First Aviation exemplifies the architect’s wisecrack to a client planning expansion: “First, the good news–you have a building in place to work with. Now the bad news–you have a building in place to work with.”
First Aviation’s previous owners, Joe and Florence Ritorto, bit the bad-news bullet when contemplating taking their Teterboro FBO (which they had owned since 1985) to the next level, and they chose to leave the existing building in place on the northwest corner of the field and start from scratch farther south on the infield beside Taxiway Quebec, which parallels Runway 6.
Formerly Beechcraft East, the original First Aviation facility had served as NetJets’ terminal at the busy field, and its seven-acre facility was constantly active with QS tail numbers of all sizes. That activity continues now on the 22-acre ramp at the new facility, and NetJets is the largest of First’s customers to enjoy the benefits of operating from a complex designed in and built for the post-9/11 era.
First’s new facility occupies 27 acres of reclaimed wetland (TEB’s four runway threshold elevations are 6, 7, 8 and 9 feet msl) and consists of the 22-acre ramp, which has no access choke points and is the biggest on the field; a suitably grand terminal; three hangars totaling 140,000 sq ft, the largest area offered by any of TEB’s five FBOs; a 300,000-gallon jet-A on-site fuel facility shared with neighbor Jet Aviation; and, large enough to accommodate three fuel trucks, a building devoted to maintenance of ramp service vehicles, since fuel trucks are not allowed in hangars. First is home base for 12 jets, the largest of which are three GVs, and it employs 26 technicians to provide 24/7 maintenance for based and transient aircraft, overseen by director of main-tenance Bill Dunne, who has been with First for more than 20 years. A cleaning department tackles that task on the inside and outside of aircraft.
“We are well situated,” says First Aviation managing director/ CEO Bill Thomas, a former U.S. Navy A-7 pilot who knows the field intimately from his two years working for Johnson Controls as TEB’s operations manager. It was during this stint that Thomas met the Ritortos, and in May 2008, when they sold the freshly completed $60 million facility a year after opening it, the Ritortos recommended to the current owners that they hire Thomas to run it.
Current owner Goldman Sachs finds itself the proprietor of First Aviation in some
of business aviation’s most challenging times. Will the investment bank turn the facility? “Everything is for sale; it’s just a matter of price,” notes Thomas, “but right now Goldman Sachs is not looking to sell.” NetJets’ declining fortunes have affected all its vendors, and First is no exception. “With NetJets as our primary customer, its downturn has had an impact on us,” concedes Thomas. “In the depths of the recession we were down by more than 20 percent, but in January this year all indicators–ramp traffic, fuel sales, maintenance–were up by 8 to 12 percent over the previous January,” he noted. “We’re currently selling 600,000 to 800,000 gallons of fuel a month, versus 900,000 gallons in our best month ever, November 2007.”
Access to First’s ramp is through a ground-level tunnel between the terminal and a hangar. On the public side of the facility, passengers pull up beneath a covered portico wide enough to accommodate three limos side-by-side, thereby all but eliminating the possibility that passengers not at the head of a line of limos might have to walk through the rain. From their limo, passengers walk a few feet to a First minibus for the ride through the gated tunnel to the ramp. With prior notice, passengers with special needs can proceed straight to their aircraft in their own vehicle without transferring to a minibus.
Caterers can deliver food to the glass-door refrigerators in the meal storage room in the terminal building through a door on the public side of the tunnel gate. Line crew wheel aircraft lavatory carts into a segregated room between two hangars that isolates any aroma.
There is also a “special projects” room with ramp access for unobtrusive comings and goings, and the room was designed to accommodate full-time Customs if desired at some future stage. For example, it has a regulation steel rod on one wall for handcuff anchoring.
The architects of the new facility used Disney guidelines to design the building so that workers can move around behind the scenes and not through the terminal. Upstairs in the terminal is a fitness center with showers for crews and, for peace and quiet, a large VIP guest room.
For aviation-related busi-nesses, the First complex offers 42 offices/suites with access direct to the parking lot, and currently 70 percent of them are occupied. All the offices are accessible from inside the terminal, too, without tenants or visitors having to go outside. With closure of its New Jersey office last year, NetJets moved a couple of dozen staff to offices within the First Aviation facility.
Location is one of First’s selling points. The company is now far from its previous location on Industrial Avenue, a window for hostile people with cameras hoping to catch a glimpse of Mr. Big living to excess. First’s new facility is accessible only through a manned gate on Moonachie Avenue.
Although it already has the most ramp and hangarage area of any TEB FBO, there is room for expansion into an eight-acre area that would open up access from Taxiway Golf. There’s no firm schedule yet for doing this, says Thomas, and it would be a five-year process to move from the planning application stage to parking aircraft.
The time will come. As Thomas confidently notes, “Air-planes are part of a company’s toolkit, and as the economy improves those companies will be reaching into the toolkit and using airplanes.”