Surviving in the aviation business during an economic downturn is easier for diversified companies like Pentastar Aviation. The company has two FBOs–one at Oakland County International Airport in Pontiac, Mich., and another at Van Nuys Airport in Southern California. “It’s been tough sledding,” admitted Edsel B. Ford II, who bought the operation called DaimlerChrysler Aviation on Oct. 31, 2001, and resurrected the company’s former name, Pentastar Aviation.
What gives Pentastar Aviation (Booth No. 7119) an advantage is that it serves almost every facet of aviation except for manufacturing, which certainly has been in a tough place of its own during the downturn. Pentastar’s core business is its charter/management division, but the company also operates a heavy maintenance and avionics service facility. It also offers aircraft sales and a fairly new service whereby the company manages flight operations for the University of Michigan Health System aeromedical service. That contract covers one jet and three helicopters. “I think they realized we could do really good work for them and they’re pleased with us as a supplier,” he said. “That’s a new niche for us. We think that with the university under our wing we can potentially pick up some new customers.”
Ford said he is happy with the Van Nuys FBO, but will need to make some decisions about whether to build a new facility, as was planned when Pentastar bought the current property a few years ago. “We’re in the midst of negotiating with LAWA,” he said, referring to Los Angeles World Airports, which runs Van Nuys Airport. “Right as we were trying to figure out our long-term strategic plan, the recession hit,” he said.
While aircraft management has been a decent business to be in, because many jet owners can’t afford to sell their aircraft and need help caring for their airplanes and charter revenue to keep costs down, “the management services business is not that much easier,” according to Ford. One positive outcome for Pentastar, however, is that it has been storing aircraft for banks that ended up owning them after foreclosing on loans. Pentastar not only keeps its hangars fuller, but also maintains the stored aircraft so they retain value and are ready to sell.
Ford, who spent time at this year’s EAA AirVenture show in Oshkosh, Wis., at the Ford Motor pavilion, is impressed at the sophistication of modern light turboprops and jets and sees a business opportunity. “We could provide dispatch services and light maintenance,” he said. (Ford is the great-grandson of automobile magnate Henry Ford and is a member of the Ford Motor Co. board of directors.)
Although Pentastar consistently scores high in industry surveys like the annual AIN FBO Survey, the company also surveys 100 percent of the pilots that use its FBOs. “We’ve gotten some terrific feedback,” Ford said. One example was a complaint that the TV remote control in the pilot’s lounge was too complicated, so that was changed. A female pilot mentioned that it might make sense to install a changing table in the restroom. “That was a good idea,” he said, “so we put one in.” Another example was a request by NetJets to place cones around parked airplanes, so now all airplanes are coned.