In the mid- to late 1970s general aviation was experiencing its peak, a period in which aircraft were selling as fast as the manufacturers could produce them and ex-GIs were cashing in on veteran’s benefits to learn to fly. It was clear to Bill Giannetti, president of Flightstar, and partner Chip Hussey that general aviation, and particularly business aviation, was growing at a fast pace.
The two met when Giannetti was flight instructing and flying charters at the local small airport. In their early 20s, the two quickly concluded that the operation wasn’t being run well by its sixty-something owner, who was focused on retiring, so they made him an offer to buy the entire airport and FBO.
The owner refused but Giannetti and Hussey were undaunted. They flew across town to the University of Illinois Willard Airport and did some research.
Gradual Growth of Operations
They noted a significant amount of hangar space and ample room for an FBO with a flight school and charter operation. Best of all, there wasn’t an FBO already there, but Giannetti knew the downside all too well. Since the airport opened decades before, the University of Illinois had total control of everything. There was no FBO because the university ran all operations and didn’t want one. The two hatched a plan.
“We talked to the airport business manager, who was cordial and said we should submit a proposal. We did, and that began a string of roadblocks causing us to rewrite it over and over. [After we spent a year] rewriting proposals, meeting each objection as it occurred, they couldn’t think of anything else and gave us a six-month contract. We went to every bank in town for a loan, but there was no interest until the last one,” he said.
In December 1979, having secured a $125,000 loan, they bought a construction trailer and turned it into an office. They then used most of the loan to acquire some Piper Tomahawks and began offering flight training. The following June they purchased a modular home and had it configured into a suite of offices and amenities that immediately appealed to transient pilots.
Three months after going into business, with the help of a borrowed 1959 Beech Bonanza, they obtained a Part 135 certificate and added a charter department. With general aviation in growth mode, Flightstar got into the sale/leaseback business, emphasizing Piper Arrows and Warriors.
“It was an easy business because the tax code allowed you to buy an airplane and write off the loss against your taxes. Doctors, airline pilots, anyone with an interest in flying who had a little capital was getting into the game,” Giannetti said. “Around 1984, when the IRS changed that rule, it severely cut into the industry, causing a lot of bankruptcies.”
From a growth perspective, Flightstar was in a subtle battle of attrition with the University of Illinois. “We knew everyone at the airport and had a good relationship with them. We were always careful not to threaten the jobs of any U of I employees. As people came up for retirement we would go back to the university and suggest we could take over that area of operations more cost effectively than it could. Our growth wasn’t any grand scheme; we just asked permission to add this and that because it made sense for both parties. Slowly but surely over the years that’s how we got the fuel contract, the airline contracts and the transient and tenant maintenance,” he said.
Maintenance Business Picks
It wasn’t long before the University made an 80- by 60-foot hangar available for Flightstar to maintain its own aircraft.
“We immediately hired one of the University’s maintenance people to work part time for us. Not long after we hired him as a full-time employee to run our new maintenance department, we added a second mechanic. The University was never keen about doing transient maintenance because it had so much work with its own fleet, so no one complained. It didn’t take long until we were doing all the maintenance on the airport except for the [university’s] fleet,” Giannetti said.
In 2000 Flightstar got out of the flight-training business and began focusing entirely on flight operations (management, sales and charter), line service (fuel, ground services for airlines, de-icing and baggage carts) and maintenance.
“We have a really large American Eagle contract and do four Embraer regional jets nightly–everything from checking the tires to changing the engines. We have always focused on getting the job done no matter what it is. We found that by saying yes our business just kept growing,” he said.
Today, Flightstar has 815,000 sq ft of ramp space and a 10,000-sq-ft executive terminal. The Part 145 repair station has more than 76,000 sq ft devoted to maintenance and avionics, and another 123,600 sq ft dedicated to aircraft storage.
Of the company’s 120 employees, 62 are devoted to maintenance, including 31 A&Ps and six avionics techs. It is a Bombardier authorized service facility for the Learjet 40/45 and holds FAA airframe Class 1, 2, 3 and 4 ratings. (It claims to be one of only seven in the U.S. that hold all four.)
Flightstar also works on the Falcon 10, 20, 50 and 900 series, Challenger 300, Global XRS, Embraer 135/140/145 and King Air 90, 200 and 350. It is also a Honeywell authorized service center for the TFE731, HTF7000 and APU line maintenance.