“This place reminds people of the TV show Wings,” said Genevieve “Gigi” Hazle, speaking about the APP Jet Center at St. Lucie International Airport in Fort Pierce, Fla. Hazle was the assistant manager at the facility when AIN visited the Florida FBO early last month, but has since been promoted to general manager at APP Jet Center in Hayward, Calif. APP, which is short for Airport Property Partners, also owns FBOs in Manassas, Va., and Sarasota, Fla.
The comparison of the Fort Pierce facility to the TV series that ran from 1990 to 1997 is quite obvious from the moment one steps inside the lobby, which is occupied mostly by an FBO-owned and -run restaurant–one featured on the front page of the Wall Street Journal–that serves breakfast and lunch daily from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. It’s the mix of people–pilots, local restaurant patrons, front-desk CSRs, linemen, a maintenance man whose personality strikes the same chord as his TV show equivalent “Lowell”–and a cozy place to hang out that makes it the real-life version of Wings.
While the restaurant might be the hub of the FBO, there’s much more to APP Jet Center Fort Pierce, a Shell-branded full-service FBO with 300,000 sq ft of hangar space in 30 hangars. APP bought the facility from Volo Aviation, along with the Manassas and Sarasota FBOs, in 2009. It bought the Hayward location late last year from Atlantic Aviation.
Thanks to an on-site U.S. Customs facility (open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily), the St. Lucie Airport is also known as “the gateway to the Bahamas.” It is the northernmost U.S. stopover point to and from the islands that doesn’t require an overflight permit, nor does it have the airline traffic found at the six other U.S. fields that can accept aircraft flying directly to or from the Bahamas.
The customs facility is literally a stone’s throw from the APP FBO, and staff at both facilities work hard to ensure 15- to 20-minute quick turns, at most, for transient island traffic. In fact, the working relationship between the FBO and U.S. Customs is so good that APP linemen can fuel aircraft on the customs ramp, as well as help with bags going to and from customs inspection, to speed up the process even more.
November to May, as well as holidays outside this period, are the peak times at the airport, and APP Jet Center Fort Pierce general manager Chris Hambleton told AIN that as many as 120 aircraft can come through in one day during the peak. Of these, about 70 to 80 are processed through customs–an impressive average of one aircraft cleared every six minutes.
APP Owns the Field
Since buying out its sole competitor, Key Air, earlier this year, APP Jet Center quite literally owns the field–in fact, APP also manages and subleases more than 100 acres of land and some 60 structures at the St. Lucie Airport. This includes the currently vacant 41,500-sq-ft aircraft manufacturing facility that once housed Micco Aircraft and Freedom Aviation. Tenants on the field include several jet and turboprop maintenance providers, namely Aircraft Turbine Works and Aircraft Service Center; air ambulance and air charter firm American Jets; Treasure Coast Avionics; Chip’s Custom Aircraft Painting; and salvage yard Air & Sea Recovery.
While the Key Air facility that APP bought in February is more modern, it is on the opposite side of the field, meaning a runway separates it from the U.S. Customs facility–a liability given the fact that about 75 percent of arriving aircraft is transient traffic to or from the Bahamas. This is why APP maintains its presence in the smaller facility adjacent to U.S. Customs, even though the structure was built in the 1960s.
Since then the FBO has been renovated four times, Hambleton said, and is about to get a fifth makeover starting this month, with the work expected to be completed before traffic picks up in November. The $250,000 renovation will see the signature, but now tattered, palm roof thatching at both the land and airside entrances replaced with newer, and less flammable, materials.
On the airside, the thatched roof over the front overlook will be replaced by a two-story glass enclosure, giving the FBO a much more modern feel. Landside, the thatch awning will be replaced with one that has a canvas covering. Inside, the restaurant will be updated, to include ADA-compliant seating at the bar, new restrooms and other treatments. Other parts of the FBO, including the pilot snooze room, have been renovated more recently, so they won’t be included in the upcoming upgrades.
All About the Customers
Even though it is now the sole FBO on the field, APP has not changed its fuel-price margins or its policy to waive ramp fees with any (no minimum) fuel purchase when visiting the facility, Hambleton said. In addition, APP Jet Center does not charge any ramp fees for helping to load or unload aircraft baggage at the customs ramp.
As far as fuel prices go, Hambleton said he has to be competitive with those at Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport. “Some of the prices at FXE are very low, so we have to be mindful of that,” he said. But even if the FBOs at Fort Lauderdale can marginally undercut him on price, he noted that the Fort Pierce field has the advantage of less traffic. “We don’t have the airline traffic to contend with, so we really can get you in and out in 15 or 20 minutes, tops,” Hambleton said. In fact, AIN saw a PC-12 arriving from the Bahamas taxi in at about noon, clear customs and depart the field about 12 minutes later.
The FBO also prides itself on customer service. Although the CSRs do double duty at the front desk, simultaneously serving aircraft customers and cashing out restaurant patrons, they prioritize the former so that they can get on their way. “You learn pretty fast to distinguish restaurant patrons from the aircraft clients,” said Hazle. “We always take care of those with aircraft first.”
While some might view this as a distraction that could hamper customer service, Hazle insisted that it doesn’t, with the dual role just part of the CSR’s job at the FBO. On the plus side, this arrangement allows Hambleton to keep a full staff year-round, since the restaurant provides stable funding during the non-peak months. He argues that this increased staffing allows the FBO to provide more attentive service, whether in peak or non-peak periods.
Even Hambleton does double duty, managing the restaurant and FBO staff. “The restaurant is not too difficult to run alongside the FBO,” he said. “One of the chefs was here when I started pumping fuel at the FBO when I was 15. I’m now 39,” noting that this kind of consistency in staffing makes the task even easier.