STAjets (Superior Transportation Associates), based at John Wayne-Orange County Airport in Santa Ana, Calif., has grown rapidly to become a large player not only in the Southern California charter market but also offering aircraft management and sales and acquisition services. The company, based in Martin Aviation’s facilities, now manages 10 business aircraft and at the end of last year added 10-seat-or-more and worldwide authorizations to its charter certificate.
STAjets didn’t begin growing until CEO Kurt Belcher, a flight instructor and charter pilot, bought it before the Great Recession, as a way to serve customers who were buying airplanes from him and wanted to put them into charter service. “I wasn’t planning on having it be my main focus,” he said, “but it ended up being my full-time job.” At the time, the company was based in French Valley, Calif., but he immediately moved it to Santa Ana.
In the first year, Belcher expanded the fleet to 11 airplanes from one, but then the downturn took hold and the fleet dropped back to two airplanes. Meanwhile, Belcher and his team focused on redoing all the company manuals and training programs and improving the entire operation. About 15 months ago, he said, “we were at two airplanes–a King Air and a Pilatus [PC-12]–and we hit this explosive growth.” Belcher attributes the re-growth of STAjets to having “planted seeds years and years ago that kind of all bloomed at the same time.” Even better, the new aircraft that came on line were purchased by new buyers and not owners moving from other charter/management firms. All of the managed aircraft in the STAjets fleet are also on its charter certificate, and STAjets therefore charges no management fees to aircraft owners, according to Belcher.
STAjets rents office and hangar space from Martin Aviation and all of its airplanes are maintained by Martin’s repair station. Starting its own maintenance shop would be extremely difficult for STAjets, Belcher said. “We immediately had to align ourselves with a top-notch organization, mainly for dispatch reliability. [That] enabled us to keep our growth momentum going.” Also located in the Martin facility next to the maintenance shop is Western Avionics, which further aids dispatch reliability.
All the growth meant doubling the staff to keep up with 40- to 50-percent expansion of charter flying during the past year. STAjets now employs 24 people, including 18 pilots.
Belcher attributes the rapid growth of STAjets to the company’s high level of service, which is more than just live response 24/7 or responding quickly to customer requests. “We’ve gone as far as picking up In-n-Out burgers and having some of the finest restaurants serving on board,” he said. One customer made a more unusual request, and the STAjets team jumped into action and bought a new GMC Denali SUV and had it parked on the ramp for the customer by the time the airplane landed.
Most of the STAjets fleet is equipped with Aircell’s airborne broadband Internet access system, including Aircell’s new Text & Talk service. The company’s three PC-12s generally fly shorter trips and don’t have airborne telecom capability.
STAjets used to source most of its trips in-house, with about 20 percent coming from brokers, but that has shifted to 60 percent in-house and 40 percent brokered or arranged through other charter providers. “The vendor base [flights originating from other companies] is actually the easy business to get,” said general manager Megan Cunningham.
Market for Turboprops
Late last year, STAjets opened a new office in Palm Springs and based a Beechcraft Premier IA and Citation Bravo there as well as a Pilatus PC-12. Another PC-12 is based at Van Nuys. The FAA’s Riverside, Calif., FSDO oversees STAjets’ charter certificate. “There’s another reason we’re in Palm Springs, because that falls under Riverside’s jurisdiction,” said Belcher. “We use our main office here as our corporate headquarters.”
STAjets has its own internal training program for the PC-12s, including a check airman. Training for the jets is done at FlightSafety International and CAE, except for the company’s Nextant 400XT. “When we got the Nextant there wasn’t a sim yet,” Belcher said, “so the FAA had to work with us to create an internal training program because that was the only way to get the aircraft on the certificate. Even though there is a sim now [at SimCom], we can still do second-in-command training in-house.” The 400XT, he added, “is a remarkable airplane. We did Orange County to Richmond, Va., nonstop. You’re not going to find another aircraft of its kind that has that kind of speed and range.”
Belcher and Cunningham see growth coming in all segments, from turboprops to large jets, but increasingly from long-distance trips under its new worldwide authorization. “We’re not going to turn away a turboprop, either,” Cunningham said. But the biggest need now is midsize jets, preferably the Citation Excel or Hawker 900. And new bases are also planned, with San Jose, Calif., a likely next step. “From there we’ll go east,” Belcher said.
That said, Belcher doesn’t want STAjets to get so huge that he and his team members can’t maintain close relationships with customers.
“We know our aircraft owners personally,” said Cunningham, “and I think the larger you get, the less you maintain those relationships and it becomes more a paperwork relationship.”