MRO PROFILE: Columbia Air Services

 - October 10, 2006, 7:41 AM

“Maintenance plays a principal role in our business,” according to Columbia Air Services president Art Maurice. “For many companies maintenance is a necessary evil or, at best, just one of a number of services they offer. For us, maintenance has been our primary business since the beginning.” The company touts its aircraft pick-up and drop-off service as another way it distinguishesitself from other maintenance companies.

Columbia Air Services, based in Groton, Conn., provides maintenance for both piston- and turbine-powered aircraft. It is under the direction of Jim Celantano, the company’s director of maintenance, that Columbia, one of only two operations in the U.S. that handles Cheyenne RVSM certification, has developed an international reputation for its maintenance and avionics work with the Piper Cheyenne. It did not develop that reputation by chance.

Maurice told AIN that the company has about 300 active customers on its client list. Columbia works primarily on PT6 engines and Cheyennes, Conquests, King Airs, Citations, Socata TBM 700s and most makes and models of piston aircraft. “There are about 1,000 Cheyennes flying and we’ve probably worked on about 800 at one time or another,” he said. “We generally have five aircraft on the floor every day.”

Owners Maurice and Harry Holt are both long-time Cheyenne pilots who actively market the aircraft internationally, and Maurice cut his teeth as a mechanic on the aircraft in the early days. The two met in 1978 while Holt was director of flight Operations for Shaw Mudge and Co. of Stamford, Conn., and Maurice was a mechanic at Tweed-New Haven Airport.

Holt wanted to be Maurice’s sole customer to take care of Mudge’s Cheyenne, but the New Haven shop, which had sent Maurice to school to work on PT6s, wanted him to keep working on other based aircraft.

“Harry and I talked it over and we saw an opportunity. We proposed to Shaw Mudge that they start a maintenance facility that would be open to the public as well as handle their aircraft,” Maurice said. “Columbia Air Services started as a wholly owned subsidiary of Shaw Mudge.”

According to Maurice it wasn’t much of a hard sell as Mudge himself had a passion for transportation.

A Focus on AircraftMaintenance

Columbia grew steadily and in 1980 Maurice and Holt assumed control. Despite a nationwidegeneral aviation economic downturn that began almost immediately, the company grew by focusing on maintenance.

“In 1988 we became a Piper dealer because Piper mandated that service centers must sell new aircraft,” Maurice said. Columbia is also a distributor for EADS/Socata TBM 700s, the Adam A500 and the Aviation Technology Group Javelin. In recent years sales have grown to between 20 and 30 new aircraft annually.

The company continued to grow and by the middle of 2001 had added a second location at Allaire, N.J. Business was going well until 9/11. “You hate to look at an event like that and make it about economics,” Maurice said, “but you have to realize just how devastating an impact it had on aviation in general. Airplanes simply couldn’t fly and Groton itself was closed because of recurring TFRs around a nearby nuclear power plant.” Maurice said the FAA gave owners and operators three hours one day to clear airplanes off the airport before closing it down.

“Both Harry and I honestly thought we were going out of business, but we kept thinking about how successful we’d been and didn’t want to let go. So we decided to talk it over with our employees and see what happened.”

Maurice said the first thing they did in an effort to cut corners without laying off personnel was to announce the company couldn’t have its annual Christmas party.

“A few days later the employees asked us to get together with them again. They had met and agreed among themselves to collect enough money to hold the Christmas party. They presented us with one of those big checks, like you see on tv, for $1,060,” he said. “Harry and I both understood at that moment that our team would do what was necessary to ensure that the company survived, and it did. Our biggestexpansion came after 9/11.”

Today, Columbia’s Groton facility employs about 50 people in the maintenance area, including 11 mechanics, five avionics technicians and various management and support personnel. The company’s 50,000-plus-sq-ft complex includes a new 20,000-sq-ft storage hangar, 12,000-sq-ft maintenance hangar, 12,000-sq-ft avionics hangar, a new 5,600-sq-ft FBO building and 2,000 sq ft of back buildings for tool and equipment storage.

Maurice is quick to point out the company has almost no turnover amongmechanics. “We have mechanics who have been with us for 24 years,” he said. “I was in my mid-twenties when we started, and I hired my friends. Jim Celentano, who runs our maintenance facility, is absolutely brilliant. He’s in his mid-40s and has been with us about 20 years. We all grew up in this business together. We have some brilliant mechanics and we love Cheyennes because after all these years we know them inside and out.”

Expanding to New Facilities

Columbia’s belt-tightening after 9/11 helped set the stage for renewed growth as restrictions on general aviation were slowly lifted and the economy improved. The company has since expanded into Rutland, Vt. and Bar Harbor, Maine, with a sales office in White Plains.

Maurice said Columbia’s growth strategy is to look for 500,000-gallons-or-less FBOs that the big chains aren’t interested in. Columbia will buy them, trim off the financially weak aspects of the business, such as an unproductive flight school, and make the FBO work.

“We’re looking at some FBOs in Florida and New Jersey right now,” he said. “For the typical FBO the money is made on selling jet fuel and hangar space; everything else is complicated. We’ve found FBOs where they’re doing catering for aircraft and not charging for the service. We look for that kind of thing because we know it’s not one little thing that loses money but a collection of many small things.”