag arrived just in time, after being held up in customs for a few days, for the return trip.

“All of our events have some concierge element to them,” Jennings said. “It may be an oddball request or a last-minute request.” One customer called before departing for Anchorage with a passenger request for some beer on arrival. Jennings took the call at 12:45 a.m.; most of the Anchorage liquor stores close at 1 a.m. After consulting with colleagues, he was able to track down a case of Heineken in the middle of the night and delivered it to the FBO in time for the customer’s arrival.
“One of the things in Shaen’s business model that sets us apart,” he said, “is that either I am here or the customer service manager is here for every arrival or departure. For the core clients, one of us is here regardless of the time of day. This allows us to interact on a personal level with flight crews.” Jennings also pitches in where needed, driving fuel trucks, scrubbing floors, fixing toilets and cleaning the hangar floor. “If your employees see that their manager will do anything that needs to be done, I think you earn a level of respect,” he noted.

Jennings enjoys working for the Ross FBO chain. “It’s atypical from other companies that I’ve worked for in that I have carte blanche to run the operation the way I want to run it,” he explained. I think [Jeff] Ross relies on his general managers to have an excellent understanding of their local market and go out and generate more business or better business in that marketplace. The corporate office has just been awesome.”

Even though the Ross FBO managers are encouraged to operate independently, they also work together, meeting twice a year and holding conference calls to share best practices and making sure customers know that Great Circle and the other Ross FBOs are sister companies.

Business is down at Great Circle, by 30 to 40 percent, according to Jennings, since his arrival in January. But activity has improved substantially of late. “As the economy has improved,” he said, “we’ve seen some increase in activity levels, and around October 15 the phone started ringing off the hook.”